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Is Intermodal More Sustainable? Strategies and Resources for Improving Efficiency on the Rails

Train graphic showings trains and intermodal is more sustainable than full truckload shipping

If you’re shipping intermodal freight, you probably know that the rails can improve your company’s sustainability performance.

Sustainability is at the top of mind for everyone these days.

Our original sustainability research shows that 97% of companies with over $800 million in annual revenue are more focused than ever on sustainability initiatives, and 84% of consumers are more likely to purchase from sustainable brands.

The most common owners of sustainability initiatives, according to our research? Supply chain managers.

But do you know what sustainability returns you can actually expect by shipping intermodal, or how to make them happen?

There are some enticing statistics logistics professionals like to throw around about CO2 reduction, but how likely are you to see them become a reality in your business?

I want to get you up to speed on what your sustainability outlook actually is as an intermodal shipper and give you some tips for realizing your best outcomes.


Intermodal Sustainability Fact and Fiction

While everyone might be talking about sustainability, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction with so much being said, written and debated about it.

So let’s cut through the noise. Here are some important truths about intermodal shipping and sustainability — and some common misconceptions.

Fact: Shipping on the rail cuts emissions.

Research shows that when you convert freight from truckload to intermodal, you reduce the CO2 emissions of your shipment by an average of 30%

The major reason for this reduction is the massive consolidation of freight to a single power unit that’s possible on the rail.

When fully loaded with double-stacked containers, intermodal trains can transport the equivalent of 280 trucks worth of freight.

Fiction: All parts of intermodal are sustainable.

In the U.S. today, freight railroads are powered by the same diesel fuel used in the trucks on the road. 

And during any intermodal move, your freight will spend some time in a conventional diesel-powered truck — a drayage carrier will pick your container up and transport it to the closest intermodal ramp, and another one will bring it from its destination ramp to your facility.

If recent advances in battery electric trains take off, CO2 from rail transport could be slashed further, but this is still years off.

Fact: Intermodal is best used to convert long-haul truckload freight.

If you’re new to intermodal shipping, here are some good guidelines for whether your freight will benefit from riding the rail.

  • It’s traveling 600 miles or more
  • It would normally ship in a 53’ dry van trailer
  • Its origin and destination are both within 100 miles of intermodal ramps

The shorter distance your freight is traveling — and the farther away your facilities are located from ramps — the higher proportion of its journey it will spend on a drayage truck. You want to keep rail miles high and drayage miles low for the most sustainable shipment.

Fiction: All long-distance shipments make sense for intermodal.

Here are two important facts about intermodal: It’s a long-term play requiring consistent freight to see appreciable cost and sustainability gains, and you’ll only really see both of these if you’re shipping truckload volumes.

If you’re only looking to move some spot freight here and there, you’re probably best sticking to truckload for your freight budget’s sake. If you want to see improved sustainability for LTL volumes, consider shipping with a lower-emission box truck or sprinter van.

Want to see if your next load falls in that sweet spot where intermodal creates efficiencies? Use our interactive shipping mode tool to find out if it’s the best option for your freight.

Fact: There are sustainability allies for freight shippers.

If you’re looking to improve your supply chain sustainability, you can find some assistance from the U.S. government and from environment-focused NGOs.

SmartWay Transport Partnership

Since 2004, the EPA has offered the SmartWay Transport Partnership, a voluntary public-private program designed to improve our understanding of resource usage in supply chains and minimize their negative environmental impact.

Freight shippers, carriers and 3PLs are all eligible to register as SmartWay partners. There are currently 4,000 organizations signed up to map their supply chain footprints, benchmark and monitor their performance, and develop innovative ways to improve efficiency.

Participating organizations are graded and ranked, with lists of top performers in terms of grams per mile and grams per ton-mile of emissions published annually.

Green Freight Handbook

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading green NGO, publishes the Green Freight Handbook to help shippers develop sustainable supply chain strategies.

The Green Freight Handbook offers a similar approach to supply chain innovation and improvement as the SmartWay Partnership, but for the DIY sustainable shipper.

It contains comprehensive advice for establishing sustainability metrics, monitoring performance against benchmarks, assessing and capitalizing on opportunities to improve, and developing an optimal mixed-mode shipping strategy — including strategically incorporating intermodal.  

Fiction: Sustainability resources can solve all your problems for you.

It’s fantastic that there are powerful private and public organizations dedicated to improving supply chain sustainability nationwide, but you need to remain realistic about what they can actually do for you.

These are resources for collecting data, providing guidelines of best practices, and at most showing you how you stack up against other similar organizations. It’s still up to you to implement any changes that your data recommends.

And implementation itself is not without its hurdles.

Compared to full truckload, intermodal transit is typically a day or two longer, though exact transit varies based on lane and rail routing. If transit time is a concern, it’s essential to create a strong shipping plan with your intermodal provider so you can hit schedules and meet your customer demand.

The better your planning, the fewer shipments you’ll need to expedite via truckload, and the greater your sustainability gains.

Fact: Railroads and drayage carriers are better positioned for alternative fuels.

Intermodal may lead the way in terms of sustainable transportation, but its reliance on diesel fuel means it still has opportunities to get even greener in the future.

North American railroad manufacturers and operators are currently testing out different power source options for freight trains. These large, well-capitalized companies have the resources and infrastructure in place to adopt alternative fuel tech earlier than long-haul truck drivers.

Electric- and hydrogen-powered trains are currently used for commuter rails in some countries, and the current tests are to see if they can operate with the payload and in cold weather conditions necessary for freight transportation.

Drayage carriers are also poised to evolve with the expansion of programs to phase out gas-powered vehicles.

These short-distance carriers operate out of a fixed home base that their drivers return to every night. They’re a natural candidate to embrace the charging infrastructure necessary for electric vehicles.

The state of California is leading the way here, which has a plan in place to taper off production of gas-powered vehicles in favor of electrics by 2035. A huge amount of drayage operations in the U.S. are in  because of seaport freight volume, so these drivers will be early adopters of greener vehicles.

Fiction: Change will be here tomorrow.

Don’t expect electric vehicles to dominate the roads and rails this year, next year or the year after that.

The 2035 target set for electric vehicles that could revolutionize drayage in California is one of the earliest any state or national government has committed to. And even if they hit that target, that date is the cut off for new diesel trucks to hit the road, not when they need to be eliminated.

For the rest of the country, the recent infrastructure bill did include $5 billion earmarked for electric vehicle charging infrastructure, but without a timeline for implementation and only a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 to guide it.

Many corporations have pledged to achieve net-zero emissions on a shorter timeline than that, but not all of them are on track to hit their targets.

And of course it remains to be seen if the alternative-fueled trains can perform under real-world freight conditions in the fixed infrastructure of the rail network.

Change is coming, and innovators across the industry are working tirelessly toward it, but it won’t be immediate.


3 Tips for Improving Sustainability Right Now

So what can you do today to improve your supply chain sustainability? And how does intermodal factor into those plans?

Here are three things I’d recommend implementing today to help you understand your own resource consumption and emissions footprint, and to target them for improvements.

1. Get a Carbon Emissions Dashboard

There are a number of emissions dashboards on the market today geared toward the freight community. They’re published by transportation providers, supply chain software developers and other similar companies.

They can help you gauge the emissions generated by your freight transportation, identify your highest- and lowest-emission lanes, and develop action plans to improve performance in ones that are lagging.

They’re great options if you’re just getting started implementing a sustainability program and want to build  strong foundation of facts before you make any drastic implementations.

2. Work With a 3PL

Third-party logistics providers (3PLs) are more than just freight brokers. They employ teams of specialists who can help you understand your network’s environmental impact and optimize its performance.

A good 3PL will offer multiple solutions for shippers who want to develop and implement sustainability plans. They can help you set and track sustainability KPIs with your carriers, examine your modal mix for opportunities to improve efficiency or even manage your entire supply chain.

But the most important tip is also the most easily actionable…

3. Convert Your Full Truckload Freight to Intermodal

There’s no other way to say it: The single most impactful step you can take right now to cut emissions and reduce your carbon footprint is to start putting your full truckload freight on the rail.

Even though companies are increasing their focus on sustainability initiatives and technologies and processes are improving, most shippers are still resistant to change that will negatively impact their short-term bottom line.

But take a longer view — weigh the long-term benefit against the short-term resources required to work intermodal into your supply chain.

Put in the time to evaluate intermodal providers, update your processes to include steps like blocking and bracing freight, and communicate your plan to internal and external stakeholders to make the transition as seamless as possible.

(It’s worth noting that for smaller shipments, you can also see emissions reductions by consolidating them into truckloads or converting them to box trucks.)

Intermodal offers the best of both worlds if it’s a match for your freight, your lanes and your timing needs: cost savings and a greener supply chain.


Ready to Get Green? Talk to an Intermodal Specialist About Converting Your Truckload Freight

We can help you understand how to utilize intermodal to help meet your sustainability goals, and we’ll help you find other efficient options to help you become more sustainable.

And if you think you’d like to convert some of your truckload freight to intermodal right now, we have a talented team to help you with that as well.

There’s no better time than today to request an intermodal quote. We’re a leading intermodal marketing company (IMC), and we can find you the capacity you need for your long-distance freight.

Talk to a Specialist