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DrayNow will go over the key differences between intermodal and over-the-road trucking, with a more in-depth look at each topic rolling out over the next couple of weeks.

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 goods 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. And with each of these forms of trucking, there are differences that will continue to pop up along the way.

Knowing when to start

First things first: every trucking trip has an appointment time for when the freight needs to be picked up and delivered. But how do you know if your 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, 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

To start the intermodal trucking trip, a carrier would need to check in at the rail yard to pick up a container. 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.

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 trailer full of freight and get ready for the long journey ahead. The trailer is either provided by the carrier or is picked up at the warehouse along with the freight inside.

Checking the equipment

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. Check out these tips for a chassis inspection here.

For an over-the-road trip, the carrier 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. If a carrier shows up with a damaged container or dry van, they will not be accepted by the warehouse.

Completing the trip and what comes next

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, the over-the-road driver will keep going for hundreds to even thousands of miles. 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?


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.

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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