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Intermodal shipping refers simply to the transportation of goods by multiple modes. In North America specifically, this typically refers to using a combination of trucks and railroads to move containerized freight—that is, cargo in shipping containers. Shippers wanting to reduce their transportation spend, find new sources of capacity, and build sustainable practices should consider intermodal as an alternative to full truckload freight.

How Intermodal Works

With full truckload (FTL) shipping, one carrier takes a load from its point of origin directly to its destination. Intermodal shipping works somewhat differently in order to take advantage of rail capacity, involving three components to each trip.

First, a specialized intermodal driver, known as a drayage carrier, picks up an empty container from the origin rail ramp and delivers it to the shipper. Once the container is loaded at the shipper, the drayage carrier returns it to the rail ramp.

Next, the railroad transports the container from the origin rail ramp to the destination rail ramp.

Finally, the destination drayage carrier picks up the container from the destination rail ramp and delivers it to the receiver.

This process is both more complex and typically slower than FTL, taking about a day longer for transportation in most lanes. So why do shippers use it? Full intermodal load service offers three key benefits that make it an attractive shipping option.

The Advantages of Intermodal

Shippers turn to intermodal when they’re concerned with cost, capacity, and sustainability. Intermodal delivers:

Cost savings: Shippers need to keep a close eye on the bottom line, especially when freight costs are soaring. Intermodal options are often hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars cheaper than FTL, though exact price comparisons can differ by lane, season, and current market rates. However, even when cost discounts with intermodal are modest on a per-load basis, the savings can add up considerably over long periods of time.

Capacity: The last few years have shown how profoundly supply chain disruptions can affect individual businesses, especially when their modes of shipping are not diversified. Adding intermodal into your supply chain strategy can provide capacity when it is difficult to find openings in the truckload market, because it uses an entirely different source of carrier and equipment capacity.

Sustainability: Businesses committed to adopting sustainable practices can benefit from integrating intermodal into their shipping. On average, rail shipping is four times more efficient than FTL shipping, moving one ton of freight 479 miles on a single gallon of fuel. In addition, it would take 280 trucks to carry the cargo moved by one fully loaded intermodal train—effectively taking those trucks off the road reduces greenhouse gas emissions and alleviates traffic congestion.

The interconnected web of railroads that covers the U.S. has intermodal facilities in nearly every metro area across the country. No matter where you’re shipping from or to, chances are the North American intermodal network can provide coverage.

How Do I Know When Intermodal Is Right?

There are several factors that can affect whether a particular shipment would be a good fit for transportation by rail. These include:

In general, if you’re shipping goods further than 500 miles away and the load could be shipped in a 53’ dry van, your cargo would be a good candidate for intermodal conversion. The best way to find the right conversion opportunities and optimize your shipping is to work with an experienced intermodal provider like Clear Lane Freight Systems. 

Flexibility, Value, Experience

Clear Lane Freight has been providing reliable, economical freight service for over a decade, including incorporating intermodal for greater capacity, cost advantage, and a reduced impact on the environment. If you’re looking for better shipping solutions, Clear Lane can help find the optimal service for your needs. Our growing network of regional freight partners gives us the capacity and flexibility to meet your freight needs in every circumstance, regardless of changing market conditions. To find out more about our full intermodal load service or to request a quote, contact us here.


If you are interested in finding more about the services and pricing Clear Lane has to offer, please contact Sales