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What is intermodal

Shipping Terms
4 min read
Ocean FCL
Ocean LCL
Air Freight


What is intermodal

Intermodal is an international transportation method that involves several different modes of transportation: ocean freight, air freight, rail, trucking, etc.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), intermodal transportation is defined as:

“Movement of goods (in one and the same loading unit or a vehicle) by successive modes of transport without handling of the goods themselves when changing modes.”

Most cargo that is shipped internationally via ocean freight is transported overland at some point during its journey. The shipment is usually transported via trucks and/or rail from the shipper’s warehouse or any other pick up point to the port of origin, and again from the port of destination to the warehouse, factory, or address indicated by the shipper.

A shipment must comply with the following requirements in order to be considered intermodal.

  1. It is transported using one transport unit throughout its journey, usually shipping containers.
  2. Cargo in the container isn’t consolidated or deconsolidated at any point during transportation.

What are UTIs in intermodal transportation

UTIs, or Intermodal Transport Units, are transportation units in which merchandise shipped via intermodal transportation travels.

Shipping containers are the most commonly used UTI. But there are also other forms of UTIs such as swap bodies, railway wagons, trailers, etc.

What is an intermodal station

An intermodal station is where UTIs are transferred from one mode of transportation to another (eg. truck to rail).

These intermodal stations usually have specialized equipment to facilitate and assist with the transfer or storage of UTIs.

Intermodal stations are also commonly known as intermodal terminals or multimodal stations.

Difference between intermodal and multimodal transport

Given the similarities between intermodal transportation and multimodal transportation, it’s common to get the two mixed up. There are many occasions in which the two are used interchangeably as if they were the same. But they aren’t.

There lie two main differences between intermodal transportation and multimodal transportation: the number of transportation contracts (or Bills of Lading) and their transportation units.

Intermodal vs multimodal: Number of contracts

With intermodal transportation, the shipper usually has different contracts with different providers from the freight forwarder, to the shipping carrier, to the trucking company, etc.

Multimodal transportation, however, involves just one single contract (usually with the carrier) with one carrier who is responsible for moving the cargo across the different modes of transportation.

Intermodal vs multimodal: Transportation units

Another difference between intermodal transportation and multimodal transportation is in their transportation units.

In intermodal transportation, one single transportation unit is used throughout its journey even as its mode of transportation changes.

Multimodal transportation, however, involves various transportation units across transportation modes.

For example, a shipment being transported via intermodal is loaded into a 20-foot container at the shipper’s warehouse and trucked to the terminal at the port of origin. This same container is then loaded onto the vessel, shipped to the destination, unloaded at the port of destination, and trucked to its destination.

With multimodal transportation, the shipment can be loaded into a shipping container and at some point get transferred to or from a trailer or railway wagon as it switches transportation modes — as is commonly the case with LCL shipping.

To simplify, we can think of intermodal transportation as a form of multimodal transportation with only one unit of transportation used through the shipment’s journey.

Benefits of intermodal and multimodal transportation

Benefits of cargo using intermodal transportation include:

  • Quick loading/unloading
  • Reduction in costs
  • Reduction in transport time
  • Simplified paperwork
  • Low energy consumption
  • Lower risk of cargo loss and/or theft
  • Efficient communication (one intermediary)

Intermodal vs multimodal: How to choose between the two

The differences between intermodal and multimodal transportation are often unclear, even for seasoned importers and exporters.

We recommend working with an experienced freight forwarder who can advise you according to your heads.

Not only can they provide you with the most competitive options for price and transit times, a freight forwarder can assist you with the entire logistical process from cargo pick up at origin to delivery at destination.

If you need more information or help with your cargo, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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iContainers is a digital freight forwarder based in Barcelona that assists thousands of companies and families around the globe in moving their merchandise internationally.

Our online freight quoting platform has the latest technology in the sector and simplifies ocean freight, quoting and managing your bookings from the same user area.

We are part of the Agility group, and we work side by side with Shipa Freight to fully cover the demands of our customers.

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