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Today’s customers are accustomed to placing orders with the click of a button, expecting to have their items delivered just a few days later – and without paying for shipping. But, as many retailers know, shipping is always paid for by someone during the transaction, and it can be a sizable cost percentage for each order.

While some companies use a single mode of transportation, such as trucks, to transport their goods from point A to point B, there is an alternative option that can reduce transportation costs while simultaneously being more efficient. Enter intermodal logistics, which optimizes the journey of goods from beginning to end across multiple transportation methods using the same container. Here, we discuss what intermodal logistics is, its benefits, and some common challenges and solutions.

What Is Intermodal Logistics?

Intermodal logistics is the planning and operation of the movement of goods from point of origin to final destination using multiple modes of transportation. This containerized cargo can include all sorts of items, from frozen food for a grocery store chain to new vehicles for a dealership.

A shipping container carrying these items may have to cross an ocean and thousands of miles of highways to reach its destination. This is where the different intermodal methods of transport – which include cargo ships, trains, and trucks – come in. Not only do they make the journey possible, but they also make it efficient. This holds true for both the domestic intermodal and international intermodal shipping process.

Benefits of Intermodal Logistics

Intermodal logistics come with loads of benefits for retailers and intermodal shippers of all kinds. Here are a few common advantages of choosing intermodal shipping over other forms of freight transport.

Cost-Effective Alternative

Shipping can be one of the most expensive components of the product distribution process. Recent survey data found that nearly half of retailers spend more than 10% of an order’s total on shipping costs. Additionally, two in five retailers said rising shipping costs was the biggest challenge their business faced in 2022.

Depending on the volume of goods and the distance you’ll be shipping, you may regularly be transporting a few hundred to a few thousand shipping containers.

Using intermodal freight transportation to manage how cargo is moved can lead to significant cost savings in the following ways:

  • It reduces packing costs: The need for unpacking and repacking is eliminated by having the goods packaged in an intermodal container that can easily be transferred from one transportation mode to another.
  • It requires fewer resources: With intermodal logistics, more goods can be moved with fewer resources. For example, rather than solely relying on trucks for cross-country transportation, a train could be used for a leg of the journey, which accommodates a much larger amount of cargo.
  • It decreases needed manpower: Think about this in terms of paying the crews that are transporting the intermodal load as well. Instead of paying individual truck drivers to transport a few shipping containers each, only one train crew will need to be paid for transporting potentially more than 200 times what a single truck is capable of transporting alone.

Improved Sustainability & Reduced Carbon Footprint

Not only is intermodal transport more cost-effective than using a single mode of transportation, but it’s also better for the environment due to the use of less-polluting transportation methods like trains.

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are emitted from trucks when they burn fossil fuels like gasoline and diesel to run. In fact, the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2023 was the transportation sector, surpassing electric power. These gases can harm our health while also contributing to climate change.

By double-stacking intermodal containers, an intermodal train can transport the equivalent of 280 truckloads. That’s a significant decrease in the number of trucks on the highway, resulting in an impactful reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. According to the Association of American Railroads, freight railroads account for about 40% of U.S. long-distance freight volume but make up only 1.7% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Fewer trucks transporting cargo on the highway helps decrease traffic congestion. When traffic is reduced, highway vehicles spend less time idling and emit fewer greenhouse gases. This can also help lower costs on gas due to better fuel efficiency.

Increased Security

While no one likes to think about the chance of their goods being stolen while en route, it’s always a possibility. And, sadly, cargo theft doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s on the rise.

On a positive note, intermodal shipments provide additional security so you’re less likely to fall victim to one of these incidents. It does this in the following ways:

  • Fewer stops: Intermodal trains and cargo ships don’t make as many stops as other types of transportation (including truckload shipping), which makes the containers less vulnerable to theft for the longest parts of the trip. And, unlike trucks, these transportation modes don’t need to be left unmanned at times.
  • Greater access control: Intermodal freight shipping containers are designed to be incredibly secure. But, to take it a step further, the container doors are inaccessible when the container is on an intermodal train’s well car.
  • Reduced opportunities for theft: Since cargo ships are out on the water, they’re much more difficult to access than a truck parked at a rest stop, for instance.

Challenges of Intermodal Logistics & Solutions

While intermodal logistics has many benefits, it also comes with its challenges. Here are a few common challenges and how you can avoid them.

Aligning Multiple Intermodal Service Providers

Sometimes businesses hire a different intermodal provider for sea, road, and rail transportation. Seamlessly connecting them and keeping them on the same schedule can be a challenge and logistical nightmare.

Solution: Utilize drayage planning services
Drayage planning services optimize your cargo’s journey from origin to final destination by planning a seamless transfer of containers between different modes of transportation. You can work with drayage carriers to create a customized plan in advance that’s crafted to fit your company’s unique needs and supply chain.

Traffic, Congestion, and Weather Delays

Trucks can run into delays due to traffic accidents, road maintenance and closures, weather conditions, and other unforeseen events. Consequently, this can cause a delay in the shipments the truck is carrying.

Solution: Use intermodal rail when possible
While certain events like traffic accidents can’t be predicted, that doesn’t mean shipping delays are inevitable. Since intermodal trains travel by railroad, they avoid the potential issues experienced by vehicles on the highway. Trains are also better at handling severe weather than trucks. For example, their steel wheels can easily cut through snow and ice.

Port Congestion

A port or rail yard can become overcrowded with container ships, especially during the holiday season due to the increase in consumer purchasing. This can cause service disruptions and shipping delays.

Solution: Enlist a drayage service provider
Drayage services help reduce port congestion by keeping shipping containers moving. Demurrage charges can be avoided for containers that end up in use for longer than planned when delays do strike. Additionally, drayage services are often cheaper than other options like container rentals and air transportation.

Unpredictability

Unpredictability is always a problem in logistics because it, rather obviously, can’t be planned for. These situations can throw a wrench in your plans and even cause a domino effect that impacts other parts of the trip, like entering a congested destination port after finally resuming your journey since you weren’t planning to be there at that time. A few situations that can lead to unpredictable shipping times include:

  • Incorrect documentation: A common cause of shipping delays is incorrect documentation and missing paperwork. This is especially true for international shipments that need to clear customs. Until proper documentation is received, a shipment may be held and prevented from moving forward in its journey.
  • Global events: Manpower became incredibly limited during the COVID-19 pandemic due to an immediate cease of operations for many businesses. With reopening these businesses came the challenge of adhering to new safety regulations, which required extra time and attention often with fewer workers, leading to delays in shipments.
  • Unexpected conditions: The weather, wind, and sea conditions can be unpredictable and impact cargo transportation for hours or days at a time if conditions are bad enough. While bad weather is more prone to certain places and times of the year, it can halt transportation entirely anywhere, any time. For example, excessive wind could blow a tree across intermodal railroad tracks, leaving them impassable.

Solution: Use a tracking system for real-time visibility
Modernized technology for intermodal logistics offers real-time tracking so you always know the location of your intermodal shipment. With this knowledge, you can make immediate and informed decisions in the event of delays.

For example, if you have several shipping containers that will be traveling by truck to their final destination but a severe snowstorm has delayed the truck’s trip, you can inform your customer of the weather delay and current location. It will help them feel more at ease knowing the shipment is safe and accounted for.

Avoid Intermodal Logistics Challenges With a Reliable Service Partner

Intermodal logistics allow cargo to be moved using the most efficient transportation method available from origin to final delivery. Compared to a single mode of transportation, intermodal freight transportation is more cost-effective, sustainable, and secure.

This means you’ll be left with more money to put toward your company’s bottom line, allowing you to focus on other priorities that contribute to its success. You’ll also play a key part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pollution thanks to the environmental benefits.

DSL Logistics streamlines shipping via the intermodal transportation process and specializes in intermodal planning and drayage services to take the guesswork out of managing your cargo’s journey. DSL also offers advanced tracking and management systems to give you real-time visibility into every shipment, every step of the way. Reduce your multimodal transportation costs while improving your efficiency – request a quote today!