Intermodal Transport

What is Intermodal Freight Transport?

Intermodal freight transport means the transport of goods in one loading unit, using two or more modes of transport successively without handling the goods themselves.

The most widely used loading units are containers, swap bodies and semi-trailers. The transport modes are railway, deep sea ship, short sea ship, barge, roll-on roll off ferry and heavy goods vehicle (HGV).

In practice, intermodal transport means that a loading unit is transported by HGV from its origin to a transfer terminal (inland or sea port, or to a freight railway terminal) where it is changed to another transport mode.

Containers can be transported by all of the modes mentioned above. Swap bodies and semi-trailers can be transported by rail, road and ro-ro-ferry. There are different ways for semi-trailers to change onto rail. The most common method is to lift the semi-trailer by crane onto a railway waggon as you would do with a container. Alternatively, the HGV driver drives the vehicle onto the railway waggon and travels with it to the destination.

Each mode of transport has its specific advantages e.g. capacity, safety and security, flexibility, energy consumption, environmental impact. Intermodal transport potentially allows each mode to be used to build a transport chain which overall is more efficient, more cost effective and more sustainable than the single use of each mode.

The existing congestion on the roads and the ever increasing demand for transport has created the need to develop alternative transport systems. Since the extension of the current infrastructure is limited by the availability of land and investment, intermodal transport schemes aim to achieve a more efficient use of the existing infrastructure in order to absorb the greater transport capacity required.

Trains and ships can transport large volumes over long distances at relatively low cost: the longer the distance to be covered and the bigger the volume, the more suitable the cargo for intermodal transport. Consequently, intermodal transport has its main potential in long distance transport.

Intermodal transport is generally only economically viable for longer distances due to the fact that the transport unit has to be switched more than once. The extra cost of coordination and transshipment is more than compensated by the lower cost per km of ship or rail transport over a long distance compared to road transport.