Intermodal shipping adds capacity, cuts transportation costs and can reduce your emissions by up to 30% compared to over-the-road shipping.
It is an excellent full truckload conversion product that is a key component of any Shipper of Choice strategy, but there are a few key differences between the two modes that you should be aware of.
Though you can expect reliable, safe, eco-friendly and cost-effective service on the rail, it is a different mode of transportation — understanding some of its nuances will help you plan for success.
Let's dive into four differences you should be aware of when preparing for intermodal shipping.
Intermodal shipping is an efficient full truckload conversion product, but there are a few differences every shipper should know.
1. When Your Shipment Is on the Train, It’s on the Train
When you ship freight full truckload, you have a comparatively high degree of control over the product.
Need a re-route? Have your provider call the carrier. Truck breakdown? It’s relatively easy to source another one. Besides equipment failure, most delays are usually limited to minor traffic jams.
With intermodal, one train is moving hundreds of loads on a fixed track. Trains are arriving to and departing from intermodal facilities with thousands of loads.
Railroads do not prioritize individual containers. If there is congestion or track repairs, re-routing a mile-long train is not as simple as taking a different highway.
No intermodal provider, whether asset-based or broker, can solve rail delays.
The key is to work with a provider that uses experience and technology to plan ahead, and prioritizes communication and service once your freight is in transit.
2. Intermodal Transit Takes More Planning
Intermodal shipping is not by any means slow, but it can take longer than a truck.
If you have time-sensitive deliveries, it is critical you and your intermodal provider understand how your freight will move on the rail — a service-oriented provider will make it easy for you.
Though they will be the experts, having a basic understanding of rail transit yourself will help you plan for success. They can also help also you decide if your freight is eligible for a 40' container or a standard 53'.
Related: To learn about planning your intermodal shipments, read the Intermodal Beginner's Guide.
Here's How Intermodal Train Schedules Work
Intermodal trains run on predetermined transit schedules. Some lanes in high-traffic corridors run multiple trains per day, while other lanes only have a couple trains per week.
Every train has a “gate-cut” time — if you want your container to be on that outbound train, the driver needs to check-in at the intermodal facility’s gate before the cut off time.
If the driver arrives after the cut off, the container will head out on the next scheduled train.
Think of intermodal schedules like going to the airport.
If you have a 5 p.m. flight, the plane will take off at 5 p.m.
It won’t leave at 3 p.m. if you’re sitting at the gate two hours early, and it won’t wait for you if you show up late.
All intermodal schedules are publicly available on the railroads’ websites, but again, your intermodal provider should be the one interpreting these and planning for you.
Here’s an example of one of the Norfolk Southern’s Chicago to New Jersey schedules.
Intermodal Gives You Shipment Visibility In Transit
Once the train is in transit, the railroads provide automated tracking updates at frequent checkpoints.
Though you may not be able to do anything to affect transit, intermodal provides great visibility into your shipments.
Coyote has direct digital connectivity with all Class I railroads, and gets a constant stream of shipment updates to our centralized freight platform. You can access those updates in Coyote.com, or we can feed them into your system via API or EDI.
Your Freight May Interchange Between Two Railroads
There are two primary railroads in the western half of the U.S. (the Union Pacific and BNSF) and two primary railroads in the eastern half (the Norfolk Southern and the CSX). They are constantly working together, handing off shipments to each other.
If you’re shipping across the country, your shipment is probably going to ride on two railroads.
This is called an interchange.
You do not need to do anything — it is a seamless process that the railroads handle themselves.
All you need to know is that when they occur, it can add time to your door-to-door transit.
Generally speaking, if your intermodal shipment is crossing over the Mississippi river, it will probably interchange from one railroad to the other.
This graphic is not comprehensive, but it illustrates the two primary western and eastern U.S. railroads and their approximate service areas.
What Happens When Your Intermodal Shipment Arrives at the Destination Rail Terminal
As seen in the above rail schedule, the rails offer an “available” time, an estimated time when your container will be pulled off the train, placed on a chassis, and ready for delivery.
Your intermodal provider will receive a notification, and coordinate for a driver to pick it up and deliver at the destination facility.
Working with an Experienced Provider Makes Transit Planning Easier
A good intermodal service provider will take the guesswork out of planning for intermodal transit — it should be as simple as your full truckload experience.
Though the railroads publish schedules, they aren’t always 100% accurate and they don’t guarantee transit.
Experienced provides can leverage their historic transit data and technology to create predictive analytics that offer a clearer picture of actual door-to-door rail transits.
If you're provider isn't helping you create shipment and appointment scheduling plans that meet your business’s needs, it's time to look elsewhere.
3. Blocking & Bracing Is the Shipper’s Responsibility.
In full truckload shipping, the driver is responsible for making sure the product is correctly blocked and braced before leaving the shipper.
That driver will be held accountable for product integrity from the shipper until the trailer bumps the dock at destination.
In intermodal shipping, since the sealed container will change hands between three different carriers, the shipper is responsible for correctly blocking and bracing the product at origin.
Though intermodal transit is smooth, containers experience continuous, gentle vibrations while riding on the tracks — over the span of hundreds of miles, product and pallets can shift.
Proper blocking and bracing are important for every mode, but they are especially important when shipping intermodal.
Improperly loaded pallets can trigger several issues, all of which have accessorial fees associated with them.
- Damaged and refused product
- Product restacking
- Pallet(s) sliding, causing overweight trailer axles at destination
- Leaning containers
How Shippers Block and Brace Shipments for Intermodal
Specific loading plans and patterns will vary based on commodity and packaging. Generally speaking, most methods seek to reduce empty space with void fillers (such as air bags or honeycomb cardboard fillers).
If you are unsure how to properly load your product, the American Association of Railroads publishes a detailed Intermodal Loading Guide that offers great technical information and diagrams for a wide variety of commodities.
The railroads have a vested interest in helping you ship intermodal. If you need additional help, they have damage prevention specialists dedicated to helping shippers design loading plans and diagrams for intermodal shipping.
Coyote can connect you to the necessary resources to prepare your freight for intermodal conversion.
4. Accessorials Are More Common.
Compared to full truckload accessorials, intermodal shipping has a few different one, and they are generally more common.
But there’s nothing to be afraid of — most intermodal loads do not incur any accessorials, and proper planning and best-practices by your team makes them even less common.
When accessorials occur, it’s important to keep in mind the total cost-savings that intermodal brings to your supply chain.
When getting intermodal rates, make sure you understand how your provider approaches accessorials in their pricing, and that they give you a candid and realistic overview of their accessorial schedule.
Why Accessorials Can Be More Common in Intermodal
Intermodal carriers, both rail and drayage, rely on efficiency to provide cost-savings.
Multiple daily trains bring hundreds of containers into an intermodal ramp, adding to the hundreds already on-site. To provide reliable service, intermodal ramps need to keep their equipment—containers, chassis and trains—turning quickly.
To incentivize maximum operational efficiency from shippers and carriers, railroads use storage fees to get newly arrived, loaded containers out for delivery as soon as possible.
Most drayage drivers make multiple pick ups and deliveries per day and are on a very tight schedule. Therefore, they are more likely to charge for anything that causes a delay.
Let's Review: 4 Things You Need to Know to Convert Highway Freight to the Rail
Intermodal is a full truckload conversion product with many benefits including added capacity and reduced cost, but there are a few core differences every shipper should understand.
- When your product is on the train, it’s on the train.
- Transit can take more planning.
- Blocking and bracing are the shipper’s responsibility.
- Accessorials can be more common.
Implementing new strategies to your supply chain is never easy, but working with an experienced, customer-centric intermodal provider can make the process simple.
Learn from Experts as They Explain How to Choose a Mode
Watch these three Coyote experts talk about fundamental shipping best practices that help shippers choose between truckload, LTL and intermodal.
This session originally aired as a part of the 2020 Digital Summit, but these insights never go out of style.
You've Learned the Differences, Now Become a Pricing Expert
With intermodal, there are two drayage carriers, a railroad and, depending on how you ship, an IMC.
It's a more complex process than truckload, and with that, comes more complex pricing structures.
Learn how they work to get the best rate for your shipment with this guide to intermodal pricing.