Inter-modal or otherwise known multi-modal freight transport can be defined as the movement of cargo using various freight methods, without the handling of the freight itself, when changing modes. For example a container might be transported from a railway car onto a road freight vehicle. The various modes of transport involved in inter-modal modal transport include rail, road and ship. Modern freight forwarders will utilise this freight network to great effect.

This method of freight transport not only reduces cargo handling but also improves the security of cargo as it is held within a multi modal container. Inter modal freight transport has become very popular, partly because of reduced costs and also because it reduces damage and loss of cargo.

Inter-modal freight transport dates back to the beginning of the 18th century, even pre-dating the first railway networks. The first containers to be transported using multi-modal freight transport were the early coal containers in the 1780’s. These were lifted from a canal and then transported by horse drawn vehicles for continued transport. In the 1900’s worldwide freight saw the introduction of covered containers, these were mainly to transport furniture and inter-modal freight between road and rail.

It was not until 1933 in Europe that the International Chamber of Commerce established the International Container Bureau, which outlines specific parameters for the use of containers worldwide. These parameters specified that containers were to be lifted by purpose built lifting gear, such as cranes. During World War II freight and logistics took some big steps forward and in the 1950’s it saw the introduction of standardized steel multi-modal containers.

Inter-modal containers are the main type of equipment used in inter-modal transport in today’s freight networks. The most common lengths of containers are 20ft, 40ft and 45ft. There are other lengths that exist but are rarely used.


Containers are stacked to single height on European railways to accommodate the height restrictions and low overhead electrical systems. Containers are transported on standard flatcars or other rail road cars. Taller containers such as the 40ft or 45ft are often transported in well cars; usually this is on the older European railroads where the loading gauge is particularly small.

Container Ships

Containers are transported by container ships that are custom built. Depending on the size of the vessel they can carry thousands of inter-modal freight containers. The capacity is measured in TEU (twenty foot equivalent unit) or FEU (forty foot equivalent unit). Typically containers on board a specialised container ship can be stacked up to 7 high. Once docked, containers are then lifted from the vessel using large commercial cranes.

Road Freight

An multi-modal freight container can be transported by a road vehicle using a skeletal trailer which locks a container onto the vehicle safely. The road networks help connect the ocean and rail networks. The trucking that runs between rail terminals, ocean ports and inland shipping docks is called drayage. Drayage is most often provided by dedicated drayage companies.