Multimodal Versus Intermodal Shipping

Intermodal Volume

There are multiple ways of shipping freight internationally. Some shippers are adamant that dedicated carrier movement via intermodal is the only way to go. Yet, others swear by multimodal shipping as the best way to move freight through the international chain. So, which is truly better? Intermodal or multimodal? 

Well, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both shipping modes offer a variety of benefits to each type of shipper. And they deliver these benefits in different ways. Ultimately, it all depends on what you are trying to accomplish, your budget, and the timeline.

When we break it all down, for us, it is hard to pick a favorite. They each operate in completely different ways, yet both of them excel at what they do.

Both freight movements involve using multiple modes of transportation, including trucking, ocean, railway, or air freight. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

The multimodal transportation industry has several layers, benefits, and a few hurdles that 3PL’s can help their clients navigate. In the information below, we’ll define Multimodal Transport and explain why you can trust an experienced third-party logistics company to help.

So, let’s take a look at what each of these modes has to offer. The more you know about each and exactly how they vary from one another, the better equipped you are to determine which one is best for your specific international shipping needs.


What is Intermodal Shipping?  

The intermodal shipping platform involves the collaboration of multiple modes of transportation. It makes use of a single container that is moved throughout from one type of carrier to the next.

Essentially, the intermodal process begins when the shipper packs a standard 48-foot container full of products. The commodities inside the container will never be transferred to another container. It stays inside this single container until it reaches the destination. This type of transport is a nice option for freight that might be sensitive or prone to damage if frequently moved.

Once packed, the container will be loaded to trucks (for FTL movement), first. From there, they are transferred to cargo ships, railway carriers, or air cargo freight to complete the trip.

On the whole, intermodal transportation is slightly less expensive than multimodal but also involves negotiating individual contracts with each carrier you work with (based on the mode of movement). So, there is indeed a bit of a trade-off.


What is Multimodal Shipping? 

Multimodal is also called combined transport. It earns this name as it combines more than one mode of transportation to move an individual shipment.

Unlike intermodal, with multimodal shipping, the shipper works with and establishes a contract with a single carrier (also called a multimodal transport operator *MTO for short). The MTO will rely on several independent contractors or sub-contracted carriers to move the freight, but the shipper will only deal with the MTO.

With multimodal shipping, the freight may be removed from containers and loaded onto carriers that are outfitted for a completely different type of load.

While this mode is more expensive than intermodal, you don’t have the hassle of dealing with multiple partners. If your freight is not sensitive or susceptible to damage and your budget allows, multimodal is the way to go.


Is Intermodal or Multimodal Best for International Shipping?

So, now you know how each of these modes works at their most basic level. Time to dig in and explore the benefits they each offer!


Benefits of Multimodal for International Shipping

With a multimodal movement, the communication between shipper and agent is simplified. The only person the shipper will deal with directly is the MTO.

The contract with the MTO protects the freight ‘door-to-door’ or port-to-door, meaning that there is no lapse in coverage.

International shipments tend to be complicated when there are multiple parties involved. For shippers who prefer simplification or can’t afford transfer-related delays – the multimodal transportation option is likely best.


Benefits of Intermodal for International Shipping

As we explained above, an intermodal movement involves using multiple independent carriers, but the cargo is secured in a container.

The benefit of this mode is that freight is secured in a dedicated container. This helps to protect the freight, which is quite beneficial during ocean-freight movement.

Another benefit of intermodal is the flexibility to shop around and pick the carriers that you prefer for each mode.

For example, if you like the freedom to shop and compare pricing, service records, and damage rates, then intermodal shipping is best for you. If you want to avoid this hassle, then working with an MTO is the right choice.


What are the Differences Between Multimodal and Intermodal Transport?

While they sound similar, there are subtle differences between multimodal and intermodal. So what makes one more beneficial than the other?

Intermodal freight transport involves the transportation of products or commodities in an intermodal container using several modes of transportation. Essentially, the freight is packed inside of a cargo container (or specific vehicle) and does not get moved during transport. The container itself will be offloaded from a truck, train, ship, or air freight, but the products themselves remain ‘secure’.

Intermodal transport produces less cargo handling which reduces loss and damage, improves security, and permits quicker and more efficient movement of freight. Intermodal transport also tends to be less costly than multimodal transport.

Based on the descriptions above, it’s rather obvious that the major difference between multimodal and intermodal transport is the movement of the product itself. However, there are some additional differences that all shippers should be aware of.

During a multimodal shipment, the shipper will create a single contract of carriage. This contract will protect the freight during door-to-door, port-to-door, or door-to-port delivery. Essentially – it’s a single carrier for a single journey from the point of origin to destination. The benefit of this type of movement is that the shipper can simplify the communication process by working with an individual carrier or agent who will ensure their products are shipped safely and efficiently. They will also receive clear communication with shipping updates, tracking notifications, and more.

The intermodal shipment on the other hand might involve one container, but they’ll have to create multiple contracts with individual carriers. For example, if a manufacturing company is shipping their products from a US location to a customer in Japan, they will likely require truck movement and ocean shipping services. This will generally require two different carriers – which will result in two specific contracts. While the container will be transferred, an intermodal shipment can create paperwork control issues – since there are multiple contracts in place. However, a significant benefit to this mode of shipment is that the shipper has the flexibility to choose their carriers for each leg of the shipment.

In the end, each shipper will need to determine which method of transportation is best suited for each individual movement. The great news is that a professional 3PL can help you determine which mode is best – and actually manage all aspects of your freight movement. 

Intermodal or Multimodal Shipping; Which One Wins?

As you can see, both intermodal and multimodal offer shippers different options to consider if they are moving products from or to international ports.

Both movement types are complex and can cause a lot of frustration to shippers who are not familiar with the inner workings of intermodal or multimodal shipping.

One way to reduce the frustration and ensure your international shipments are moved efficiently is by working with a third-party logistics provider.

3PL’s specialize in multiple modes of transportation, including the two we’ve mentioned in this article. They understand the ins-and-outs of each, realize the benefits and negative attributes of each, and will pick one that is best for each client they serve.


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