Intermodal equipment is perhaps the most versatile of all rail equipment. That’s because intermodal containers can go just about anywhere: they can travel across North America on trains or on trucks. They can be loaded onto cargo ships for travel overseas. Or, they can move between those three modes, often without unloading or reloading the cargo. In fact, it’s called “intermodal equipment” because it can move between two or more modes of transportation.
But the way intermodal containers travel isn’t the only thing that makes them versatile. Intermodal containers can also carry just about anything, from clothing to electronics to grain, making intermodal shipping a great option for a wide variety of shippers.
What Is Intermodal Equipment Used For?
Intermodal containers can carry a wide variety of goods, including:
Food and Beverages
- Frozen pork
- Bottled beer
- Cans of hard seltzer
- Cocktail mix (both dry and liquid)
- Coffee beans
- Grain products
- Christmas trees
Building, Construction and Manufacturing Materials
- Rolled rubber
- Quartz slabs
- Spooled chains
What Are the Different Types of Intermodal Equipment?
- Intermodal Containers
Intermodal containers are large, rectangular boxes that look a lot like truck trailers, except they don’t have wheels. Containers can be transferred between ships, trains and trucks without unloading or reloading the cargo. When they travel by rail, they are loaded onto well cars. When they travel by truck, they are loaded on a chassis. Containers can range in length from 20' to 53' and can be dry or refrigerated. Containers can be stacked on top of each other for efficient storage or stacked one on top of another during rail transport.
- Intermodal Tanks
Intermodal tanks are 20-foot or 40-foot cylindrical tanks that can be filled with liquid goods such as fruit juices, liquors, solvents and other chemicals. ISO tanks, as they are commonly referred to, can be used to move freight domestically (between U.S. cities) as well as internationally, moving on ships just like intermodal containers. IOS tanks can also can be transferred between ships, trains and trucks without unloading or reloading the cargo. When they travel by rail, they are loaded onto well cars. When they travel by truck, they are loaded on a chassis. ISO tanks can be stacked on top of each other for efficient storage or stacked one on top of another during rail transport, depending on the commodity.
Trailers are the part of an over-the-road truck that holds freight. Trailers have their own rear wheels and hook up to a truck cab to travel on roadways. To move by rail, trailers are loaded onto flatcars. Like containers, trailers can be transferred between trucks and rail cars. However, because they have wheels, they cannot be stacked.
A chassis is the frame underneath a truck to which other truck components are mounted. A truck chassis has its own tires, allowing containers to be mounted on them for over-the-road travel. Chassis can come in a variety of sizes to fit different sized containers.
What Are the Different Kinds of Containers?
Containers generally fall into two categories: domestic and international.
- International containers
International containers are usually 20- or 40-feet in length. These containers are used for international/overseas intermodal shipments. They are transferred between cargo ships, trucks and trains, with the product staying in the same container for the entirety of the trip.
- Domestic containers
Domestic containers are typically 53 feet in length and can either be dry or refrigerated and are used for domestic intermodal shipments. Although shipments that travel in domestic containers are bound for inland (i.e., “domestic”) destinations, the products that travel in them may still arrive from overseas. In this instance, products arrive at a port on cargo ships in 20- or 40-foot international containers. Then, they are transferred to 53-foot domestic containers at a cross dock facility, transload facility or distribution center. From there, products travel to their final inland destination.
What Does Intermodal Equipment Look Like?
- Intermodal containers look like large, rectangular boxes. In fact, they are often referred to as “boxes.” Intermodal containers have doors at one end that can be sealed and locked. They are made of very strong corrugated steel panels that keep the products inside safe from the environment and damage. Containers are always 8-feet wide, but their length and height varies by container type. Container length can range from 20 to 53 feet and container height can range from 8 feet to 10 feet 6 inches.
- Trailers look similar to containers but have wheels attached to the back. They look like the back of a semi-truck that has been unattached from the cab.
- A chassis is a metal structure with rubber wheels attached.
What Are Other Names for Intermodal Containers?
Other names for intermodal containers include:
- Cargo container
- Freight container
- ISO container
- Shipping container
- Sea container
- Ocean container
- Sea van
- Conex box
- Container van
- Sea can
- C can
How Is Intermodal Equipment Loaded and Unloaded?
Intermodal containers and trailers are loaded and unloaded through double doors at the back end of the container or trailer. The way products are loaded or unloaded depends on the product. For instance, if products are palletized, they would be loaded or unloaded by a forklift.
Intermodal containers themselves are moved between transportation modes in a number ways, including:
- Straddle carriers
- Reach stackers
- Swap bodies
- Tilt deck trucks
- Hook trucks
Why Do Shippers Use Intermodal?
Because intermodal shipping allows shippers to use more than one mode of transportation, it allows them to take advantage of the benefits of each mode. For instance, rail is typically the most economical and environmentally responsible way to ship goods long distances. Trucks are flexible and make it such that shippers don’t have to have railroad tracks at the origin or destination to ship by train. When shippers use intermodal, they can ship by train for the long haul and use trucks for first- and last-mile delivery and get the benefits of both rail and truck.
Shippers also use intermodal shipping for the available capacity to move their products. In fact, some railroads have programs that allow shippers to “reserve” capacity. For instance, Union Pacific’s Mutual Commitment Program provides shippers with year-round committed capacity and consistent pricing. With more than 80,000 containers — the largest dedicated container fleet for domestic customers — Union Pacific and our rail partners can provide the capacity shippers need for domestic shipments.
Intermodal Equipment Fun Facts
- In 2012, there were about 20.5 million intermodal containers in the world.
- When trailers ride on flat cars, rail fans call them “piggybacks.”
- When trucks haul containers, it’s referred to as “drayage.”
- When you see a green intermodal container with EMP on the side, that’s part of Union Pacific’s interline container service with Norfolk Southern.
- When you see a blue intermodal container with UMAX on the side, that’s part of Union Pacific’s interline container service with CSX.
Want to learn more about other types of rail car equipment, including auto racks, boxcars, flatcars, hoppers and gondolas? Check out our rail car type guide.
- How to Keep Intermodal Shipments Safe
- Rail Car Types Defined
- Intermodal vs. Transloading
- What Is Intermodal Shipping...and Why Should Shippers Care?
- Transportation Modes Revealed: A Comprehensive Look
- The Art of Loading a Rail Car
- What Is a Refrigerated Boxcar — and How Do They Keep Shipments Cold?
- Quiz: Can Your Product Ship by Rail?