RFX Blog

The Evolution of Intermodal Logistics

May 31st, 2013

Intermodal Logistics

Intermodal shipping is an important part of today’s economy. Without the advances made by the pioneers of intermodal logistics, the singular method of shipping these nowadays would take a lot longer and be much more expensive. Produce, for example, would be nearly impossible to ship, and grocery store offerings would be much less bountiful as it is today.

What is Intermodal Shipping?

Whenever a unit of cargo is transferred between different forms of transportation (such as trucks, ships, or trains) within the same container, that kind of shipping is known as intermodal. For most of human history, cargo was packed and unpacked whenever the method of transport changed. For instance, a load of turnips would be taken out of the back of a cart, one wheelbarrow at a time, and would be loaded into a ship’s hold. By moving the box holding the entire load instead of the individual objects or small boxes, shipping was only made incrementally more efficient but it was a stepping stone to the current intermodal logistics system.

Loose Boxes

In the 1780s, intermodal shipping took the form of the “loose box”. These boxes were often seen in canal boats or drawn by horse carts. The large containers held objects that could not be damaged by being jostled during the trip, such as coal. When it came time for the large box of coal to change from one kind of transport to another, laborers would lift it by hand, or sometimes by using a complex pulley system. It wasn’t until around the beginning of the 1900s that covered loose boxes containing goods other than coal began to gain popularity. 

Freight Pallets

The next big advance in intermodal logistics came during World War II when the invention of the pallet and the forklift revolutionized the shipping industry. Now, a single man operating a machine could move a large amount of cargo in a matter of moments. One forklift operator could do the job of several strong men. This resulted in less staff for shipping companies, which allowed them to keep their overhead down. The machine also protected the workers from back injuries and muscle strains, meaning that a trained forklift driver was less likely to be out of work due to injury.

Intermodal Containers

The 1950s saw the beginning of intermodal logistics as we know it today. The forklift was a solid start, but it still couldn’t compensate for the varying amounts of space that each mode of transport had. For example, a single boatload might require several carts to take away. That ended with the standardized intermodal container. These containers had specific dimensions, which eased the transition from one mode of transport to another. Trucks, boats and trains all began to have standardized space allotments that sped up transfer time and later versions had further advancements like refrigeration.

Intermodal freight transport is the one of the cornerstones of our modern society, allowing the vital process of shipping to go as quickly and smoothly as possible. Economic growth, as well as the availability of goods in today’s market is a direct result of the leaps and bounds that have been made in the transportation industry and led to the intermodal system that is in place today.

Above Image Source: Flickr/steve gibson

Posted on May 31st, 2013 in Intermodal Logistics