What Is an Intermodal Container?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 January 2020
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An intermodal container is a type of freight container that can easily be transferred from one shipping method to the next without the need to unload the goods sealed within the device. Containers of this type can easily be attached to the bed of a short-or long-haul truck, secured to a platform for transport by rail, and can even be stacked and locked for use in transporting goods by way of waterways. The fact that the container can be loaded at a point of origin then used to transport the goods using a multiplicity of shipping methods is what makes the process intermodal in nature.

There are a number of popular names for the intermodal container. These range from "sea can" when the containers are stacked on a barge for transport to "freight hauler" when used to transport goods over roadways. While the name can vary based on the actual transportation methods used and the prevailing cultures in which the devices are used, the versatility of the containers is recognized with just about every type of shipment option.


One of the best ways to understand the value of an intermodal container is to consider a customer order that will require using more than one mode of shipping in order to reach the intended destination. The container may be secured onto a flatbed truck and driven to the point of origin. Once the goods are loaded and the container is sealed, the device travels over the road to a rail yard.

At the rail yard, the intermodal container is disengaged from the flatbed and loaded onto an open rail car platform. Once the container is locked into position, it is transported by rail to a seaside port. The container is then loaded onto a barge with other containers scheduled for shipping to the same general destination. Upon arrival at the destination seaport, the intermodal container is detached from the barge and may use a combination of rail and roadway transport to reach the buyer.

The benefit of using an intermodal container is that the goods often do not have to be loaded or unloaded into other shipping containers at any point along the way. This means there is less potential for damage to the goods during transport. In addition, the possibility of a portion of the goods being left behind at any point of exchange is minimized, increasing the chances of the entire order reaching the buyer without fail.


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