What's the Difference Between Intermodal and Transloading?

Learn intermodal shipping and transloading definitions & processes, compare intermodal vs transloading, and find out which shipping solution is best for your freight

MAIN Intermodal vs Transloading 2023

Both intermodal shipping and transloading allow products to move seamlessly between trucks and trains and back again so virtually any freight shipper can access the benefits of rail. But what’s the difference? Here’s a rundown.


Can you ship freight by rail if you don't have tracks? 

The answer is a resounding yes. 

If you're interested in the cost, volume, and environmental benefits of rail shipping but tracks aren't present at your origin or destination, you can still ship freight by rail. Two processes, intermodal shipping and transloading, allow for freight to be transferred seamlessly between trucks and trains so you can ship freight by truck for the first or last mile and use trains for the long haul portion of the trip.

Keep reading to learn:

  • The definition of intermodal shipping
  • How intermodal shipping works
  • What types of freight can ship in intermodal containers
  • The definition of transloading
  • How transloading works
  • What types of products can be transloaded
  • The difference between intermodal shipping and transloading
  • How transloading and intermodal shipping compare
  • A list of intermodal shipping benefits
  • A list of transloading benefits 

What Is Intermodal Shipping? How Does Intermodal Shipping Work?

Original | Intermodal

What is the definition of intermodal shipping? 
Intermodal shipping means moving freight by two or more modes of transportation. But when rail shippers talk about “intermodal,” they usually mean shipments that travel between trucks and trains in containers.

How does intermodal shipping work? What is the intermodal shipping process?

  • Products are loaded into an intermodal container.
  • The shipping container is placed on a truck chassis.
  • The truck transports the container to an intermodal ramp, which is usually a short distance away.
  • Once the shipping container reaches an intermodal ramp, the container is lifted off the truck chassis, then placed on a flatcar or well car to travel by train.
  • The container is then transferred back to a truck for final delivery.

What makes intermodal shipping different from transloading?
With intermodal shipping, products stay in the same container for the entire haul.

What types of freight can ship in intermodal containers?
Intermodal containers can carry a wide variety of goods, including:

  • Agricultural Products
  • Building, Construction and Manufacturing Materials
  • Consumer Goods
  • Food and Beverages
  • Plastics

What are the benefits of intermodal shipping?
The benefits of intermodal shipping include:

  • Cost effectiveness
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Available capacity
  • Sustainability compared to long-haul trucking
  • Consistent, reliable service

Intermodal shipping offers freight shippers a beneficial alternative to shipping by truck alone. Intermodal shipping gives companies access to rail even when their facility or their customer’s facility doesn’t have tracks at their door, allowing them to reap the benefits of rail without any capital investment.

How to learn more about intermodal shipping for freight:

Where Are Intermodal Ramps Located? What Is an Example of Intermodal Service? 

Intermodal facilities (also known as "intermodal ramps") are located across North America, which means companies that ship goods in shipping containers can use trains, trucks or ocean carriers to ship them worldwide. See a list of intermodal facilities here.

An example of how intermodal shipping makes cross-border shipping seamless is Falcon Premium. Canadian National, Union Pacific, and Grupo México worked together to create this direct intermodal service between points in Mexico and Canada through Eagle Pass and Chicago. This service will provide the fastest and most direct routing entirely by rail. 

What Is Transloading? How Does the Transloading Process Work?

Medium | Transload

What is the definition of transloading?
Transloading means to unload products from trucks and into rail cars or to unload freight from rail cars and load it into trucks. On average, one rail car can carry the same amount of freight as 3-4 trucks, so commodities are usually unloaded from (or loaded into, as the case may be) multiple trucks per rail car.

What is an example of transloading?
An example of transloading is when a forklift transfers palletized goods from a truck to a larger rail car. Another transloading example is a crane lifting heavy products like steel beams off a rail car and placing them on flatbed trucks.

How does transloading work? What are the different kinds of transloads and what is the transloading process like?

Three types of transloading exist: an origin transload, a destination transload, and a door-to-door transload. 

Origin Transload

  • Product is loaded onto trucks at the origin of the shipment (e.g., a manufacturing facility, refinery, warehouse, etc.).
  • Trucks transport the product to a transload facility.
  • The transload facility unloads the product from the trucks and into one or more rail cars.
  • A train hauls the product for the long haul to its final destination, which is rail served.

Destination Transload

  • Product is loaded into one or more rail cars at the origin of the shipment (e.g., a manufacturing facility, refinery, warehouse, etc.).
  • The train hauls the product for the majority of the trip to a transload facility.
  • The transload facility unloads the product from the rail car and onto trucks.
  • Trucks haul the product a short distance to the final destination(s).

Door-to-Door Transload

A door-to-door transload combines the above process, with transloading happening near the origin and the destination: truck to rail, rail to truck, truck to final destination.

Note: The product type determines how it is transferred between trucks and trains (e.g., pump, crane or forklift) and to which type of rail car (e.g., tank car, flat car or box car).

What makes transloading different from intermodal shipping? 
Transloading is very similar to intermodal shipping in that products are transferred between trucks and trains – except that with transloading, products are moved between conveyances rather than staying in the same container the whole way.

What types of products can be transloaded?

  • Agricultural Products
  • Beverages
  • Building Materials
  • Consumer Goods
  • Food
  • Liquids
  • Oversized Items
  • Small Items
  • Vehicles
  • Just About Everything Else

What are the benefits of transloading?

  • Reduce costs
  • Lower carbon footprint compared to shipping by truck alone
  • Flexible
  • Increases your market reach
  • Ship higher volumes of product while still spending less

When should a shipper consider transloading?
Bulk and liquid-bulk transloading is a great option if a shipper is:

  • New to rail shipping and looking for a way to get started before investing in a rail-served facility
  • Looking to consolidate material or product in a transload yard, warehouse, or tank for final mile distribution
  • Facilitating a project, where they need to surge product to a non-rail served location looking for a place to add-on services like packaging or trimming
  • Creating origin or destination rail capacity for a near-by location.

How to learn more about transloading:

Where Are Transload Facilities Located? What Is an Example of a Transload Provider?

Transload facilities are located across North America, giving shippers the ability to access rail shipping just about anywhere. 

An example of a transload provider is MHX, a fully integrated logistics and supply chain management company that connects shippers with first- and last-mile solutions. MHX is a leading transload service provider in California. The company provides shippers with increased access to transportation, trucking, transloading, warehousing, port and drayage services at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Stockton and the Inland Empire.   

Ready to Connect to Rail?

Intermodal shipping and transloading can give you access to the benefits of rail -- in fact, our friends at Loup Logistics specialize in doing just that. Answer a few questions and we'll get you connected.

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