The Evolution of Intermodal Containers

train tracks at night

Intermodal containers have evolved over time to improve speed and cost of shipping freight. As containers evolve, so do the modes of transportation that ship these containers to their destinations. Intermodal shipping providers have taken advantage of container enhancements to continue to provide customers with visibility and technology to retain quality and exceed expectations.

Since the Industrial Revolution, railroads have provided the world with materials to build the countries that we see today. In the 1800s, railroads drastically decreased shipping time and broadened opportunities for expansion1. Intermodal containers have also evolved over time, allowing for easy transition between different modes of transportation, especially between roads and rails.

There are different types of freight containers: standard, tank, open top, flat, and refrigerated containers are all used when shipping intermodal2. All of these containers have been manufactured to optimally carry different goods from liquids to large machinery to the standard pallet, all of which can be loaded onto a train to efficiently move freight.

Containerization has reduced handling time and costs associated with labor and packing2. In the past, a shipment would have to be unloaded from a ship and then loaded onto the next mode of transportation. Shipments no longer have to be unloaded and reloaded between different modes of transportation; instead the entire container transfers between the modes. On the rail lines, intermodal containers are double, even triple, stacked to increase capacity and to improve costs to those utilizing intermodal shipping. The amount of freight that can be managed in a single haul has made intermodal transportation competitive to other modes of transportation. For instance, some third-party logistics providers utilize pool distribution to combine possible less-than-truckload freight into one container then ship it via intermodal generating a more cost efficient solution.

Shippers may be reluctant to incorporate intermodal shipping into their operations due to speed, visibility, and security. However, many of these characteristics are dated myths. Although there are quicker ways to ship freight, intermodal can be more cost effective than the alternatives. Visibility and control of the freight is more guaranteed with intermodal since it endures fewer disruptions than other modes.

Technology innovations to containers has also made intermodal more attractive to shippers. Refrigerated technology within containers keep shipments at their ideal temperature and has made intermodal shipping a reliable method for delivering temperature-sensitive products. Perishables, frozen items, temperature-sensitive goods can all be shipped and retain temperature integrity throughout their haul. Technology also exists that allows shippers to monitor and control the temperature within the containers while in transit. Many containers also provide GPS tracking, giving shippers visibility to the location of their freight and the ability to better determine timelines and expectations.

Intermodal transportation has continued to provide capacity and savings for shippers who see the benefit of utilizing the rail. Container technology has improved to provide shippers with the information they need to sustain a successful operation.


  1. http://www.ushistory.org/us/25b.asp
  2. https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/index.html