Today, people looking to ship goods (or move people) are likely to realize that it doesn't always make sense to stick to just one mode of transportation. For example, cargo may be offloaded from a ship onto a truck, which transfers it to a railyard, from which it will be moved across the country by train. Intermodal transportation may be more efficient and cheaper; in some cases, however, it does have pronounced disadvantages in terms of speed and reliability.
Although intermodal transportation offers the benefit of relatively low costs compared to other methods, it obtains this by sacrificing speed; any time cargo is transferred to a comparatively slower means of travel, for example trains, which operate on fixed rails that may not offer as direct route as the roads a truck uses, it slows down. To operate at peak efficiency, intermodal transportation must also reduce the amount of time spent waiting in depots for a new carrier to arrive or for cargo to be unloaded.
Lack of Reliability
Because of its reliance on more than one mode of transit, intermodal transportation is also subject to lower overall reliability; as the chain of different modes grows, the possibility of any link in the chain breaking down also increases. This is particularly problematic when one of the modes of transport is rail; railroads are more susceptible to delays introduced by bad weather or equipment failure. For this reason, as well as concerns over speed, shippers that require reliable, high-speed transportation are less likely to consider intermodal systems.
Whenever cargo has to be shuffled around, shippers risk the possibility of damage as the freight is transferred from one method of transportation to another. Fortunately, this danger can be mitigated, but doing so generally involves overpacking by adding more bracing and protective material than would normally be deemed sufficient. This added weight and expense partially counteracts the advantages intermodal transportation has in terms of energy efficiency and cost.
High Infrastructure Costs
Intermodal freight transportation also suffers from comparatively high infrastructure costs. Containerization has lowered the cost and difficulty of transporting goods by standardizing their form; shippers can easily move the same container from a ship to a train to a truck. Handling these containers, however, requires that shippers have the heavy-duty cranes and equipment necessary to manipulate large containers; this infrastructure may not exist in all places, particularly in developing countries.
- Hofstra University: Intermodal Transport Systems
- "The Journal of the Transportation Research Forum"; Automated Transfer Management Systems to Improve the Intermodal Performance of North American Rail Freight Distribution; John Zumerchik, et al.; 2009
- Transport Topics: When Is Intermodal a Good Way to Go?; Tom Berg; October, 1998
- Inbound Logistics: What Do You Really Know About Intermodal?; Tom Piatak; October, 2002
Robert Allen has been writing professionally since 2007. He has written for marketing firms, the University of Colorado's online learning department and the STP automotive blog. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder.