The History of Intermodal Shipping


The History of Intermodal Shipping

If you have been around the transportation industry for any length of time, you have likely seen a lot of change. It’s intriguing to look back at the history of intermodal logistics and how the process has evolved. We’ll examine three aspects in particular – ramp operations, equipment, and technology.

Ramp Operations

Back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, if you were around, you’ll remember the “circus style” ramps.  Flat cars butted up to these ramps, allowing “hostler drivers” to drive onto the flat cars and pull the inbound trailers from the flat cars.  Of course, each stanchion had to be knocked down for each trailer so the truck could hook up and pull them down the ramp.

Moving forward to the intermodal shipping of today, the ramps now have straddle cranes, as well as side loaders that allow the operator to lift a trailer or container from the flat car.  A benefit of using these cranes is the speed of getting units on and off the rail cars.  One of the many goals that intermodal logistics providers have been trying to achieve for years is to make intermodal more competitive with over-the-road shipping in regards to transit time, so by speeding up operations at the ramps, rail shipments can be made available to customers quicker than in years past.


Stepping back again into the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the railroads moved trailers on flat cars with hitches.  Each flat car could carry two 45 foot trailers, so on a 6,000 foot train, the ramp could load up approximately 100 – 120 trailers.  The “ride” for the intermodal units was somewhat rough back then, due to the “slack” action of the drawbars between each flat car.  The drawbars had a cushioning device that acted like a huge shock absorber, but the “slack” action of the train could cause the loads to shift.  The trailer size also went through many changes – the 45 foot trailers soon became 48 foot trailers and then 53 foot trailers.

Fast forwarding to 2013, the rail industry has improved the carrying capacity of an intermodal train by moving containers in lieu of trailers. The containers allow the opportunity to stack one container on top of another, thus moving twice as many loads on a train as you could when moving trailers.

This transition meant many things had to change. The cranes at the intermodal ramps had to be equipped so they could top-lift the container, versus the bottom-lift that was used on the trailers. The flat cars had to be redesigned so the container on the bottom would sit closer to the rail, and this had to be done so the ultimate height of the two containers would be low enough so they could clear bridges. Another benefit of lowering the flat car closer to the rail was to lower the center of gravity for the two containers, thus providing a more stable ride. The container went through changes just as the trailer did – first, the 48 foot container was thought to be the final replacement for trailers, but the 53 foot container came along and is now the primary domestic box for moving freight intermodally.


Let’s take one more trip back to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  The technology used during this time period was limited, to say the least. Pencil and paper were used to check loads in and out of the ramps.  The records for the truck companies and drivers that moved the boxes were also primarily kept with pencil and paper.

When a rail shipment entered the system, quoting a current intermodal shipping customer, the load went into a “black hole”.  There wasn’t a good way to trace the shipments across the country.  The customers had no idea when their shipments would arrive, and it was very difficult for the draymen to plan their daily schedules because they didn’t have any idea what was coming. They would generally find out when the load arrived that it was then available for delivery.

Again, moving forward to 2013, there are very few pencils and paper used today.  In fact, most ramps use electronic handheld devices that are connected to a mainframe computer that allows the ramp operator to check containers in and out. Tracking and tracing has also improved – companies are now provided with literal minute-by-minute updates on where their shipments are, and they also receive estimated times of arrival of the trains to their destination. This also allows the ramp operators to assign parking lot locations to each container.

These three factors are just a small sampling of the many changes that have occurred in the intermodal logistics segment of the transportation Industry.  It’s impossible not to wonder – what’s next? Will the technology continue to change? Will the container sizes change again? Will the ramp operations change so that intermodal can become more and more like an OTR move in both quality of ride and transit time? Only time will tell.

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