Could More Intermodal Transport Solve the Trucking Shortage?

Published : September 18, 2015

Semi Truck

The shortage of qualified truck drivers is affecting the entire logistics industry, nationwide, and it's frightening enough that options like teenage and robotic drivers are being considered as stopgaps. Thankfully, there's a less worrisome alternative on the table: intermodal transport. While intermodal shipping solutions still incorporate trucks in their plan, the relay race-like handoff to boats and trains takes a great deal of stress off a formerly truck-dominated route. It isn't to say that intermodal options don't come with their own headaches, but with some work on infrastructure, they hold the potential to solve one of the largest problems in supply chain movement today.

Consistency Equals Success

In Supply Chain Quarterly, Theodore Prince extols the virtues of intermodal approaches, but tempers them with reality: the benefits quickly evaporate if, for example, a train delivers freight at half the speed of a truck. The industry, Prince maintains, needs to work together to not only improve the infrastructure required to keep trains and ports running smoothly, but also to build realistic timelines that manufacturers can plan with. Adoption of intermodal transport would pick up speed—no pun intended—if fear over late shipments and missed deadlines could be dispelled with a solid delivery track record. Businesses are understandably cautious about handing over their freight to a new delivery method, but for some the rising costs of trucking haven't given them much of a choice. Industry experts are eagerly looking to these early adopters to see how well the switch works throughout industries and specialty niches.

No Freight Handling, Less Downtime

In traditional truck-only shipments, every time a box or pallet is moved, there's a risk of damaging or breaking products and materials. Ideally, a supply chain manager looks to minimize product handling until the eventual handoff to the end consumer. Trucks and forklifts increase that handling considerably, especially if repackaging is required or several distribution centers or warehouses are involved. On CNBC, Morgan Brennan and Justin Solomon explain that intermodal shipping solutions rely on the movement of a single uniform container, regardless of transport method. This single-container approach ensures that secure packing practices only need to be deployed once at the origin point, virtually eliminating the chance of a less-than-optimal repack. 

Potential Cost Savings

According to the Journal of Commerce, domestic carrier rates for truck-only transport are rising, while their intermodal counterparts are falling. For companies facing a challenging marketplace and stiff competition, a more affordable shipping option is a boon, and one that allows them to reallocate logistics budget into R&D or similar mold-breaking opportunities. Intermodal approaches have the benefit of mixing and matching different "legs" of a journey, combining an affordable backhaul with a short ocean trip up the coast and ending with a train ride into the destination. Compared to a truck route—one company running from A to B—there's a lot more room for negotiation and configuring. Business thrives under choices, because choices drive competition and, subsequently, innovation. 

Shipping solutions are hardly clear-cut—for every permutation a supply chain professional can dream up, there are bound to be half a dozen providers to choose from—but intermodal makes the negotiation table a little more welcoming. There's still a lot of math required to determine if intermodal is a net gain, loss or balance for companies of all sizes, but emerging brokers and well-versed representatives are making the transition that much more alluring to companies tired of paying for trucking in the absence of alternative options. Will the future of logistics come on wheels, rudders or tracks? If this multi-mode shipping method has anything to say about it, it might just be all three. 

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Topics: Supply Chain Logistics

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