Delivery slowdowns and delays are an inevitable consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are now fewer workers to perform jobs, especially those jobs that require little social distancing.
To cope, businesses have tried to adapt to the changing times by introducing workflow efficiencies to make the entire supply chain more effective from the supplier to the retailer to the consumer. Introducing technology has been a key factor in creating insights into the overall delivery process.
Technology Has Played a Role in Advancing Intermodal Transportation
To comply with the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement, most countries have implemented “single window” customs processing of imports and exports electronically through a single website. However, these efforts vary widely regarding filing requirements and methods. Sensors, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, allow the accurate tracking of goods and better data collection throughout the supply chain.
Blockchain systems, a method of recording information that makes a database difficult to hack, allow the decentralized storage of information with high security and transparency. Machine learning and AI offer analytical techniques to digitize bills of lading to extract intrinsic value and implement advanced strategy with business competitors.
Despite all of these technological advancements, the greatest factor in an efficient delivery process is the seamless transportation of goods using different modes of transportation. But how has intermodal transportation evolved to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the delayed arrival of goods and product shortages?
What Is Intermodal Transportation?
Intermodal transportation is the movement of a person or a load of cargo from its origin to its destination by at least two different forms of transportation; the transfer from one mode to the other is performed at an intermodal terminal. Transportation modes can be categorized into one of five groups: rail, air, sea, land and pipeline.
Intermodal freight transportation is a chain made up of several transportation modes that are more or less coordinated and interact in intermodal terminals to ensure door-to-door service. Intermodal transportation can include the movement of cargo containers by a combination of truck, rail, and ocean shipping and dedicated rail services to move massive quantities of containers and trailers over long distances.
For countries that specialize in exporting goods, intermodal transportation is the main transportation mode for the international movement of goods. However, there are challenges for each type of transportation.
Maritime Transportation and Choke Points
Maritime logistics do not cross most people’s minds often, even though water covers approximately 72% of the earth. However, the recent Suez Canal blockage in March 2021 made the national news for weeks, and its effects are still being felt.
The blockage highlighted how one cargo ship can cause a multi-week delay and affect over 40 nations. From this incident, it is easy to see that maritime operations are pivotal to national, international and global trade.
The tenuous nature of our maritime global supply chain and the dangers to maritime choke points are issues that need to be rectified. Some important waterways used in the maritime global supply chain include the Strait of Singapore, the Malacca Strait, Bab-el-Mandeb, the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. If you add up the amount of maritime cargo shipped through these waterways, over 23 million containers were shipped in 2020.
Vehicle Challenges in Intermodal Transportation
Roads are needed to transport goods from their origin to their final destination and must be properly maintained. Trucks play an important role in transporting freight packaged in containers or pallets the “first and last mile” between rail terminals, supermarkets and warehouses.
Efficient freight supply lines and services are a job saver. They help with controlling costs for rail freight operators, freight forwarders, importers and exporters; these savings are then passed on to customers. Improperly maintained roads can result in packaged products having to be hauled over poor or congested roads to the northern and eastern parts of the U.S.
Challenges to transporting goods by vehicles like trucks often include in accidents, breakdowns and further delays, which in turn are detrimental to the U.S. economy. According to scholar Brian Slack, “traffic is being concentrated at a relatively small number of inland load centers that serve as regional truck distribution points and are linked by high-volume, dedicated train services.”
Transporting goods by rail can often be hindered due to delays in rail connectivity. Different countries use different gauge connection systems, which results in delays as goods are moved from country to country, especially countries located in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.
Some countries have dedicated rail lines for passengers and freight, which increases supply chain efficiency. At the same time, countries that use the same dedicated rail for all types of transportation might experience delays that can affect perishable foods, refrigerated items and livestock.
The key to effective intermodal transportation is having a centralized hub to exchange goods. The hub-and-spoke model of air transportation refers to an efficient system for routing air and other traffic. For example, major airlines in the U.S. each have at least one hub from which passengers and freight are routed to their destinations.
By using the hub approach at airports, freight and passenger carriers are able to assign larger planes to higher-density routes between the hubs and major metropolitan area airports. The hubs are located around the world, based on their geographical position and proximity to markets.
Hubs are primarily used by airlines, but they are also used by freight-forwarding companies and seaports to maximize the transportation of freight over long distances. The freight-forwarding companies consolidate cargo, which is then moved from one air hub to another. At an air hub, the cargo is then broken down and loaded into another mode of transportation for final delivery.
The Role of Third-Party Logistics Providers
Major players in intermodal transportation networks are third-party logistics (3PL) providers. They manage the demand for transportation, the carriers who supply the services needed to move cargo, and the intermodal network composed of multimodal services and terminals. Third-party logistics providers can help companies to navigate international trade policies to ship products to their end destination in a more efficient manner.
The use of 3PL providers definitely benefits intermodal transportation. However, any benefits depend on the performance of individual supply chain elements, such as navigation companies, rail carriers, motor carriers and seaports. It is also contingent upon the quality of interactions between supply chain elements regarding operations, information and decisions.
Solutions to Intermodal Transportation Challenges
So what are the main drivers to make intermodal transportation more efficient? Here are a few suggestions:
- Employ universal containers – Using consistent-size containers is a main driver to move from modalism to intermodalism.
- Plan properly – Intermodal transportation, if it is properly executed, can benefit both the supplier and the carrier. It can also help companies to identify important issues and challenges in designing, planning, and operating intermodal transportation networks. Ideally, it should include a focus on effective models and the contributions of operations research to the transportation and logistics field.
- Perform routine maintenance – Proper maintenance of cargo handling equipment is essential for successful intermodal transportation. The essence of intermodal transportation is the efficient transport of cargo, and this efficiency cannot be achieved without properly maintained cargo handling equipment. Otherwise, the supply chain experiences expensive delays. Likewise, a strong infrastructure is needed to get products to their final destination.
Developing both short- and long-term strategies for universal containers, using long-term planning, and routine maintenance are essential as we continue to navigate intermodal transportation challenges despite the COVID-19 pandemic. In our online bachelor of arts in transportation and logistics, I teach courses in that specifically highlight the benefits of intermodal transportation, both now and in the future.