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Intermodal Transportation: Overview Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 2nd, 2022

Executive Summary

Transportation plays an integral role in any given economy. The development of any country’s economy and eventual poverty reduction depends highly on its transportation infrastructure. Technological advance has played a greater role in ensuring that both communication and transportation systems are streamlined in order to cope with the globalization demands. Governments and indeed privately held companies have had strategies focusing on how to reduce transport challenges which include traffic congestion, environmental effects, damage reduction and of course the cost of transportation. Industrialization has also left its impact and challenges on the current global transportation system. In an advanced technological era that we are living in, modes of transportation are also changing and with it the Intermodal transportation.


Intermodal transport is the transportation of cargo or goods in containers using various modes of transportation including railway, road, air and by sea without any physical handling of the cargo itself while changing modes of transportation. This method is recommended for effective transportation since it ensures security, reduces risk in goods damages, and enhances portability. Intermodal transportation also improves the speed of transportation since goods are not repacked during change of means of transport. Intermodal transportation dates back to 1780s when earliest containers were used at the Bridgewater canal in England for coal shipping. The loose boxes as known then were then used in railway and road transportation mostly the horse drawn roads (Rushton and Croucher, 2004).

History and Contribution of Intermodal Transport to the Economy

Just as the mode of transportation has changed over the years whereby today we have advanced railways and airplanes, so has the Intermodal containers especially in size and material used in making them. In the 1830s wooden coal containers were used on railways. As time went by, iron containers were invented and were used to transport coal especially by ship. During the First World War, wooden containers transported people and luggage as an intermediary between railways and shipping through port Harwich. The 19th century saw the introduction of covered containers which were used to transport mostly furniture only now between road and railway. Containers known as lift vans came handy in the USA in the beginning of 19th century.

However, lack of standards reduced the value of Intermodal container transportation and this brought about standardization. Railway Clearing House was the first standardization adopted in the 1920s in the UK. Albeit small containers compared to the modern standards, the standardization allowed corporate and individual owned cargo to be carried on standard Intermodal containers. This United Kingdom standardization normally of wooden containers lacked internal strength to stack and was therefore not used outside the UK. The containers were however useful in the London, Midland and Scottish Railway which offered Intermodal road-railways services as a product known as “door to door”. (Sidney, 1846)

World War II saw the introduction of pallets. During this time, the US military transported cargo on pallets which enabled fast transfer from warehouses, ships, trains and aircraft. Within that kind of Intermodal transportation, fewer employees were needed and loading intervals greatly reduced. Before World War II in 1936, trailers were used as containers by railway in an arrangement known as piggyback. This kind of an arrangement was mainly used by the Chicago Great Western and Class 1 railroad. The Canadian Pacific Railway was the first North American Railway to introduce Piggyback transport in 1952 (Rushton and Croucher, 2004).

Main Challenges of Intermodal Transport

Standardization was still a challenge to the Intermodal transport system and in the United Kingdom; companies like Pickfords continued to offer services using RCH containers. The containers would then be loaded on trucks using a crane. In Mid 19th Century, United States using its department of defense introduced standardization system for containers for the military. The rectangular containers were then used by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for two years as a standard measure worldwide depending of course on the different transportation means. The 2.4m by 2.4m square containers were known as ISO containers and were in use from 1968 to 1970. Modernization, advance in technology and professionalism continued to improve container standards. Pre-ISO and all the other wooden made containers were quickly made obsolete by larger ISO standard containers which went up to forty foot as container standards improved (Rushton and Croucher, 2004).

The US saw a steady increase of containers in the 1960s which tripped in the period later part of 1980s and early 2000. Association of American Railroads (AAR) reported a decrease of trailers and containers from 3.1 million to 9.3 million. There was however left a huge amount of Intermodal cargo investment. The period between 1984 to now has witnessed a common mode of Intermodal shipping known as Double-Stack up to 70% which is mainly used in rail transport. Using this mode of transport, the US transports up to one million containers annually. Available in various sizes, the double stack Intermodal transportation vehicle has reduced damage during transportation, and by its unique design security is ensured since their doors remain closed during transit. The double stack rail transport has however not been useful in Europe due to the limiting loading gauge, it was only with the construction of Rotterdam railway in German in 2007 and low tunnels in New Zealand that has made the two European countries benefit both economically and in the industrial sectors (Rushton and Croucher, 2004).

The standardization system has also with time improved and has since the 1960s seen increase in container sizes. Larger and larger sizes have been manufactured and ISO approved. Within a fifty year period when ISO standard was 2.4m by 2.4m a great size improvement has been witnessed and now we have ISO containers that are 2438mm by 2438mm. This has of course made transport of cargo not only faster but more secure and not mention cheaper. Again the containers are not only made of wood whose wear and tear rate is very high but made of steel. This has reduced baggage and enhanced portability since steel made containers can be placed on to of another. The double stacks have also made it. Depending on the mode of transportation, the stacks can be packed to more than six units high. Moreover, the double stack containers can be carried by almost all modes of transportation be it aircraft rail or ship. However, and again, the loading gauge limitation in Europe still restricts this mode of Intermodal transportation especially in ancient railways with smaller loading gauge (Rushton and Croucher, 2004).

There is however exception to standardization rules on some standard container. There are open-top option for transporting large loads and others that due to overhead electrification cannot be stacked too high, and also others for example tanktainer which are basically are fitted with tank within a container frame for transporting liquids. There are also containers for perishables which are normally refrigerated and swap body basically made for rail-road transport that is movable from one truck to another without a crane. There are however in Europe non-standard containers. For example Euro-pallet which is slightly larger than the ISO standard. The non-standard containers are mostly for road transportation for internal domestic use including coal carriers, bin carriers for carrying dirt from homes to dumping sites. (Sidney, 1846)

Effective Intermodal Transport Systems

Intermodality should therefore be considered when choosing the mode of transport and the cargo on board. There is Intermodal containers that are more suitable for one mode of transportation to another. Transportation in North America for example would require an Intermodal container that is railway compliant. Container well cars are the most used Intermodal containers. The recent made containers have depressions which allow for more goods to be stacked. In Australia, double stacking is used and in some parts of UK mostly single stacked containers are used. Some of the Intermodal containers used include transtainers for sea vessels, Gantry cranes for road and rail, and grappler lift also for road purposes. Truck trailers because of their size are commonly used where in countries where loading gauge is large. However depending on the size of freight and the mode of transportation, truck trailers are designed accordingly (Earth Metrics and Korve Engineerning, 1989).

RoadRailer Corporation has developed a newer method of trailers. This method saves on cost of mode of transportation since it does not require more cars. As a matter of fact it just requires for assembling of railway wheels between the trailers and as a result that forms one large railway car. There are also other containers for the sea known as container ships. These are custom made varying in sizes and capacities. The largest container registered in 2005 had a capacity of 8,000 Twenty-foot equivalents units (TEU). However, sea routes are considered when deciding which container ships to use since there are limitations. For example Panamax is the largest container ship that can pass via Panama Canal; it has a size of 5,000 TEU. Again, the size of the container requires special terminal capacity therefore the size and also the availability of the container dictates the route the vessel is going to take. Container ships size is likely to increase in the future as has been witnessed since the history of Intermodal transportation. (Sidney, 1846)

Recommendation to Intermodal Transport Sector

It is important to note however, that the size of the container ship increases also the cost of transportation depending of course with the cost of oil since the containers take a lot of transportation space. Again they the containers can become cumbersome if there is no prior arrangement of the mode of transportation. Some make of containers may not be compatible for all anticipated mode of transport. Again containerization poses a big problem to packaging of finished goods which is essential for marketing purposes. This is because the packaging design must be the one dictated by the method of transportation which of course includes the containers used.

Apart from the demerits mostly affecting the containerization itself and the mode of transportation, there are other factors to consider if one is to claim success in the development of Intermodal transportation. Nations have had to review their ports’ rules and sensitize their ports authority against smuggling of illegal substances. Containerization has proved to be a major factor that has contributed to the expansion of black market. False branding of containers has allowed illegal materials to be transported from one country to the other. The US has been particularly on the alert when dealing with terrorism since it believes those terrorist use containers to transport either the terrorists themselves or their gadgets. (Earth Metrics and Korve Engineerning, 1989)

Other challenges that are experienced in Intermodal transportation are that sometimes containers that have transported cargo from one place are expected to carry goods back. However this is not usually possible since the size and the timings of return cargo might be different. As a result, there is cost incurred in transporting empty containers. Again, lost of containers especially in the sea posses a great pollution depending of course on what has fallen off the ship and also shipping hazards.


However, considering the rate at which technology is moving presently, we can rest assured that soon there will be less and less Intermodal transportation going on since there will be lesser cargo to carry. A good example is the reduction of the amount of mail transportation. Just a decade ago there was so much mail both locally and internationally that there were specific containers just for mails and courier but not any more! With the discovery of internet, transportation of mail has significantly reduced. Moreover, as a result of improved mode of transportation infrastructure, freight can be transported much easier and frequently as opposed to say a decade ago there is obviously no comparison of ancient railways and railcars to today’s electrified rails and railcars. Very large container ships also require specialized deepwater terminals. Available container fleet, route constraints, and terminal capacity plays a large role in shaping global container shipment logistics.


American Shipper (2007): Journal of International Logistics; Web.

Containerization International (2005): The online business news and information Service from Containerization International.

David J. (1992). Piggyback and Containers- A History of Rail Intermodal on America’s Steel Highway: Golden West Books, San Marino; CA

Earth Metrics and Korve Engineerning (1989) Intermodal Interface Demonstration Project, Port Of Oakland, Oakland, California,

Fairplay International Shipping Weekly (2006): Lloyd’s Register – Fairplay is the only Company able to provide complete details of the world’s fleet of over 91,000 vessels; Web.

Florida Shipper (2007): The Journal of Commerce Florida Shipper offers export sailing Schedules from Florida ports to international destinations; Web.

Rushton, A. and Croucher, P (2004) the Handbook of Logistics and Distribution Kogan, London

Sidney, S (1846). Gauge Evidence-The History and Prospects of the Railway System. Edmonds, London, UK

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