ship, a plane, a train and a truck for intermodal container transport

What is intermodal transportation?

Picture of Silver Runner Kft.

Silver Runner Kft.

It is safe to say, that the rise of the intermodal containers changed the freight forwarding forever. With them now we are able to deliver huge ammount of cargo, which was unimaginable before the 1920s.

Intermodal freight transport is a transportation method, where the goods are loaded into a container. After this the container can be shipped via truck, train, ship or aircraft, without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. The dimensions of these containers are standardised, so it is easily fit to every vehicle. Though the containers, which transported via plane are a bit different from the others due to the weight and the shape of the aircraft.

This creates a more secure and efficient mode for shipping great ammount of items at one time. 

An intermodal container ship in a port with a crane above it

The History of Intermodal

In the early ages the first containers were quite different than nowadays. They were made out of wood with a curved roof and insufficient strength for stacking. Their size was different as well, they were smaller usually 1.5 or 3.0 meters (4.9 or 9.8 ft) long. These were the first standardised containers but they were mainly popular in the United Kingdom in the 1920s. In June 1933, Bureau International des Containers et du Transport Intermodal (B.I.C.) decided to give out specific parameters which were obligatory for containers in international traffic. These meassures greatly helped the stacking of the containers at the depots as well as on the transportation vehicles.
  • Clause 1 — Containers are, as regards form, either of the closed or the open type, and, as regards capacity, either of the heavy or the light type.
  • Clause 2 — The loading capacity of containers must be such that their total weight (load, plus tare) is: 5 tonnes (4.92 long tons; 5.51 short tons) for containers of the heavy type; 2.5 tonnes (2.46 long tons; 2.76 short tons) for containers of the light type; a tolerance of 5 percent excess on the total weight is allowable under the same conditions as for wagon loads.[1]
Obligatory norms for European containers since 1 July 1933

Later in April 1935 BIC established a second standard for European containers:

Obligatory norms for European containers since 1 April 1935

The White Pass & Yukon Route railway bought the world’s first container ship in 1955 and introduced containers to its railway in 1956. After this the intermodal transportation started the seemingly neverending rise up. Today most of the international freight forwarding is done by intermodal containers due to its advatages.

Transportation Modes

As we disgussed above, the shipping of intermodal containers can be done via train, truck, ship, or aircraft. Now let’s go through what are the advantages of each modes of transport.


  • High level of security – according to statistics, theft from containers shipped by rail freights are relatively rare compared to trucks
  • Efficiency – one train can carry on avarage 100 TEUs, so it is equivalent to 50 trucks
  • Environmetnally friendly – due to its capacity, it greatly reduces CO2 emission
  • More predictable – unlike in road transport, trains don’t get caught in traffic jams, therefore their arrival is more predictable


  • Access – trucks can deliver goods everywhere, where the road systems are built up. This way they can basically transport freight directly to the end users
  • Flexibility – this method is more flexible and able to make changes in route, schedule last minute compare to the other modes
  • Fleet management – with the right system, you can be in full control of all freight movement


  • Economical – some estimates says that transportation via ship can cost up to 4-6 times less, than air shipment
  • Oversized capability – there are some oversized, heavy or bulky cargos – often referred to as breakbulk or Not in Trailer (NIT) loads ( large vehicles, equipment, construction materials, etc.), which can be delivered by ship only
  • Efficiency – ships can almost everytime accomodate your needs in term of large ammount of item shipping, because vessels are designed to carry large amounts of goods or raw materials
  • Environmental friendliness  –  ocean freight transport has the lowest carbon footprint from all of the transportation method
  • Safety – ships are designed to be able to carry dangerous goods safely


  • Deliver almost everywhere – airlines have a huge coverage in terms of destination so basically you can send goods to anywhere in the world via plane
  • Security – due to the airports high security standards theft and damage risks are greatly reduced
  • Fast shipping – freight transport by aircraft is the fastest shipping method above all ( on long distance of course )
  • Predictable – airports usually great in scheduling flights, therefore almost everytime you can expect your cargo to arrive, or depart on time
ship, a plane, a train and a truck for intermodal container transport


It is safe to say, that the rise of the intermodal containers changed the freight forwarding forever. With them now we are able to deliver huge ammount of cargo, which was unimaginable before the 1920s.

As the technologies of transportation developement accelerating continuously, it is possible we will see some “game changer” innovation in the future, similar to the containerization. Maybe it , ill be faster, cheaper, or more reliable, but one think is for sure, we are looking forward to it!


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