By Ella Mason | May 22, 2014

Intermodal transport is currently one of the fastest growing trends in the freight industry and one which looks set to continue. The US freight industry was heavily impacted by the economic crisis in 2009 and recovery has been slow but, thanks in-part to the advances of freight solutions like intermodal, volumes are now approaching pre-crisis levels and the industry is now looking towards the future.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the growth of the population and urbanized areas in the US has led to increased demand for goods to be transported into metropolitan areas and investment into transportation infrastructure to support this. Intermodal transport is a key part of absorbing this increased demand. Intermodal involves the transportation of goods in containers, which can be moved between multiple modes of transport without any handling of the freight. This means increased security, quicker journey times and less chance of damage.

However, the main benefit of intermodal transport comes in being able to combine the benefits of different modes of transport without additional handling or as the International Road Transport Union put in their annual report: “Indeed, intermodal transport can play an increasingly crucial role in modern logistics by using the different transport modes according to their respective strengths.”

Rail vs Road – Pros and Cons One of the key intermodal relationships has been between rail and road. Rail freight is often considered to be cheaper than road freight as rail cars can carry larger volumes over greater distances. In comparison, road freight tends to be more expensive, but offers greater flexibility in terms of final destination and volume of goods to be transported. Intermodal transport means combining the best parts of both of these services to suit your requirements. For example, if you have a small volume of goods to be transported, you could save money by covering the majority of the distance by rail and then finishing the journey quickly and efficiently by road without having to worry about extra handling in between.

Combining two modes of transport also offers other benefits. For example, in a recent case study by blast and paint manufacturer Airblast AFC they discovered that combining road and rail led to more predictable scheduling as rail operators tend to run to a tighter timetable because they don’t have to deal with the uncertainties of traffic conditions, which can have a huge impact on road freight journey times over long distances. By transporting goods the majority of the distance by train, it is easier to predict the time of arrival and, because most train services travel at greater speeds, the overall duration of travel will be reduced.

This is where we start to see the real value of intermodal transport, in that it allows us to look at the logistics chain as a whole instead of forcing us to weigh up the pros and cons of each service. Intermodal allows us to combine the benefits of various modes of transport to form a bespoke solution perfectly suited to product type, volume and distance – an advantage which will see the freight industry better equipped to meet increasing demand as population levels and urbanization continue to rise.

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