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Intermodal transportation: what it is, the advantages, and how it differs from multimodal

Intermodal transport
Intermodal transport

In a constantly evolving world, intermodal transportation emerges as a key solution offered in the international shipping industry. In this article by Savino Del Bene, we will explore in detail what intermodal transportation is and its defining characteristics. We will also delve into the history of this mode of transportation, the advantages it offers, and highlight the differences compared to multimodal transport.


Intermodal transport: definition and how it works


Intermodal transport” refers to a method of moving goods in the same load unit (containers, swap bodies, or semi-trailers) using two or more transport methods, without any direct handling of the goods during the course of the shipment. For example, in intermodal transport, a container (or other load unit) is transferred from one mode to another (ships, trucks, trains, planes) without removing and placing the contents in a different unit. This method of transport provides a seamless, integrated, and flexible solution which is ideal for companies who want to improve the efficiency of their supply chain.


Intermodal freight transport: how it happens


Intermodal transportation is designed to simplify the movement of goods, and eliminate handling while in transit. In this mode, the pick-up and delivery of the goods is handled by truck, with the majority of the transportation between the two points handled by railway or truck or by sea.


History of intermodal transport


To fully understand the benefits, it is necessary to delve into its history. The intermodality of transport came about in the early 1950s when the international trade markets opened and the need arose to transport bulk goods more efficiently. An early experiment of this was conducted during World War II, when U.S. military personnel developed elevated wooden bases known as pallets, to safely hold and transport goods. Pallets reduced handling times, and protected the cargo from breakage. The use of pallets quickly spread, but the idea of intermodal transport had yet to be fully developed.


 Intermodal transport: the container revolution


The creation of intermodal transport took place in 1956 when an entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean had a revolutionary idea: why not load the entire truck directly onto the ship? From this inquiry, modern shipping containers were born, and a much more efficient and faster loading and unloading operation was created. It was at that point that McLean realized the enormous potential of intermodal transport.


The current success of intermodality


The real turning point, however, was not in the containers themselves, but with the idea of adapting all components of transport to integrate with the containers. In 1967, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) established a standard for containers, known as ISO containers. These have specific dimensions and are numbered through a coding system that allows for rapid identification. Over time new types of ISO containers were added, such as tanks and refrigerated containers, which further expanded intermodal transport.


Intermodal freight transport


What is the difference between intermodal and multimodal transport?


Intermodal transport is often confused with multimodal transport, since both these services use two or more shipping methods to bring goods to their final destination. Although Intermodal transport is a form of multimodal transport, the difference is that the load is not broken down or handled, and remains inside the same load unit from the beginning to the end of the shipment. The safety of the goods is ensured by the fact that the load unit itself is a standardized size, while in multimodal transport it is not.


Intermodal and multimodal transport: comparison of characteristics


The differences between intermodal and multimodal transport can be summarized as follows:


Characteristic Intermodal Transport Multimodal Transport
Mode of transport Two or more Two or more
Change of load unit during transit No Yes
Load unit Standardized Non- Standardized
Management of Cargo Entrusted to a single-operator Entrusted to multiple  operators


Advantages of intermodal transport


So, what are the advantages of intermodal transport? Let’s analyze them:

  • Efficiency: the adoption of intermodality eliminates any extra handling of the cargo, offers the use of different modes of transport, reduces downtime, and maximizes efficiency.
  • Economies of scale: when shipping significant volumes, intermodality reduces the transport cost per single load unit and, consequently, the cost per ton transported;
  • Safety: maintaining the cargo in the same load unit throughout transport minimizes the risks of theft and damage to the goods.
  • Sustainability:  intermodality represents one of the most effective solutions for sustainable logistics, as it reduces the impact on the environment through better management of resources.




Intermodal transport often proves to be a crucial solution for addressing the complex challenges that are a part of international shipping. Before committing one’s supply chain management to this mode of transport, thorough evaluations should be made by experts in the field.


At Savino Del Bene, we have extensive experience managing shipments for a broad variety of vertical markets. Our reliable team of experts is available to assist you with your supply chain management. Contact us now to discover all the advantages of intermodal transport.

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