APU Business Original

Intermodal Transportation Will Expand Further in 2021

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By Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics

When goods being shipped change their mode of transportation without changing cargo handling, this is known as intermodal transportation. Intermodal transportation systems include rail, air, water, land and pipeline.

A typical example of intermodal transportation might include land, sea and air. A truck is driven to a port where its cargo is loaded onto a ship or plane. Once at the destination, the cargo is offloaded and then loaded onto a truck and delivered to its final destination, all without the need to repackage the cargo.

Workflow is directly proportional to the type of transportation used to move goods, supplies and services. Therefore, workflow for intermodal transportation includes estimating costs, labor, overhead and purchasing as well as the best mode of transportation. For example, one train can transport the equivalent of 250 trucks.

Drones are a new addition to intermodal transportation, reimagining how goods can be shipped and delivered. Drones now offer direct routes to final destinations for distances of 20 miles or less with certain weight restrictions. However, there are unresolved issues about the use of drones when they cross into other territories or countries.

In order to produce expert transportation systems, there needs to be an increase in the flow of data, improved timeliness and quality of information and the ability to control and coordinate operations in real time. So as we look to 2021, what are some trends in intermodal transportation that will further improve the industry?

Costs and Workflow Will Be Reduced in 2021

According to Research and Markets, “While trucking remains the most dominant mode of shipping products domestically, intermodal freight transport offers freight savings and reduced emissions, especially when transporting products over distances of 500 miles or more.”

The Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals State of Logistics Report points out that transportation comprises 66% of total logistics costs. Companies have realized they can have huge cost savings by addressing logistics disruptions, supply chain risks, and transportation costs.

There are huge cost savings when there is a seamless transfer of goods. One way to realize these savings is to ensure that the goods remain in the same secured container for the entire trip. Not having to open them during their movement creates a multiplier effect because containers can be stacked, saving space on whatever transport mode is used. Therefore, intermodal containers are the key to swift movement and transfer.

Intermodal Transportation Will Rely Less on Labor and More on Automation in 2021

Intermodal transportation requires fewer drivers to move more freight. As a result, the intermodal transportation industry in 2021 will rely less on labor and more on automation. This change stems from the realization that a reliable transportation system can minimize waste and save money.

According to, “Automation of intermodal transportation can have long-lasting effects. Reducing terminal costs through automation is one way railroads can better compete for premium intermodal traffic in shorter haul lanes.”

In addition, more aspects of the supply chain are being automated, such as processing paperwork and shifting containers from land to sea and vice versa with automated tracking at a minimum of manual labor. As a result, the trend in 2021 will be a continuing decrease in the need for labor, resulting in less stress on the infrastructure, less congestion and increases in advanced technology.

New Workflow Patterns Will Appear

According to eMarketer, e-commerce in the U.S. “will reach $794.5 billion this year, up 32.4% year-over-year,” fueled in large measure by the COVID-19 limitations on outdoor activities. So there is an emerging need to analyze the current intermodal transportation system and develop new opportunities for efficiency. Cost savings, reliability and new workflow patterns are just a few of the trends to expect in 2021.

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

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