Serving as an important piece of a logistical puzzle, Intermodal Trucking is part of a supply chain that ensures products are delivered right where you need them to be. Whether it’s being shipped across the country or across the world, trucking is a common answer to intermodal shipping needs.

But why?

To understand that question and exactly what intermodal trucking entails, it’s crucial to have a grasp of what intermodal shipping is first. After all, trucks can take on goods that come from ships, trains, or even planes.

Luckily, this article will address what intermodal shipping is and how intermodal trucking plays a vital role in the process.

What is Intermodal Shipping?

Intermodal Shipping is shipping than involves multiple forms of transportation, typically on a global scale. For instance, here are the most common types of transportation used for intermodal shipping:

  • Rail

  • Truck

  • Sea

  • Air

Typically, two or more of these transportation methods will be used in tandem to get from one destination to another. A good example of intermodal shipping would be a Chinese cargo ship arriving in Los Angeles that will then have its cargo loaded onto semi-trucks heading to different cities around the U.S.

With that in mind, it’s clear to see why intermodal trucking is so vital for this supply chain, especially in a large country like the U.S.

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How Intermodal Trucking Works

As mentioned, intermodal trucking services as a valuable piece of a much larger supply chain. Commonly, trucks are employed to ship cargo over short distances, from one crucial location to the next.

An example of this would be Drayage, or shipping goods a short distance via ground freight. Trucks are often used because they serve as an inexpensive and easy way to move goods to a specific, nearby location.

Example of Drayage:

Cargo arrives at a port in Miami, Florida, but needs to be transported to a railyard in Orlando. The cheapest and easiest way to bridge that supply chain gap is through intermodal trucking, as a truck can easily drive the cargo north.

However, not all intermodal trucking happens over short distances. Truck drivers may drive up to 4,000 miles a week or 600 miles per day to ship freight from one location to the next. Vast distances like this are often referred to as long-haul trucking and are also commonly a crucial part of intermodal shipping.

Why Use Intermodal Trucking?

Despite the efficiency offered by trains or planes, there are many reasons why intermodal trucking would be preferred. In general, intermodal trucking is more flexible than rail and far cheaper than flight. For example:

  • Access. Trains and air transportation have limited access to different locations, whereas trucks can easily travel to almost any location in the U.S.

    For instance, if something needs to be shipped to a small town north of Minneapolis, it doesn’t make sense to rely on a train that stops in the city, as opposed to a truck that can travel directly to the small town.

  • Cost. Especially when compared to air transportation, intermodal trucking can save companies a lot of money. Air transportation can cost up to 5X more than trucking.

  • Flexibility. Intermodal trucking also typically offers more flexible scheduling than rail or air transportation. Truckers can leave when necessary and easily meet deadlines.

  • Versatility. The shipping containers used for intermodal trucking are often reusable and easy to repurpose and relocate via truck.

  • Unity. More than any other mode of transportation, trucking can easily fit into any supply line puzzle. For example, whether a ship is offloading in a port or a rail line ends before reaching the intended destination, trucks can easily bridge the gaps and ship cargo where it needs to go.

Understanding Intermodal Terminals

Intermodal terminals are crucial supply chain centers where goods can be moved from one mode of transportation to another as efficiently as possible. Here are the most common examples:

  • Port Terminals. Some of the largest terminals by traffic and size in the world, port terminals take in goods from cargo ships and prepare them for ground transport. Often, warehouses, workers, and cranes are used to transfer sea cargo onto trucks.

  • Rail Terminals. The largest port terminals in the world also tend to have rail terminals interwoven with facilities. These terminals serve as the start of a high-speed ground transportation network. However, when rail terminals are separate from port terminals, trucks are needed to transport goods from one terminal to the other.

  • Distribution Terminals. Serving as the main hubs of the intermodal trucking industry, distribution terminals include transloading facilities, cross-docking, and warehousing accommodations, where goods are loaded, sorted, and prepared to travel to their final destination.

Understanding Intermodal Shipping Containers

The containers used for intermodal shipping and trucking (often ISOs) are an important part of what makes the supply chain system work. An efficient container can help cut supply chain costs, improve efficiency and improve a trucker’s ability to meet deadlines.

These containers are made from aluminum or steel. Such materials provide flexibility without sacrificing durability. Overall, the most common types of standard ISO containers are 40ft dry containers, as well as 20ft dry containers. However, 40ft containers are by far the most prevalent, approximating roughly 70% of worldwide container freight moves.

But there are pros and cons to both sizes. A 40ft container can hold a whopping 2,400 cubic feet or approximately 22 tons of cargo. Subsequently, 20ft containers hold around half that size but are also up to 20% cheaper than their larger counterparts.

Of course, 20ft and 40ft standard ISOs aren’t the only shipping containers used for intermodal shipping. After all, trucks are required to carry a wide variety of cargo that can have very specific needs. Here are some other popular shipping containers used today:

  • Open-Top Container. These containers are similar in shape and size to standard containers, the one difference being the open top. This allows oversized cargo to fit more easily. (e.g., timber, machinery, sand, etc.). Typically, the cargo will be covered with a tarp for protection and safety purposes.

  • Flat Container. Similar to open-top containers, these containers go even further by having no walls or roof. Overall, they’re durable enough to hold heavy, oversize cargo that can endure outdoor conditions.

  • Tank Container. Vital for shipping liquids or gasses, tank containers keep this type of cargo safe and secure. The standard size for tank containers is 20ft.

  • Refrigerated Container. No one wants fresh beef baking away in the desert sun while it ships from Texas to California. Luckily, refrigerated containers are heavily insulated to carry cargo near or under the freezing point.

Intermodal Drivers

Intermodal shipping wouldn’t be possible without qualified and capable truck drivers. These drives work locally or regionally to move cargo as a part of a supply chain.

Given the size of the average containers used in intermodal shipping, Intermodal Drivers are required to have a Class A (CDL) license before they’re able to start working. However, once they do acquire this license, they’ll gain access to:

  • Working with the latest trucks and equipment.

  • A steady and reliable source of work.

  • Plenty of time to spend at home and in their local area.

  • An average trucking salary of $59,000 ($28.69 per hour) and standard truck-driver benefits.

How to Earn your CDL License

If you’re interested in becoming an intermodal driver but have yet to acquire your CDL license, doing so is your first step to achieving that new job. Here are some steps you can take to obtain one:

  1. Pass the Initial Requirements. Most states require you to be at least 18 years or older to earn a CDL, and some companies may require you to be at least 21. Ensure that you research this before you start the process.

  2. Get a CLP. Find a certified truck driving school so you can acquire your CLP. This license will allow you to practice driving semi-trucks.

  3. Attend a CDL Program. Often available at community colleges, CDL programs are typically six weeks long and consist of classroom instruction, followed by behind-the-wheel training. After you attend the program and pass the knowledge exam and skills test, you’ll be ready for the next step.

  4. Provide Documentation to the State. To obtain your official CDL, you’ll need to provide a valid non-commercial driver’s license, your social security card/number, your birth certificate and/or passport, and the results of your knowledge test.

  5. Pass a Background Check. Finally, once you pass a background check and any additional requirements, you’ll have earned your CDL license.

Again, keep in mind that requirements may differ from company to company, meaning that you should always do your research and be prepared for anything.

Companies Hiring Intermodal Drivers

Intermodal trucking is an important line of work all across the U.S., but there are areas more conducive to your career than others. The most prominent intermodal shipping hubs in the U.S. include: Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Atlanta, New Jersey, and Memphis. However, the top five biggest intermodal trucking companies include:

  1. JB Hunt. Lowell, Arkansas

  2. Hub Group. Oak Brook, Illinois

  3. XPO. Greenwich, Connecticut

  4. Schneider. Green Bay, Wisconsin

  5. Knight-Swift. Phoenix, Arizona

Overall, if your want to find out more about how to work as an intermodal truck driver, here is some useful information about the best states to work.

Cons of Intermodal Trucking

While there are many benefits that come with intermodal trucking, no mode of transportation is perfect. Knowing that, here is a list of some of intermodal trucking’s biggest drawbacks:

  • Increases wait time for deliveries.

  • Complications with loading and transporting cargo in and out of yards.

  • Lack of simple drop-and-hooks.

  • Registration with the FMCSA and Truck Driver licensing.

  • Managing paperwork, billing, and document scans.

Overall, while companies can face big hassles with picking up and loading containers at rail yards and warehouses and then dealing with the paperwork that follows, the cost-effectiveness of intermodal trucking is usually worth it.

Intermodal Trucking FAQ

  1. What is an intermodal in trucking?

    An intermodal in trucking refers to moving freight by two or more modes of transportation. That can entail transferring cargo from a ship to a truck, from a truck to a rail line, or even all three. Essentially, any shipping that requires two or more modes of transportation would be considered intermodal.

  2. Is intermodal trucking profitable?

    Intermodal trucking can be profitable, but not always. Intermodal trucking typically covers shorter distances than other forms of truck transportation, meaning that gas prices are reduced.

    Further, trucking is often the cheapest and most efficient way for companies to get goods to railyards or more rural locations. Overall, the average gross profit margin for intermodal trucking as of 2021 is 13.8%.

    However, intermodal trucking can stop being profitable when the cost of maintaining a truck exceeds profit. After all, trucks develop wear and tear from the road over time, which can significantly increase operating costs.

  3. Is intermodal cheaper than truckload?

    Yes, intermodal is usually cheaper than truckload. Given that truckload shipping (OTR) is the term used for trucks traveling the full distance to a destination, it’s easy to see why it would be more expensive. When trucks serve as the full supply chain and not simply a piece of the puzzle, here are some of the costs that go up due to traveling longer distances:

    • Higher fuel costs

    • Increased wear and tear on the truck

    • More expensive drivers

    • More tolls paid

  4. Who is the largest intermodal carrier?

    The largest U.S. intermodal carrier is J.B. Hunt Intermodal. J.B Hunt operates over 100,000 trailers and containers, and as of 2021, the company’s revenue was $12.16 billion, which was a 26.27% increase from 2020. Overall, the company has seen steady growth since 2018.

    Other large intermodal carriers in the U.S. include: Hub Group ($4.2 billion), XPO ($12.8 billion), and Knight-Swift ($6 billion).


Intermodal trucking is a crucial part of many U.S. supply chains, as it is a cheap, flexible, and cost-effective way of moving goods from one terminal to the next.

When done right, intermodal trucking can strengthen a supply chain by reducing wear and tear on a truck, improving deadlines, and providing workers with a steady source of work. Combined, all of these factors can make moving cargo from ports to rail yards to doorsteps much easier.

By - Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job.

His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.