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Intermodal Drayage: Explanation, Benefits, and More

Intermodal drayage combines multiple modes of transportation with short-haul trucking. Find out how intermodal drayage services can benefit your business.


Josh Kimble
December 9, 2021
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Intermodal drayage is an essential aspect of the shipping industry. Having the ability to transport goods using both long and short-haul shipping methods makes this service a critical part of keeping the supply chain moving.

Intermodal drayage combines multiple modes of transportation with short-haul trucking to move freight along the supply chain. This results in more reliable, efficient, and cost-effective transport. Once freight is shipped a long distance by rail, truck, sea, or air, it’s then transferred to a truck to be drayed to a nearby destination.

Our guide below outlines the specifics of what intermodal drayage is, the benefits of using it and how to find an intermodal drayage company that meets your shipping needs.

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What is Intermodal Drayage?

What is Intermodal Drayage?

Intermodal drayage refers to the process of transporting shipping containers or trailers from one mode of transportation to another over a short distance. To get a better understanding of how intermodal drayage works, we can break it down into two parts: 

  • Intermodal shipping
  • Drayage

Intermodal shipping refers to the process of transporting a shipping container using at least two different forms of transportation. That could mean truck to rail, ocean to truck, ocean to rail, or any other combination, sometimes involving air as well. In intermodal trucking, goods are loaded into a shipping container or trailer and aren’t touched again until final delivery. When the transfer occurs, the entire shipping container is moved between modes of transportation - not the goods themselves. 

Drayage is an essential specialty logistics service used to transport goods over short distances. Drayage is often just one part of a longer process, filling in the gaps of a supply chain by moving goods between ports, terminals, warehouses and retailers. While intermodal drayage uses multiple forms of transportation, the drayage part of the journey is most often done by truck.

Intermodal drayage begins when freight arrives at an intermodal point, like a port or railyard, and must then be shipped to its next destination using another mode of transportation. At that point, the freight is usually taken to a warehouse, another terminal, or a retailer for final delivery.

Depending on how many containers need to be moved and a number of factors, the containers will be divided up and placed on another vehicle for outbound transport. In intermodal drayage, this almost always means being moved from a railcar or ship to a truck for a short-haul trip to a nearby location. The short trip typically occurs within the same metropolitan area.

Why Choose Intermodal Drayage?

Rising gas prices, driver shortages and attempts to increase efficiency have all resulted in the rise of both intermodal and drayage services. While trucking companies are still an option for long-haul freight shipping, the sole dependence on trucks has diminished. Many companies are looking to become more reliable, cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

Intermodal drayage means moving freight along the supply chain using the most efficient means necessary. Logistics companies can combine multiple shipments after they come into transit hubs from trains and cargo ships. From here they can use container drayage to distribute them via strategic shipping methods to a number of nearby destinations.

There are a number of benefits that a shipper can take advantage of by using intermodal drayage. Not only is it effective to use multiple modes of transportation to ship goods long distances, but intermodal drayage also allows shippers to efficiently move goods out of congested areas to off-site holding centers, retailers, and other terminals.

Top U.S. Ports with Rail Access (2019)

PortContainer TerminalsOn-Dock Rail Access
Tacoma, WA127
Los Angeles, CA87
Long Beach, CA86
New York, NY & NJ66
Seattle, WA62


Benefits of Using Intermodal Drayage?

The ability to combine multiple forms of transportation with short-haul shipping methods has made intermodal drayage an essential part of the shipping and logistics industry. Many companies have started using this service to boost their efficiency, save on costs and benefit the environment.

  1. Operational Efficiency

Perhaps the number 1 benefit of using intermodal drayage is the ability that it gives shippers to improve their supply chain efficiency.

Ports and rail terminals are always busy and congested, particularly in 2021 with unprecedented levels of volume being shipped, paired with an ongoing container shortage. Intermodal drayage helps to address the issue by reducing driver detention, freeing up containers and clearing up port congestion.

When a shipping container comes into a terminal, it either needs to be unloaded or transported elsewhere as soon as possible. Not all terminals have their own storage facilities on-site, and even if they do, they quickly run out of available space. That means that inbound freight must either be shipped out immediately or, transferred to an off-site warehouse for storage.

Drayage movements are important to getting those containers to another site and to free up available containers for the next shipment. During intermodal drayage, a container will be taken off of the shipping vessel where one of two things will happen. 

  • The container will be drayed straight to its delivery point where the contents will be unloaded and the empty container returned. 
  • The container can be drayed to a warehouse or distribution center where it will either be stored or shipped for the next leg of its journey. 

Because drayage is often the shortest link in the supply chain, this can all be completed by one driver in a single shift. Drayage carriers make the same trip to and from the same intermodal terminal multiple times in one day. This helps to keep the supply chain moving and combat port congestion. 

  1. Cost Savings

As is the case in most industries, a shipper’s bottom line has the biggest impact in determining how freight is shipped and by what means. 

The fact of the matter is, it’s significantly cheaper to ship freight over long distances by rail or ship than by truck. More containers can fit onto a singular train or cargo ship than they can on a semi-truck, and they can be moved over the same distance faster using less fuel. All of these factors drive down transport costs.

However, being able to pair intermodal shipments with the ability to truck freight over short distances helps reduce costs even further. It’s often prohibitively expensive, if not impossible, to ship freight to many destinations using any method other than a truck. Due to the network of roads and infrastructure around the country, trucks can go where most trains and ships can’t. Additionally, hiring a drayage service cuts down on expensive container and chassis rentals and can help reduce demurrage and detention fees.

  1. Environmental Impacts

More and more, companies are looking to make changes that have a positive impact on the environment. Just as shipping on a rail line means lower fuel costs, it also means fewer carbon emissions. 

Train cars and cargo ships are able to hold significantly more shipping containers, producing a fraction of the carbon emissions that trucks would be shipping the same cargo over the same distance. Once at an intermodal point, freight only needs to be drayed a short distance to its destination. By getting the majority of travel out of the way using more environmentally friendly modes of transportation, intermodal drayage helps to provide a green alternative for the environmentally conscious shipper.

Find Your Intermodal Drayage Solutions with USA Truckload Shipping

Choosing the right intermodal drayage company doesn’t have to be complicated. With USA Truckload Shipping, powered by R+L Global Logistics, you can get access to all of the services offered by a top 3PL partner. Combined with high-quality customer service only a family-owned company can provide, the choice is easy.

Our vast network of carriers and rail providers, as well as our access to terminals near major transportation hubs, make USA Truckload Shipping the perfect solution to your intermodal drayage needs. Whether you need a drayage service nearby a transit facility or one that can work with you 24/7, we can help.

In addition to intermodal freight and supporting services, we can provide all the domestic transportation solutions your business needs to keep the supply chain moving. Some of the other services provided by USA Truckload Shipping include:

  • Truckload freight shipping
  • Refrigerated shipping
  • Expedited freight shipping
  • White-glove delivery
  • Hazmat carriers
  • Flatbed shipping
  • Heavy haul trucking

Get a hassle-free drayage quote and find out how USA Truckload Shipping, powered by R+L Global Logistics, can help you find your intermodal drayage solutions today.

Ready to Get Your Containers Out of the Port?

We've got trucks fully equipped and ready to haul your containers out of any port. Request a drayage quote today and get your freight moving.

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