What is intermodal transport?

In intermodal freight transport, an intermodal transport unit is transported by at least two different means of transport but is not handled. The intermodal transport units are usually containers or swap bodies. Piggyback transport is also considered to be intermodal. In this case, the truck and its load are placed on a train and transported by rail. "Intermodal transport" was first described in the US in 1960 as a result of containerisation. This form of transport focuses more on the supply chain itself; the individual modes of transport are viewed as part of the supply chain. Water, air, rail and road are combined to transport cargo as efficiently as possible. Intermodal transport is a special form of multimodal transport.

How intermodal transport works

An example of the supply chain in intermodal transport:

  • A shipment on the other side of the ocean is trucked to the ocean-going vessel and loaded.
  • The container ship carrying the container calls at an overseas port.
  • The shipment changes to a feeder or inland vessel and arrives at an inland port.
  • The container is loaded onto a rail vehicle at a terminal and transported to a freight village in the destination region.
  • Finally, the shipment is trucked to the consignee.

Application areas of intermodal transport

In intermodal transport, the strengths of the different transport modes are used on different legs. For example, ships can haul large amounts of cargo; trains can transport it while consuming very little energy; trucks provide tremendous flexibility; aircraft offer high speed. The purpose of intermodality is to balance out the weaknesses of individual means of transport: shipping has a large carbon footprint; trains are tied to the rail network; airplanes are limited in loading capacity; trucks contribute to congestion on the roads.

Intermodal transport also offers the advantages of protecting the environment and, if rail is used, reducing traffic volumes and congestion risk. Intermodal and combined transport systems are being expanded, especially since the German government has been supporting them through an aid scheme.

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