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What is intermodal trucking? How does it differ from over-the-road? DrayNow will go over the key differences between intermodal and over-the-road trucking.

Aside from both types of trucking needing a tractor unit, intermodal trucking and over-the-road trucking could not be any different. For starters, over-the-road transportation typically involves a long-distance haul that brings cargo from one warehouse to another. The truck is the only form of transport involved with over-the-road. On the other hand, intermodal trucking deals with the first and last mile of freight that has been shipped by rail. Intermodal truck drivers will either bring freight to the rail to get shipped or they will be picking up the container to get delivered. And with each of these forms of trucking, there are differences that will continue to pop up along the way.

Knowing when to start: Intermodal vs. Over-the-road

First things first: every trucking trip has an appointment time for when the freight needs to be picked up and delivered. This appointment time is for the warehouse and not the rail, so carriers should add extra time to get to the rail yard first.

How do you know if your intermodal container is available at the rail yard? The great thing about hauling intermodal loads is that the major railroads provide resources to check the grounding status of the container – if the drayage container is grounded, it’s ready to be picked up. Not only can these apps alert you when a container is ready, but they can also help at checking in at the rail yard, and finding empty containers to get loaded at the warehouse.

Like with intermodal, over-the-road trips have strict appointment times or open appointment windows, but it’s uncertain as to whether the freight will be ready when you arrive to the warehouse. The carrier may receive communications from the warehouse or another party if there’s a delay, but there’s no centralized method like the rail apps to check for status updates.

Starting the haul: Intermodal vs. Over-the-road

To start the intermodal trucking trip, a carrier would need to check in at the rail yard to pick up a container. Before checking in at the rail, a truck driver will need to make sure that they are registered for that particular rail yard. They will then use this container to go to and from the warehouse, whether the trip involves picking up freight from the rail and delivering it or picking up an empty container to get loaded at a warehouse. There are also drop & hook loads where the carrier just needs to drop off one container and pick up another one, cutting out the time it takes to wait for the loading/unloading process.

For an over-the-road trip, it all starts at one of the two warehouses the carrier will be traveling to. They will pick up the dry van full of freight and get ready for the long journey ahead. The dry van and trailer is either provided by the carrier or is picked up at the warehouse along with the freight inside.

Checking the equipment: Intermodal vs. Over-the-road

The two most important pieces of equipment (besides a working power only unit, of course) are the container and chassis for intermodal runs. It’s important to inspect each of these for glaring issues to make sure the carrier, the truck, and the freight will be as safe as possible. For intermodal, since the container and chassis are both rail owned, any damage found prior to leaving the rail yard can get fixed and the driver won’t be charged. After leaving the rail, if there are any problems with the equipment that could compromise the cargo within the container, the driver may be rejected. Check out these tips for a container and chassis inspection here.

For an over-the-road trip, the long haul trucker will need to check the dry van (box that holds the freight) and the trailer unit that connects the tractor to the dry van. For both dry vans and intermodal drayage containers, it’s very important to inspect the inside of each for holes or other damage. As is the same for an intermodal load, if a carrier shows up with a damaged dry van, they will not be accepted by the warehouse.

Completing the trip and what comes next: Intermodal vs. Over-the-road

The biggest similarity between intermodal trucking and over-the-road is when the carrier is actually on the road driving. Everyone is sharing the same road with the same rules with the same goal of delivering freight.

The main difference is distance. While an intermodal driver may travel anywhere from 50-500 miles in total (many loads are even less mileage), the over-the-road driver will keep going for hundreds to even thousands of miles. Traveling that far of a distance will require a layover at some point of the trip due to hours of service (HOS) rules. Freight is always traveling long distances, but with intermodal, the rail is taking up a majority of that mileage.

This leaves the question: where do you want to be when the trip is over? Hundreds of miles away or close enough to head back home?

Expenses: Intermodal vs. Over-the-road

Now that the trip is complete, it’s time to really take a look at how much the carrier is bringing in, and how much was spent on the trip. With ever fluctuating fuel prices, it’s hard to nail down an exact cost for both intermodal and over-the-road hauls. What can be said is that rates for intermodal tend to be higher per mile since the overall mileage is less than over-the-road. An over-the-road driver may gross more pay per trip, but when expenses come into play (wear and tear of the truck, repairs, fuel) that gross revenue starts to shrink. When diesel prices start rising, intermodal becomes a better deal for the carrier since less fuel is being used during the load, and drayage rates will eventually rise in response to the high price per gallon.

All in all: There are many intricacies in each form of trucking. The great thing is that when you’re an owner operator, you can try both! Whatever road you may take, we hope that this space has given you the information needed to keep running your business and running freight.

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