What is intermodal transportation?

What is intermodal transportation

You may have heard the term “intermodal,” but what is intermodal? The intermodal definition describes the movement of freight packed in standardized containers through two or more methods of transportation. Intermodal transportation is a common solution for transporting goods because it is a reliable, secure, and efficient way to ship freight. Because it is a critical component of the global supply chain, it is important for anyone in the logistics industry to understand this concept fully. So What is intermodal transportation?

Types of Intermodal Transportation

There are two types of intermodal transportation: Trailer-on-Flatcar (TOFC) and Container-on-Flatcar (COFC). In the TOFC model, a trailer is loaded onto a wellcar. In the COFC model, a container is loaded onto a wellcar. The COFC model is more cost effective and efficient than the TOFC model because a wellcar can hold more containers than trailers. The COFC model is the most commonly used type of intermodal transportation.

Example of Intermodal Transport

There are many possible examples of intermodal transportation, because the sequence and combinations of transportation methods is customized for each freight shipment and can vary greatly. On an intermodal journey, a shipping container packed with freight may start on a truck, move to a ship, then a train, and back to a truck.

How does intermodal transport work?

At the beginning of an intermodal transportation journey, a truck hauling an empty shipping container arrives at the origin location. The shipper loads the goods into the container. The truck driver hauls the freight on roads to a rail yard and a logistics company transfers the container onto a train. The train may transfer the container at a subsequent railroad terminal, or it may go to a port for shipping.

If the train takes the container to a port, the shipping company will move the container through the maritime logistics network to the destination port. Here, the container is transferred to a train or truck.

If the container is transferred to a truck, a drayage truck may deliver the container to the destination modal station. Here, the logistics company removes the goods from the container and carries out the last-mile delivery to the final destination.

Who uses intermodal shipping?

Because it is a highly accessible transportation solution, just about any shipper can consider intermodal freight shipping. There is no requirement to have tracks at the shipment’s destination or origin. Shippers benefit greatly when trucks handle the first and last mile of the journey and trains or ships handle the longer portion in between.

When considering whether or not you should use intermodal shipping, evaluate the shipping distance and the location of the final destination. Intermodal shipping is best utilized when the length of haul is relatively long and the final destination is located in relatively close proximity to a port or rail hub.

Many different types of companies use intermodal shipping, and companies can use intermodal shipping in a variety of ways. Almost anything that can travel in a shipping container can be moved via intermodal transportation. The contents of the shipping container, lengths of haul, origins, and destinations will vary, but every company who uses intermodal shipping is looking to benefit from the value and service it provides.

Pros and Cons of Intermodal Shipping


Intermodal shipping offers many advantages including cost efficiency, fuel efficiency, flexible capacity, consistent service, and relative sustainability in comparison to long-haul trucking. Intermodal shipping is an excellent alternative to shipping exclusively by truck. This method connects companies with trains and ships even when their facility or the final destination is not directly connected with rail or sea. By combining road, rail, and/or sea transportation, companies can benefit from rail and sea transportation without making the capital investment required to locate the company at a rail hub or port. Intermodal transportation also increases shipping capacity. Because most industries utilize intermodal shipping, it is relatively easy to save costs by increasing production levels. Intermodal offers a cost effective and energy efficient way for companies to get closer to their customers, provide expeditious shipping, and provide great service.

The consistency and high quality service provided by intermodal shipping is largely due to the visibility of the freight shipping container. Technology allows shipments to be tracked in real-time, and this facilitates better planning and on-time arrivals. While intermodal may add a day or two to the length of the transit time, the reliability is unparalleled. Shipments arrive when they are expected, and the goods arrive in perfect condition. Intermodal transfer does not entail handling of goods, so the risk of damage is minimized. Furthermore, the container is continually under close supervision, so the goods are highly secure.

An added bonus to intermodal shipping is that it is a greener way to ship freight. When freight needs to travel long distances over land, the most efficient way to move the goods is by rail, not by truck. Using trucks for the first and last mile, and using rail for the longer middle portion saves a substantial amount of fuel. Additionally, intermodal decreases the amount of over-the-road (OTR) trucks, and this decreases the amount of congestion on the highways. In comparison to OTR trucking, intermodal transportation is a more environmentally friendly way to transport goods.


There are some limitations to what can be shipped via intermodal transportation. Intermodal transportation is not appropriate for personal property, people, pets, or plants.

Additionally, some loads will not receive the cost savings of intermodal transportation. If your container is heavy and requires a crane to move it, shippers may charge more for this service. This is a common issue in some countries that lack industry standardization.

QFS Global Intermodal Trucking

QFS Transportation is one of the best intermodal trucking companies offering intermodal trucking services throughout the United States. Our clients benefit from our global intermodal trucking services. Our corporate headquarters is based in Indiana, but most of our trucking agents operate in other areas throughout the country. QFS Transportation is looking for trucking agents in all cities. 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, contact QFS Transportation today!