The use of intermodal containers in the logistic supply chain has taken a paradigm shift over the last few decades. And why not? These containers can be used across different modes of transport – saving time, money, and effort.

Intermodal is a transportation method that involves the use of more than one mode of transport to move cargo. Exceptionally good for long-haul services, it is a cost-effective option and can save fuel costs up to 30%. In the transportation industry, intermodal or ISO containers are a key to achieve geostrategic goals and regulate geo-traffic. While also being sustainable and improving supply chain operations.

Here at xChange, we have compiled this comprehensive short-guide about intermodal containers. With everything from their types, sizes available, and how they can benefit your business. Read on…

What are Intermodal Containers?

You know what containers are (How can you not? 😅 You are at Container xChanges blog). Intermodal containers and ISO containers are the same freight containers. They can be used across multiple modes of transport without the need to unload/reload the items inside.

These containers are manufactured according to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) guidelines, which includes:

  • Structural integrity
  • Qualities to withstand different types of weather
  • Right size & longevity

Because of the standard sizes, they can be used easily across rail, road, or sea. ISO containers can be of 20 feet or 40 feet in length with varying breadth and height. The most common dimensions available in the market are:

  • 1 TEU: 20ft x 8ft x 8ft6”
  • 2 TEU: 40ft x 8ft x 8ft6”
  • High Cube: 20ft x 8ft x 9ft6”

(TEU, or Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit, is the standard unit of measurement indicating the capacity of a container. It is based on a volume of 20 foot long containers.)

Note: Manufacturers prefer to get the containers inspected every 30 months to maintain the quality and standardization.

Types of Intermodal Containers

There are broadly 6 types of intermodal or ISO containers:

        1. Dry Freight

The most common, general-purpose containers, they carry all types of cargo without any particular specifications. Dry freight containers are airtight and lack any ventilation system. About 90% of the containers used across the globe are dry freight containers (20’ and 40’).

        2. Insulated

These work under regulated temperatures by insulating the containers from inside to provide warm & dry storage areas required by the goods. These can be used throughout the year irrespective of the climate.

        3. Open-top

As the name suggests, these intermodal containers do not have a roof. They are designed to carry heavy materials and large machinery that don’t fit in an enclosed area.

        4. Flat Rack

A bit different from the tribe, these containers have collapsible sides. These sides can be folded to make a flat, rack-like model. With no roof, these are mainly used for transporting tall/wide materials like wood, pipes, heavy machinery, etc.

        5. Refrigerated

Also called reefer containers, these containers function with a controller that maintains its internal temperature (ranging from -65ºC to 40ºC). These intermodal containers are used for shipping perishable items like medicines, fish, meat, etc.

        6. Tank

Tankers or tank containers are made up of anti-corrosive materials for transporting fluids, powders, etc. as their primary cargo. According to the guidelines, this type of container must be at least 80% full to prevent surging of fluids. But it shouldn’t be more than 95% so thermal expansion is possible.

These are just broad categories based on the function and requirements of the container. However, they are often customized according to the shipping needs by combining any of the above-mentioned types. For example, a dry freight container can also be insulated.

Why You Should Use Intermodal Containers

Intermodal containers help control operational hassles by providing fast cargo shipping with a significant reduction in time and cost. And that’s not all. Owing to multiple benefits, these containers have certainly revolutionized the operational standards in the industry.

If you’re not already convinced why intermodal containers should be your go-to option, here’s listing their advantages:

        1. Time and effort saving

With intermodal containers, you don’t need to worry about loading and unloading the cargo umpteenth number of times. You just load the goods once in the container and use it throughout the transportation journey. It doesn’t matter whether the container travels only by sea. Or if it travels from the sea, to rail, and then the road. This also means you save on crane time, truck turnaround time, and get the work done quicker. Saves time, effort, and…

        2. Saves money!

As described above, intermodal containers dont require additional operations and time. They even omit empty miles that directly translate into saving huge amounts of money. Thus, ISO containers seem to be the most cost-effective containers for the logistic business.

        3. Increased capacity

With the deployment of intermodal transportation, the rail industry is included too. This increases the scope of transporting huge amounts of cargo easily at one go. Intermodal containers prove to be the best choices.

        4. Reliable & effective

Reliability and effectiveness are the deciding factors of good business. Thats what intermodal transportation and containers tap on to. The entire process of shipping has become more reliable, quick, and efficient. Because it diminishes all the roadblocks and is faster than just OTR (over the road).

        5. Safe & convenient

Because of the strict ISO guidelines and standards, intermodal containers eliminate the risk of any leakage and hazardous accidents. Moreover, with the implementation of IoT and big data in shipping, the entire journey can be tracked in real-time.

We cant find a reason why you shouldnt make use of intermodal containers. And at the xChange platform, you can find SOC containers where you need them.

Intermodal vs. Multimodal Containers

Given the similarity, shippers and freight forwarders often tend to use intermodal and multimodal transportation interchangeably. Both are used to move cargo via several modes of transport. However, the key points of difference between these two are:


Intermodal Transportation Multimodal Transportation
Uses different contracts with multiple providers, i.e. each carrier issues a separate bill of lading. As well as other documents for each interchange. Uses a single contract with one carrier for transporting cargo – regardless of the number of modes of transport.
The shipping manager of each company has the flexibility to decide on the best rate for every contract. The manager needs to settle for a fixed rate throughout the journey.
Operates with one transportation unit throughout the journey. Involves the use of various units across different modes.

Each mode of transportation, whether intermodal or multimodal, has its pros and cons. You can read more about them here.

Continuing Growth into the Future

Intermodal freight transportation is leading the industry with its sustainable benefits. Due to reduced operational cost and time, it controls the CO2, N2O, and other harmful emissions significantly. According to data, GHG emissions are reduced by 66.66% when you use an intermodal freight transit option emissions are reduced. According to data, GHG emissions are reduced with 66.66% for every ton-mile, when you compare to a typical truck shipment.

This, coupled with several other advantages, make intermodal containers and transportation the best investment for manufacturers and businesses for the future. It leaves a positive footprint along with cost-cutting benefits. Double-bingo!

Here at xChange, you can find SOC containers in more than 2500 locations. If you want to learn more about the xChange platform and what we can do for you, click on the banner below.