What is Intermodal Shipping & What Are The Benefits?


When it comes to shipping freight, there are many different strategies and options. Shippers can choose from rail, ship, air, over-the-road (OTR), drayage trucking, and many more methods. As a leading intermodal trucking company, we know how important it is for shippers to understand all of the available methods of transportation fully. Intermodal shipping is worth serious consideration for those who ship long distances and want to reduce shipping costs. But what is intermodal shipping? In this guide, we explain everything savvy shippers need to know about intermodal shipping. 

What is intermodal shipping?

Intermodal shipping is the transportation of goods by two or more methods of transportation. But why would shippers want to use more than one method of transportation per load? Doesn’t that just just add complications? No, in fact, the opposite is true. 

Intermodal shipping actually solves many logistic problems. If shippers try to move freight long distances using only OTR trucking, for example, the shipment cost would be very high due to an inefficient use of fuel. The truck would contribute to highway congestion and pollution. 

Shipping entirely via rail brings about a whole host of other complications. It may lower the shipping bill substantially, but shippers will likely have a hard, if not impossible, time getting their goods to and from the railroad. 

When shippers combine trucking and shipping, they can reap the benefits of both transportation methods. A truck can transport the load from the pickup location to the rail terminal and then from the rail terminal to the delivery location, with most of the journey conducted by train. This way, the longest portion of the route is covered by the most efficient method of transportation, and the trucks can handle the last mile legs that the trains do not reach. 

But how do shippers avoid the complications of switching between modes of transportation? When shippers partner with an intermodal carrier, the cargo moves seamlessly between trucks, trains, and ships. 

Speaking of ships, where do they factor in? Intermodal shipping typically involves ships when the freight needs to move internationally. In international intermodal transportation, a truck picks up the cargo and takes it to a rail terminal or shipping hub. From there, the cargo might venture on another rail or shipping leg before being picked up by a truck for the last-mile drive to the final destination. 

Critics of intermodal shipping lament that it may take a day or two more than singular transportation methods. However, transporting more inventory at a time can easily offset this delay. 

Benefits of Intermodal Shipping

Intermodal shipping is critical for the success of many businesses. It delivers many benefits, many of which are not available in singular transportation methods.  

Cost Effective

Intermodal transportation is one of the most cost-efficient methods of transportation. In fact, it is so efficient that, in most instances, its savings offset the extra costs of last-mile delivery. One of the reasons why intermodal transportation is so efficient is because it optimizes capacity for each method of transportation, driving down the cost per unit transported. Shippers can save money by using trains or ships to cover the longest portions of the trip. 

Fuel Efficient

Another reason why intermodal shipping is so cost-effective is that it utilizes the most fuel-efficient method of transportation. The fuel efficiency is so great that this benefit deserves a spotlight of its own. Ships and trains can carry large volumes of freight over long distances with relatively small fuel requirements. In fact, railroads can move a ton of freight over 470 miles per gallon of fuel. Plus, warehouses and distribution facilities are often strategically located close to railway hubs and shipping ports to minimize the length of travel required by trucks. When compared to long-haul trucking, intermodal transportation is much more fuel-efficient. 


Intermodal shipping is also beneficial because of the consistency it provides to shippers. With an intermodal carrier, shippers get end-to-end service that removes all the hassle and stress. Intermodal carriers oversee all aspects of the shipping process and ensure that shipments arrive as expected. 

Decreases Highway Congestion

If 100% of the loads shipped in the continental United States traveled entirely by truck, the highways would be unbearably crowded. Thanks to intermodal transportation, loads that have to travel far distances can do so on trains. This means substantially fewer trucks are on the road, and the ones that are on the road are primarily for drayage or last-mile delivery solutions.  

High Capacity 

Intermodal shipping offers a greater capacity than shipping with trucks alone. Trains and ships can carry large numbers of shipping containers quickly and efficiently. This reduces the need for many trucks and multiple trips to move goods. 


Intermodal shipping offers many different transportation options to shippers in their quest to find the most efficient, cost-effective, and reliable transportation for their freight. Shippers get access to more routing options, which can help avoid disruptions caused by weather, traffic, or capacity constraints plaguing a single mode of transportation. Intermodal shipping can also easily scale up or down to meet changing shipping needs. This flexibility allows intermodal shipping to quickly adapt to different business needs. 


Intermodal shipping is a secure method of transportation, largely thanks to technology-aided visibility solutions. Satellite tracking, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML) technologies track shipments in real-time. Intermodal shipping is also secure thanks to the way in which the cargo is packed and minimal handling along the route. For intermodal transportation, cargo has to be packed into shipping containers. These containers are usually only opened when they are loaded at the pickup location, and once sealed, they are not opened until they are unloaded at the final destination. The lack of handling reduces the risk of damage, theft, and loss. 

What kind of products can be shipped using intermodal?

It is reasonable to wonder what kind of products can be shipped using intermodal. After all, it is a unique form of freight transportation. The good news is that any products that can travel in a shipping container and anything a railroad is willing to haul can be shipped using intermodal. Just remember that the goods must be packed in a shipping container and will not be handled again until they are unpacked at the final destination. 

The most typical form of intermodal freight is consumer goods like clothing, housewares, and more. Intermodal shipping is also commonly used to transport raw materials, also known as dry bulk cargo. These loads may include sand, lumber, iron ore, and more. Shippers can also transport goods such as vehicles, fresh produce, and oversized goods, but they may require special equipment and handling. 

Who should use intermodal shipping?

As a flexible source of capacity, intermodal shipping can benefit companies in many industries. 

It is ideal for shippers who have cargo that needs to travel long distances either domestically or internationally. It is best for shippers that have some proximity to a rail hub, terminal, or port, so the trucking portion is short. Unfortunately, it is not as cost-effective if the drayage portion is too long. The key to maximizing the benefits of intermodal shipping is to use trains or ships for the longest portion of the route and trucks for the shortest portions. If the truck portions are too long, the math may not work 

out in favor of intermodal shipping. In those instances, long-haul trucking might be best. 

QFS Transportation Intermodal Shipping

To determine the best shipping solution for your load, partner with an experienced logistics provider. QFS Transportation is one of the best intermodal trucking companies. Our clients benefit from our global intermodal trucking services. Our corporate headquarters is based in Indiana, and most of our trucking agents and truck drivers operate in other areas throughout the country. Due to our continued success serving our shipping customers, we are looking to expand our teams. 

We are currently looking for self-motivated and experienced drivers to join our team. If you are interested in intermodal trucking and want to benefit from base plates with no money down, Bobtail and physical damage insurance, web-based dispatch software, fuel discounts, fuel cards, weekly settlements, exclusive territory, and remote access, become an intermodal truck driver with QFS Transportation

We are also looking for trucking agents to join our team. It doesn’t matter where you are located. QFS Transportation is looking for agents in all cities. To learn more about trucking agent jobs at QFS Transportation, visit our trucking agents opportunities page

To learn more about intermodal shipping and ship with us, contact QFS Global Intermodal Trucking today!