What is Intermodal Transportation, and How Does it Work?

Intermodal transportation is a commonly used term in freight and supply chain logistics, but what does it mean? The experts at CLX Logistics are here to explore the concept of intermodal transportation, how it works, the types of intermodal transportation, who can benefit from it, what can be shipped using intermodal, and the advantages it offers for shipping bulk liquid chemicals

What is Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation is using two or more modes or carriers to transport freight from a shipper to a consignee.

This shipping strategy originated in 18th-century England and was standardized in the 1950s by introducing the steel intermodal transportation container based on design specifications from the US Department of Defense. Today, intermodal containers come with various specializations, such as large ISO containers that allow for the efficient transportation of liquid chemicals between trucks and trains without needing to handle actual cargo. Shippers often choose intermodal transportation as an effective solution to balance cost and service goals.

How Does Intermodal Transportation Work?

The process of intermodal freight transportation typically follows the path of rail, truck, ship, and truck. Truck transport between rail terminals and ocean ports, known as drayage, is a specialized form of trucking often handled by specialists. Here’s an example of the intermodal transportation process:

1. A Truck Brings an Empty Container to a Shipper

An ISO tank is brought to the shipper’s location to be filled with liquid chemicals, starting the shipping process.

2. The Container is Loaded with Freight and Taken to the Railyard by Truck

Depending on the final destination of the tank, the filled ISO tank is loaded onto a truck and transported to the railyard, where it will be placed on a train for further transportation.

3. The Container is Put on a Train and Moved to its Destination Region

The ISO tank is loaded onto an intermodal-exclusive train and travels along dedicated intermodal railways to its destination region.

4. The Container is Put on a Truck, Delivered to the Consignee, and Unloaded

Once the ISO tank arrives at its destination region, it’s loaded onto a truck again and delivered to the consignee, where the cargo is unloaded.

5. The Container is Ready for Reuse with Another Load

After delivery, the ISO tank is ready to be reused for another load, and the intermodal transportation process can begin again for the next customer and destination.

What are the Types of Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation combines multiple modes of transport to move goods from one point to another. These combinations often include rail, road, and maritime transport, as well as air transport in certain cases. The key types of intermodal transportation are:

Rail-to-truck (or truck-to-rail)

This is the most common form of intermodal transportation, where goods are shipped in containers or trailers via rail for the majority of the journey, and then transferred to trucks for the first and last miles of the trip. This allows for cost-effective, long-distance transport while still providing flexibility for local deliveries.

Rail-to-ship (or ship-to-rail)

In this type, goods are moved from rail to maritime shipping (or vice versa) to cover both land and sea routes. This is common for international shipments, especially when crossing oceans and large bodies of water.

Truck-to-ship (or ship-to-truck)

This method involves transporting goods by truck to a port, where they are then loaded onto a ship for the sea leg of the journey. Upon reaching the destination port, the goods are offloaded and transported by truck to their final destination. This is useful for shorter sea routes and when rail connections are not readily available.

Air-to-truck (or truck-to-air)

Although less common, air freight can also be integrated into intermodal transportation, usually for high-value or time-sensitive goods. In this case, goods are transported by truck to the airport, flown to the destination, and then moved by truck to the final location.

Each type of intermodal transportation offers unique advantages and may be chosen based on factors such as distance, geography, cost, and the specific needs of the cargo being shipped. While CLX primarily offers rail-to-truck intermodal services, we’re also deeply connected to the greater intermodal network of global sea and air carriers to help ensure overall supply chain success.

Who Should Be Using Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation is well-suited for businesses and individuals who require efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly shipping solutions, especially for long distances. It is particularly beneficial for those dealing with high volumes of goods, large or heavy cargo, and industries with specific requirements, such as chemicals or perishable items.

Intermodal transportation is highly efficient due to its ability to combine the strengths of different transport modes, such as the cost-effectiveness of rail for long distances and the flexibility of trucks for local deliveries. The use of standardized containers streamlines the transfer process between modes, reducing handling time and minimizing damage risks. Intermodal shipping also lowers fuel consumption and emissions by relying less on road transport and leveraging cleaner technologies in rail and maritime transport. By reducing road congestion and improving network connectivity, intermodal transportation offers a more efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly solution for long-distance and high-volume shipments.

For chemical manufacturers looking to transport bulk liquid chemicals in an efficient, sustainable, affordable, and fast manner, intermodal is truly a supply chain game-changer.

What Can You Ship Using Intermodal?

Intermodal transportation is a versatile method suitable for shipping a wide range of goods, including but not limited to:

Liquid chemicals

Intermodal is particularly suitable for transporting liquid chemicals due to its ability to handle large ISO tanks. These specialized containers ensure safe and efficient transport of sensitive materials.

Dry bulk goods

Items like grains, coal, and minerals can also be shipped using intermodal transportation. Enclosed hopper cars and bulk containers allow for secure and weather-protected transport.

Consumer goods

Electronics, clothing, and other consumer products can be shipped in intermodal containers, offering a cost-effective and efficient way to move these items between manufacturers, distribution centers, and retailers.

Perishable goods

Temperature-controlled intermodal containers, known as reefers, can be used to transport perishable items like food and beverages, ensuring that they remain fresh throughout the journey.

Large machinery and equipment

Oversized and heavy items, such as construction or agricultural machinery, can be accommodated using flatbed or specialized railcars in intermodal transportation.

Example of Intermodal Transportation

As an example, liquid chemicals can be loaded into an ISO tank and picked up from the manufacturer by a truck. The ISO tank is then transported to a railyard, loaded onto an intermodal-exclusive train, and transported over 1000 miles on the rails to its intended destination. Once it arrives, the ISO tank is picked up by another truck and delivered to the customer.

How to Get Started with Intermodal Transportation?

To get started with intermodal transportation, you should first identify your precise shipping needs and determine if intermodal is the most cost-effective and efficient mode of transportation. Then research and select a reliable intermodal carrier that can handle your specific shipping requirements, and work closely with the provider(s) to ensure a smooth and successful transition to intermodal transportation. Additionally, the shipper should consider the necessary infrastructure and equipment needed to accommodate intermodal shipments, such as ramps or cranes for loading and unloading containers if necessary.

For businesses in the chemical industry, CLX Logistics is a leading provider of intermodal transportation services. Our exclusive CLX BulktainerTM service is designed specifically for shipping liquid chemicals, making use of large ISO tanks to ensure safe and efficient transport.

When is Intermodal the Right Choice for Shipping?

Not every shipment will require multiple modes of transportation to reach its destinations efficiently. Here are a few things to consider when looking at intermodal compared to traditional rail or OTR shipments:

  • Intermodal is ideal for intermediate and finished goods in load units of less than 22.5 tons.
  • CLX Logistics exclusively ships bulk liquid chemicals using intermodal shipping, making it the perfect option for liquid shipments.
  • The longer the travel distance, the more cost-effective intermodal becomes. We recommend intermodal transportation for shipments traveling over 1,000 miles to ensure our customers choose the most efficient and economical shipping option.
  • Intermodal transportation is suitable for cargo with a variety of value levels.
  • Intermodal is a great option when cargo flow needs to be continuous and in similar quantities.
  • Shippers must choose optimal solutions for their cargo and ensure compliance at every step to avoid unnecessary costs, possible fines, additional freight charges, and labor costs to rework loads. Accessorial charges like demurrage, detention, delays, and per diem can also crop up with non-compliant intermodal loads. High-value shipments are not a requirement, but the nature of intermodal includes an added layer of freight security, as there is no easy way for an individual to remove specialized steel containers from trains and trucks or take possession of cargo.

What are the Advantages of Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation offers several advantages, including:

Save up to 30% Compared to OTR Chemical Shipments

Intermodal transportation helps shippers cut costs by up to 30% on deliveries across the United States with a state-of-the-art intermodal transportation network and industry-leading TMS.

Additionally, rates are dropping, and driver availability is improving and becoming more flexible, so the long-term cost outlook of intermodal bulk liquid shipping is promising.

Eliminate Driver Capacity Constraint Issues

Whether drivers are falling ill, storms have wracked a region, or any other situation that would cause capacity issues, intermodal eliminates these concerns while keeping costs low.

Finding a local driver to take an ISO tank to the railyard for intermodal freight transportation is more feasible and affordable than securing a driver to take the tank from origin to destination.

Forward Storage Solutions

Intermodal solves time constraints with forward storage solutions, allowing for strategic product storage to be dispatched to customers throughout the region at a moment’s notice.

Reduce Your Overall Carbon Footprint

Significant use of railways dramatically reduces fuel usage and the environmental impact of commercial transportation by a factor of four compared to over-the-road. With CLX Logistics, carbon emissions can be tracked and analyzed so you know how much you’re saving in fuel emissions and costs compared to OTR shipping.

Intermodal Freight Travels on Dedicated Railways

Lower-traffic railways allow for expedited chemical shipping and can cut shipment times from months to days. Shipments also arrive when expected approximately 95% of the time, making intermodal much more reliable than traditional rail freight shipments.

Satellite Tracking Improves Visibility and Adds Reassurance

ISO tanks are equipped with satellite tracking technology to ensure complete freight visibility and eliminate delivery guesswork.

What are the Disadvantages of Intermodal Transportation?

Intermodal transportation, while offering numerous advantages, does have some limitations.

It’s often more suitable for bulk liquid chemical transportation, which may not be ideal for businesses with different shipping requirements like those that accompany solid or volatile materials.

Additionally, intermodal transportation can be less efficient for shipments traveling less than 1,000 miles, as the benefits of combining different transport modes may not outweigh the additional handling and transfer time. For shorter distances, direct trucking might prove to be a more practical and cost-effective solution.

Get Started with Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is an efficient, cost-effective, and reliable solution for shippers, especially for bulk liquid chemical transportation. With dedicated rail networks, forward storage solutions, reduced carbon footprint, and improved visibility through satellite tracking, intermodal transportation is an excellent alternative to traditional over-the-road shipping.

With some information about the chemicals you’re shipping, quantities, and destinations, along with input on the parts of your existing process that cause the most pain, CLX Logistics will develop an intermodal solution offering extreme dependability and savings that directly benefit your customers.

Stop wasting time reacting to interruptions and optimize your supply chain to achieve consistent and exceptional results with intermodal transportation from CLX Logistics.

Looking For a Personalized Shipping Strategy? Contact CLX Today

Contact CLX Logistics today to develop your personalized intermodal liquid chemical shipping strategy today.

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