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Intermodal vs Multimodal: How to Decide Between the Two

You're not tied to shipping freight only by truck. If your cargo is headed for longer distances, you might find that using a combination of truck, train, boat or plane to move your shipment from point A to B is faster, more economical and better for the environment.

Let's say you have a shipment traveling from Texas to Michigan. You might use a train to cross much of the land and a boat to cross Lake Michigan. And you'll need a truck to get your freight from origin loading dock to train and boat to destination loading dock.

This type of shipping – combining two or more modes for a single delivery – is called either intermodal or multimodal. The difference between the two terms depends on how the shipments are managed. Knowing how they both work and the benefits and drawbacks of each can help you choose which one is best for your specific freight shipping needs.

What is intermodal freight shipping?

In intermodal freight shipping, you select a mode, and associated carrier, for each part of the journey. You'll arrange the timing for pickup and delivery, create multiple bills of lading, monitor the shipments through each carrier's tracking system, and collect invoices so you can make separate payments to each.

Benefits of intermodal transportation

Since you choose the carriers for each part of the shipment's journey, you have better control of the pricing and timing. If your shipments are recurring, you might have negotiating power and can count on cost savings and predictable pricing.

Drawbacks to intermodal shipping

Since you're working with multiple carriers, you'll have a separate bill of lading (BOL) from each one. Each carrier will have their own (BOL), scheduling procedures, insurance requirements and so on. You'll be spending a good amount of time managing your shipment across all modes.

What is multimodal freight shipping?

In multimodal shipping, you'll also use different carriers and a combination of modes to move your freight. The difference is that the entire journey – no matter how many modes or carriers – is coordinated by a single provider. That means a single bill of lading is used for the entire transaction.

Benefits of multimodal transportation

Working with one provider and a single BOL offers greater efficiencies and higher productivity than you get in an intermodal transaction. With multimodal transport, the provider lines up each mode for the different parts of the journey, schedules the pickups, oversees the transfers, monitors the shipment tracking, and handles the invoice and payment. Shipment delays would be handled by one person without getting multiple carriers involved. And communicating with a single provider beats having to coordinate conversations and information among multiple carriers.

Drawbacks to multimodal shipping

You're typically bound by the overall cost of the entire transaction and have less opportunity to negotiate pricing with individual modes. Plus, each mode is governed by different regulations and has different complications, which can make it difficult for a single provider to coordinate a cooperative agreement.

Third-party logistics companies can help coordinate your freight shipping

The idea of combining shipping modes to save time and money could be the answer for your freight. But the coordination that goes with it can take time away from the rest of your business.

That's where Worldwide Express can help. As a top 10 freight brokerage company and leading third-party logistics (3PL) provider in the nation, we can connect you to carriers that provide multiple shipping modes and can help organize the transaction for you.

Get expert advice on using intermodal vs multimodal transportation

Request a freight consultation  to learn whether intermodal or multimodal shipping is right for you. We'll learn your business, answer your questions and create solutions to handle your needs.

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