Intermodal, the movement of containers and trailers, has been a boon to the supply chain for decades. It embraces standardization—standard container sizes and rail schedules, and standard trucking from ports and terminals to customers—which has reduced transport costs and mistakes, and improved freight service across the globe.
The downside of standardization is that shippers sometimes miss the remaining potential of intermodal. Adopt these 10 practices to tap into those benefits:
1. Contract backup supply chain legs. The existing value of international intermodal within established supply chains is well known. Supply chain models need to create secondary and tertiary backup transportation networks, complete with contracted international rates and capacity.
2. Make large players your first, not only, stop. Start your intermodal conversations with large providers such as J.B. Hunt, Schneider, Hub Group, and C.H. Robinson. Next, vet smaller intermodal marketing companies (IMCs) and trucking companies to see what combination of rates, equipment, and drayage they offer. Evaluate both equally.
3. In balanced lanes, any provider works. Balanced lanes, where a shipper loads the same volume in and out, offer an extra look at finding the best provider based on service, rates, equipment, and fees. A balanced lane by a single shipper is the crown jewel of intermodal. Shop around to get the best deal.
4. In imbalanced lanes, look to IMCs. If you move different volumes in and out, then IMCs and trucking companies are an option. Both have access to the EMP and UMAX services, a fleet of free-running 53-foot domestic rail containers managed through the Blume reservation system. This combined 80,000-plus container fleet aggregates imbalanced demand into a combined network offering.
5. I can get contract rates for two-plus years? Disrupt the burden of the contracting and bid process from a 12-month to a 24-month contract process. Go beyond the annual freight bid process for a standard 12-month contract with a market-based rate escalator that adjusts, fairly, for market-based demand.
6. Learn from less-than-truckload (LTL) and package delivery. LTL and package delivery companies love the performance, service consistency, and value that high-frequency and high-speed rail service provides, and let truck drivers spend weekends and holidays with their families.
7. Blocking, bracing, and distributed loading. Intermodal freight experiences a large amount of stress during handling. Blocking, bracing, and loading within the containers’ lading capacity is a must-have, not a nice-to-have. Importantly, overweight containers are a hazard; load containers to their marked lading capacity.
8. Find nonstandard commodity opportunities. Intermodal refrigerated containers, insulated containers, and tank containers are more prevalent than just a few years ago. Convert 10% to 20% of your specialized loads into intermodal or some of your surge freight to a specialty container.
9. Value draymen. Schedule draymen and pay on time. Offering a reasonable accessorial schedule, simple mobile apps, clean restrooms, face masks, and cold water/hot coffee are some simple and meaningful ways to treat a vital resource.
10. Truck + intermodal = success. The best transportation networks move a combination of intermodal and truck freight. Strive to keep consistent truck and intermodal lanes for easier transportation management.
Take a more complete look at the full range of intermodal offerings. The right combination of truck and intermodal delivers supply chain service, savings, and performance.