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Difference Between Intermodal and Multimodal Transport

sahil bajaj

Sahil Bajaj

Senior Specialist - Marketing @ Shiprocket

May 22, 2024

11 min read

International delivery needs to be quick and efficient to satisfy customers. In the modern world, this is achieved by intermodal and multimodal transportation. These transportation methods ensure reliable and fast delivery on time.  You should know the difference between intermodal and multimodal transportation to make use of the right one for you.  

The worldwide intermodal transportation industry is predicted to increase at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.20% between 2022 and 2029, from its estimated value of USD 25390.20 million in 2021 to USD 73450.53 million in 2029. The cross-border multimodal transport industry is expected to grow from its anticipated USD 22.5 billion in 2023 to USD 30.32 billion in 2031, at a 3.8% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) from 2024 to 2031.

Businesses looking to adapt to the demands of the global market and simplify their operations must understand the differences between these methods of transportation. We’ll go over the differences between intermodal and multimodal transportation in this blog so you may improve your logistics plans and maintain your competitive edge in today’s world.

Difference Between Intermodal and Multimodal Transport

Exploring Intermodal Transport

Intermodal freight transport refers to the movement of goods in an intermodal container using multiple modes of transportation including truck, train, ship and aircraft. The goal of intermodal transport is to move products effectively between different modes of transportation without requiring direct handling of the cargo. For businesses looking to improve the efficiency of their supply chain, this strategy provides a smooth and integrated solution. 

This logistics method combines many transportation modes, such as roads, railroads, ships, or aircraft. To guarantee that the cargo moves successfully and economically, this strategy utilises the strengths of each mode. An intermodal cargo requires carriers to handle a single freight container.

An Intermodal Transport Unit (ITU), a single container that can carry all the commodities, can be used for intermodal transportation. Intermodal transport allows logistics companies to provide their clients with more economical and efficient transportation choices by combining the flexibility and capacity of various modes of transportation. Carriers don’t have to move cargo from one container and transfer it to another. Using a variety of shipping methods and standardised containers lowers the chance of damage and handling, which will ultimately help you save money. 

Varieties of Intermodal Transportation

To effectively carry cargo from one location to another, intermodal transportation integrates several means of transportation, such as trucks, ships, aircraft, and trains. Let’s discuss some popular types:

  1. Vehicle-Trail Intermodal: This mode of transportation uses trucks and railroads to move containers or trailers. Before being loaded onto a train for the long trip, freight is first delivered by truck to an intermodal station. It provides flexible local delivery options together with affordable long-distance transportation.
  2. Rail-Ship Intermodal: This method uses trains and ships to move containers or trailers. The cargo is transported by train to a port, where it is loaded onto a ship for passage across water bodies. It is perfect for international exports as it is unloaded at the target port and may then be transported by vehicle or train.
  3. Truck-Air Intermodal: This approach combines trucks with aircraft. Trucks transport goods to an airport where they are loaded onto planes for long-haul or international flights. When the cargo returns to trucks for local distribution after reaching the target airport, it offers a quick solution for valuable or urgent items.

Understanding Multimodal Transportation

Multimodal transportation streamlines the process of transferring products by combining several means of transportation such as trucks, trains, ships, and aircraft. Usually inside a single contract overseen by a single transport provider, the products are effortlessly moved between several modalities as opposed to being handled directly.

Let’s say you have to move some cargo across cities. When using multimodal transportation, your products may go via truck, rail, ship, or even aircraft, all handled by a single supplier. With this approach, your products travel in containers or pallets rather than needing to be constantly unpacked and repacked, keeping them safe and effective at all times. A single supplier oversees everything in multimodal transport, even though they depend on a network of carriers to complete the task.

Comparing Multimodal and Intermodal Transport: Unravelling Key Distinctions

It is important to recognise the key differences between multimodal and intermodal transportation when comparing the two. Here are some differentiating characters to understand them better:

Key differencesIntermodal transportMultimodal transport
Operational StructureInvolves several carriers, with a different business handling each leg of the trip. Resultantly, every stage of the transportation chain receives its invoice and report.Managed by one business that oversees all of the journey’s transportation options. Since you just need to deal with one vendor for all of your shipping needs, this simplifies paperwork and communication.
Bill of LadingEvery business in the chain must have bills of lading, which puts further strain on logistics.Involves a single contract with the business, streamlining logistics and paperwork.
Handling of GoodsThroughout the whole trip, goods are carried in the same load unit without being touched or broken down.Throughout the trip, goods may be handled and moved between various transportation modes.
Safety and EfficiencyOffers standardised load units, which enhance safety and may lead to more efficient transport.While being safe and efficient, it may involve more complexity due to the potential handling of goods between different units.
Cost and Time Considerations:Generally, it offers lower costs compared to multimodal transport but may require more time for carrier negotiations.It offers convenience and potentially faster transit times due to streamlined operations but may come with higher costs associated with using a single provider for all transportation needs.
FlexibilityAllows choosing different companies for each part of the delivery process, offering flexibility in options such as environmental considerations or express delivery.Limits flexibility to models provided by the contractor.
Insurance Typically, it has higher insurance costs due to more transfers and associated risks.Generally, it involves lower insurance costs as it typically has fewer transfers, reducing the risk of damage during transit.
ManagementThe entire shipment is managed by a single entity or transportation provider.Each mode of transportation is managed separately.

Unlocking the Benefits of Multimodal and Intermodal Transportation

Users of both multimodal and intermodal transportation networks benefit from several factors. 

First, let’s learn more about the advantages of intermodal transportation:

  • Improved Operational Efficiency: By facilitating smooth transitions between various types of transportation, intermodal transport facilitates cargo handling. It enables delivery in a short time frame, overcoming geographic obstacles.
  • Cost Optimisation: Transport expenses per load unit and per ton transported are decreased when loads are combined into single units. This makes using intermodal transportation cost-effective, particularly for companies that move big loads of cargo.
  • Strengthened Security Protocols: During intermodal transportation, your cargo travels in the same load unit. This continuity ensures that your items are delivered securely and safely by reducing the likelihood of theft and damage.
  • Sustainable Option: Selecting intermodal transportation is in line with environmentally friendly logistical methods. By utilising the fuel efficiency of ships and trains, intermodal transportation lowers carbon emissions. Hence, for eco-friendly company operations, it is the best choice to minimise environmental effects. You are supporting the worldwide drive towards sustainability by adopting multimodal transportation.

Now let’s take a look at the benefits of multimodal transportation:

  • Efficiency and Speed: Multimodal transport refers to the combination of various modes of transportation, such as trucks, trains, ships, or aeroplanes for a single consignment. This expedites the process by avoiding obstacles that may hinder the speed of a single method of transportation.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability: Depending on your goods, their destination, and the time required for delivery, you may select the most efficient mode of transportation with multimodal transport. This adaptability enables you to precisely customise your delivery to meet your demands.
  • Optimising Costs: Combining several forms of transportation might result in financial savings. Combining the advantages of each modality can save expenses and increase the profitability of your company.
  • Security and Reduced Risk: You reduce the likelihood that anything bad will happen to all of your goods at once by distributing them among several modes of transportation. You can also keep a closer check on your items while they are in transit, ensuring their safety.
  • Global Market Access: Using multimodal transportation gives your company the chance to connect with clients throughout the globe. It makes it simpler to deliver your items to their intended locations, which helps you compete on a global scale.

Limitations of Multimodal and Intermodal Transportation

Despite many advantages, these transportation methods  have certain limitations, as follows:

Limitations of intermodal transportation

  • Transit Time: Compared to truckload shipments, intermodal shipments frequently take longer, necessitating extra preparation time. For instance, the shipping time may increase by two or three days after the consignment is loaded to the truck, if there are two railroads involved.
  • Blocking and Bracing Requirements: Ensuring intermodal containers meet the necessary blocking and bracing criteria can be costly and time-consuming. It is important to secure these containers carefully since they are prone to vibrations that might cause the contents to move.
  • Restricted Commodities: Due to safety factors, some items are not appropriate for intermodal shipment. Particular agreements and cargo liability coverage requirements must be followed by shippers, particularly when shipping restricted or low-coverage goods.
  • Weight Restrictions: Over-the-road trailers usually weigh less than intermodal shipments, with a maximum load of 42,500 pounds due to the combined weight of the chassis and containers.
  • Limited Origin and Destination Pairing: Due to the limited number of railroad ramps and dray lengths, intermodal transportation may only be feasible for a certain pairing of origin and destination ZIP codes.
  • Not Suitable for Small Shipments: Because of the volume required to secure contractual pricing, intermodal transportation may not be cost-effective for small shipments.
  • Restricted Market Suppliers: To bid business, intermodal marketing firms (IMCs) must work with benefit cargo owners (BCOs) and railroads, frequently avoiding price competition among themselves.

Limitations of multimodal transportation

  • Administrative Complexity: From an administrative and logistical perspective, coordinating several transportation modes and operators may be highly complex. To avoid delays and other issues, effective management is necessary.
  • Extra Charges: Although multimodal transportation can be very inexpensive in the long run, there can be additional costs. These may comprise coordination costs, transhipment costs between modes, and tariffs levied by different carriers.
  • Dependency on Third Parties: Several stakeholders, including shipping firms, customs brokers, and logistics operators, must work together successfully for multimodal transportation to be successful. The supply chain’s mistakes or delays can have a major effect on the delivery of goods.
  • Longer Transit Times in Certain Situations: Although multimodal transportation may frequently reduce delivery times, there are situations in which it can cause longer transit times. This is especially true for long-distance shipments, since the requirement for transfers and coordination between several modalities may cause the delivery schedule to be extended overall.

CargoX: Revolutionising International Transport Logistics

If you are looking for methods to make operations more efficient, particularly when it comes to shipping overseas, you should consider CargoX. They are a valued partner who will manage the complex aspects of international business-to-business transportation, freeing you up to concentrate on your primary business activities.

Specialising in the smooth and effective handling of large shipments, their automated operations make sure everything goes well, from giving prompt quotations to scheduling pickups within 24 hours after booking. CargoX offers a clear and simple approach; transparency is important in business. Complete shipping visibility means that there are no surprises when it comes to invoices.

Shipments reach their destination intact on time, thanks to a wide network of couriers and no weight limitations. Any problems are quickly resolved with excellent dispute management. With the support of a vast global network and custom shipping plans, you can ship your goods whenever and however you choose within your ideal budget and timeframe. With CargoX, you have a partner in navigating the difficulties of international shipping.


Transportation plays a crucial role in today’s world, facilitating the movement of goods across various distances. While you may have heard the terms “multimodal” and “intermodal” transportation used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings.

Understanding these differences is essential for making informed decisions about shipment methods, especially when reaching remote destinations. By evaluating the advantages and limitations of each approach, you can determine the most suitable option based on your specific requirements and budget constraints. Ultimately, choosing multimodal and intermodal transportation depends on careful consideration and alignment with your business’s logistical needs.

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