Intermodal vs Multimodal Transport Explained

In the freight forwarding industry, there is usually a misconception that intermodal shipping and multimodal shipping is the same and can be used interchangeably. This is not entirely wrong since they are both used to pertain to moving cargo using multiple types of vehicles. Although the two have a lot in common, internally, there are small differences that companies might want to be aware of if given the option to choose between the two.

Intermodal Transportation

Intermodal transportation is the movement of cargo using two or more modes of transportation (rail, truck, air, and/or ocean). The main difference with multimodal transportation is that each type of transportation requires the shipper to sign a different B/L or Bill of Lading for each part of the shipment process.

Going with Intermodal transportation means that you, the shipper, can choose whichever carrier you want for each level of transportation. This has multiple advantages, for example, the shipper can leverage the benefits of having a choice and choose the carrier with the lowest rates. Having multiple contracts also allows the shipment to be stopped at any transit stage without any repercussions. Intermodal increases your flexibility throughout the transportation process. Giving you more options than multimodal transportation.

Intermodal has many advantages but with the cost of having to deal with more overhead. Having more paperwork means there are more contracts to keep track of. Aside from the paperworks, the shipper is also in charge of coordination and communication of statuses and delays in between different carriers.

If you’re not sure what the benefit of intermodal shipping is, we’ve discussed it in more detail in our previous blog post.

Multimodal Transportation

Multimodal transportation, at first glance, would look no different from intermodal transportation. The cargo is also used through two or more transportation methods. The difference is that with multimodal transportation, there is only one Bill of Lading. This means that only one carrier is responsible for your cargo be it transported through air, land, or sea. This is usually the preferred choice for shippers as they don’t have to shoulder the responsibility for the shipping process and are usually more time-efficient.

Multimodal transportation takes the weight off of the shipper and lets the carrier do all the heavy lifting. This means that the shipment is also usually easier for the shipper to track since the shipper only has to contact one carrier all throughout the shipping process. When shipping to remote locations, inexperience might come into play and having one specialized carrier in this case is very helpful.

Is intermodal or multimodal better for you?

To sum it up, both intermodal transportation and multimodal transportation each have their own advantages. The one thing that sets them apart and dictates the whole differentiation process is the number of contracts that the shipper needs to sign. Below, we have illustrated a short table to be able to summarize the key differences between intermodal and multimodal transportation

Intermodal TransportationMultimodal Transportation
Multiple Bills-of-LadingSingle Bill-of-Lading
Gives more flexibility and control as the rate for every leg of the shipment can be negotiated separately with different carriers. The rate of the whole shipping process is set and fixed by the main carrier even though other carriers are involved in the process.
Shipper takes responsibility for the shipment.Carrier takes responsibility for the shipment.
Shippers reduce their carbon footprint by choosing environmentally friendly carriers.Easy access to remote parts of the world.
Uses multiple different modes of transportation.Uses multiple different modes of transportation.

These general guidelines should be able to help you decide between intermodal and multimodal transportation. If you are still unsure about which one to go with, give us a call and let us know where we can help. SFI is fully equipped to with all your shipping needs.