Intermodal vs Transloading and When to Use Each

Whether you are shipping over long or short distances, getting your products from one place to another often involves multiple modes of transportation. Using different modes of transportation allows you to traverse land and water, as well as lower transit costs. Intermodal shipping and transloading are two methods of shipping that may lower costs. Intermodal shipping and transloading are similar processes, but there are some key differences that are important to understand. Let’s look at intermodal versus transloading, and when to use each.

What Are Intermodal and Transloading?

Both intermodal and transloading are methods of shipping processes that move goods from one mode of transportation to a different mode. This might mean moving goods from a ship onto a railcar, moving goods from a railcar onto a truck, moving goods from a truck onto a railcar, or any combination thereof. Any goods that must move long distances or cross oceans may require intermodal shipping or transloading, and sometimes both, since one mode of transportation may not cover the entire distance.

Intermodal and transloading are especially important for shipments that rely on rail. In many cases, intermodal and transloading may be needed to get goods from their starting point to their destination. But what are the differences between intermodal and transloading shipping? And how do you know when to use each?

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Intermodal Shipping: Requires Intermodal Container

Intermodal shipping uses multiple modes of transportation, but it also requires a shipping container. During intermodal shipping, the goods do not leave the shipping container, regardless of which modes of transportation are involved. Any goods within a shipping container can be shipped via intermodal shipping, including dry and liquid bulk goods, perishable goods in refrigerated containers, chemicals, oils and gasses, building supplies, machinery, and more.

One of the most common types of intermodal shipping is via a ship across a body of water; goods in a shipping container are moved onto a cargo ship and may then be moved onto a truck or railcar to their final destination. Since the goods never leave the shipping container, intermodal shipping requires equipment capable of moving the container, such as a gantry crane, lifting jack, or specialized forklift.

Transloading: No Intermodal Container Required

During transloading, the goods are often moved from railcar to truck or truck to railcar. Similar to intermodal; many different types of goods, including perishables, non-perishables, dry bulk, liquid bulk, chemicals and more can be accommodated. Transloading offers rail shippers access to customers who may not have rail delivery options.

Just like intermodal shipping requires the right equipment to move shipping containers, transloading also requires the right equipment to move the goods from one mode of transportation to the next. This might include conveyor belts, pumps, pneumatic conveyance, forklifts, and more, depending on the type of goods you are working with. Different transload facilities may have different types of equipment and will be able to handle different goods. For example, some transload facilities may have the equipment and safety protocols to handle hazardous chemicals or flammable liquids, while others may not.

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Which Should You Use?

When it comes to intermodal vs transloading shipping, which should you use? And how do you know when to use each? The type of goods you’re shipping, the equipment available, and the modes of transport you are using may all be factors in your decision.

Many bulk commodities moving domestically are better suited for rail to truck or truck to rail transloading. However, some commodities that are moving globally or difficult to transload may be more suited to shipping via intermodal. Transloading can also give shippers access to alternative rail routes and make it easier to negotiate freight rates.

Comparing the advantages and disadvantages of intermodal vs transloading can also help you decide which is best for you.

  • Security: Since intermodal shipping keeps goods within a shipping container and transloading requires the goods to be loaded and unloaded, intermodal can provide more security.
  • Speed: Intermodal shipping can sometimes be constrained by the availability of gantry cranes and other equipment, as well as the availability of staff trained to use the equipment safely. Transloading is generally an easier process and can speed up the overall transit process.
  • Flexibility: Transloading can also give shippers additional flexibility. Transloading allows you to move goods to many different modes of transport, while intermodal shipping has more limitations. With the right transload facility, you can find the most affordable and efficient routes, ideally by combining fast, local trucking and cost-effective rail shipping.

Consider your options carefully when comparing intermodal vs transloading, and the shipping modes available to you. With the right equipment and route planning, you can optimize your logistics for both speed and cost.