Intermodal freight transport is the transportation of freight in intermodal cargo containers, using multiple modes of container transportation, including truck, rail, barge and ship. In this method of transport the actual freight itself is not handled as it is transferred from one transportation mode to another, but rather entire cargo containers and their contents are transferred from truck to rail, or from truck to barge/ship, or from rail to barge/ship, or from barge/ship to truck, etc.
Some of the advantages of intermodal freight transport include:
• Little or No Damage – When cargo is properly packed and sealed in a container, damage should not occur to the container’s contents during transit.
• Labor Savings – The actual cargo is only handled at its point of origin when it is packed into the container and at its final destination when it is unpacked.
• Handling During Shipping Is Eliminated – Once the container is packed and sealed, that container won’t be opened again until it reaches its final destination.
• Flexibility Regarding Types of Transportation – Containers can be transferred from ships to overland transport (trucks and trains) or even to barges for river transport. Barges are used to transport containerized cargo on major river systems like the Mississippi River in the United States and the Rhein River in Germany.
• Specialized Containers – There are a wide range of containers designed to transport different types of cargo, including liquids, frozen goods, compressed or liquefied gases, fast freight and even mini containers for smaller loads of cargo. There are also special containers for transporting livestock, tilting containers which make unloading grain easier and faster, fan-tainers that can ventilate the cargo within with built-in blowers or fans, hang-tainers with hanging systems for garments, and even open-end containers designed to transport long items.
• Little or No Theft/Pilferage – The likelihood of theft or pilferage is greatly reduced or even eliminated when cargo is shipped in sealed containers.
• Time Savings and Improved Efficiency – The use of containers means ships or barges are loaded and unloaded faster which means less time in port and improved efficiency. Cranes can move containers rapidly from ship/barge to trucks or trains for delivery directly to inland destinations.
Some disadvantages of intermodal freight transport include:
• Not Suitable for Transporting Smaller Shipments – Containerization is often not practical for shipping smaller loads because the shipping costs are often too expensive for half container loads.
• Heavy Loads Can Cause Road Damage – Trucks hauling heavy containerized loads can cause additional wear and tear to road surfaces which increase maintenance costs. In the case of public roads and highways, these increased maintenance costs can result in higher taxes to individuals and businesses.
• Delays in Deliveries – As has been experienced in Europe and elsewhere at various times, labor disputes or strikes involving dock workers at harbors or involving rail or trucking workers can delay deliveries.
• Costs at Harbor – Dock dues can be expensive, especially when ships are forced to remain in port for extended periods, as can happen when cargo can’t be unloaded during labor disputes/strikes involving dock workers. In addition, the largest container ships used today require specialized deep-water terminals and handling facilities.