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intermodal transport


In today’s hyper-globalized world, the ease at which goods are moved from A to B in many ways defines how we live and work. 

If you were to take a straw poll of your household or office, the chances of somebody not wearing, carrying or using an item made from components that were produced or assembled hundreds if not thousands of miles away is almost zero. The ease at which we can acquire everything, from food and clothing to tech gadgets and furniture is, largely, taken for granted. 

However, without the non-stop functioning of transportation networks at the local, national and international level, none of this would be possible. And the way in which these networks operate continues to evolve in sophistication, both in terms of routing efficiency, technology leveraged and coordination between players on land, at sea and in the air. 

Indeed, the latter refers to the concept of intermodal transportation. 

In the simplest of terms, intermodal transportation is the use of two or more modes, or carriers, to transport goods from shipper to consignee, without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. 

A TEU container, for example, could conceivably leave a Chinese factory on a haulage truck to a nearby rail depot, travel by freight train to the nearest seaport, be ferried by container vessel to the U.S. coast, transferred onto a railway line and moved to another depot, before being unloaded onto a truck and driven to its final destination–all without a single hand touching the goods inside. 

Despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the value of such activity is estimated to have hit $25 billion in 2020. As the world’s economy starts to recover, the global intermodal freight transportation industry is forecast to grow at around 15 percent year-on-year between now and 2027, when it is set to be worth $67 billion. 

North America holds a significant share of the global market. The U.S. alone is expected to register at around $6.8 billion for 2020, a figure which should steadily rise given how increasingly dependent intermodal transport activity is on the consumer economy’s demand. 

The region’s rail industry is concentrating on creating new intermodal services that can successfully rival over the road options. 

For instance, in August 2019, Canadian National Railway (CN) and CSX Transportation announced a new intermodal service offering between CN’s greater Montreal and Southern Ontario areas, and the CSX-served ports of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the New York City metropolitan area. 

This intermodal offering is expected to convert long-haul trucks to interline various rail services. Trains will be able to run directly into the center of Toronto and Montreal’s urban markets via CN intermodal yards, making this partnership a natural opportunity for both railroads. 

Meanwhile, there are signs that intermodal activity in the U.S. is bouncing back from the initial COVID-19 slump. 

According to the Association of American Railroads, during the first week of August 2020, 277,054 intermodal shipments were made by U.S. railways, the highest level seen since December 2019 and 30 percent up on the 2020 low in April. 

Around the States: 5 key Intermodal Transit Hubs

The signs are indeed healthy, and many cities and regions across the U.S. are ready to help the country bounce back by increasing throughput of goods once more. 

Critical intermodal transport conduits exist all over the States, from east to west and north to south–without them, supply chains would be far costlier and more difficult to operate seamlessly. Here, we take a look at just five key nodes which provide leading intermodal infrastructure, starting in the Midwest. 


For well over a century, Chicago has acted as a key artery in America’s commercial transport network. Around a quarter of all rail freight calls into the city, either as a final destination or stop on a journey elsewhere, while O’Hare International Airport processes around 2 million metric tons of cargo at a value of approximately $200 billion every year. 

Illinois is also extremely well served by what is North America’s largest inland port in the form of CentrePoint Intermodal Center. Located in the Joliet and Elwood area, around 40 miles southwest of Chicago, it is a 6,400-acre master-planned intermodal development that sees 3 million TEUs pass through it every year. 

It includes a 785-acre Union Pacific Railroad complex just south of Joliet and a 770-acre BNSF railway complex farther to the southwest. Furthermore, it is built with heavyweight roads able to withstand massive pressure and contains a number of other useful features such as water and utility systems, public bus service connections, no restrictions on trailer parking ratios and 24/7 on-site fire and police protection. 

The site constitutes something of an intermodal fortress, and it is currently home to more than 30 tenant companies who between them occupy more than 14 million square feet of space.


Dallas strategically sits at a crossroads of numerous railroad lines, four major interstate roads and one of the world’s busiest airports, making it among the country’s most important intermodal transport hubs. 

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is a 9,000-square-mile urban center located near the geographic heart of the United States and equally accessible to the East and West coasts. Its location means that around 80 markets can be reached overnight either by road or rail, with major regional business heartlands such as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Mexico City all within easy reach, an advantage that few other intermodal nodes can offer. 

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport considers itself “the nexus of Latin America-Asia transit freight,” and for good reason. In 2019, it saw almost 985,000 tons of international and domestic cargo move through its site and, despite the impact of COVID-19, still recorded more than 870,000 tons of goods in 2020, a drop of around 11.5 percent.

Another important facility is the Wylie Intermodal Terminal. A fairly recent addition to Dallas’ intermodal transport infrastructure (opening in 2015), it is a $64 million development owned by Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS), and it is set to capitalize on significant opportunities in cross-border activity with Mexico. 

Wylie is a city and northeastern suburb of Dallas, with the KCS terminal spanning 500 acres and servicing 12 gulf ports and one Pacific Ocean port, as well as more than 140 transload centers and 11 intermodal ramps. KCS also provides 181 interchange points with other railroads, including all U.S. and Mexico class 1 railroads.


Norfolk, Virginia, is home to a vibrant intermodal transport scene thanks to its ability to serve rail, sea and air freight seamlessly. It is built on a formidable maritime history, centered around the enormous naval base on the Chesapeake Bay, a tradition that has very much expanded into the sea freight domain. 

The Port of Virginia, which is situated around two and half hours from the open sea, handled 2,327 vessel calls and departures in 2019, equating to around 3 million TEUs and 55 million tons of cargo worth almost $75 billion. Thanks to the port’s two on-dock class 1 railroads, more than a third of the cargo managed here arrives or departs by rail–this is a higher proportion than any port on the East Coast. 

Logistics firms using Norfolk can also rely on its international airport. It is one of the most efficient cargo operations in Virginia and moves around 30,000 tons of air cargo every year, with the likes of FedEx, Mountain Air and UPS all regular customers. 


Around 2,700 miles due west of Norfolk, you will find Los Angeles, arguably the West Coast’s most important intermodal transport hub. 

Its beating heart is undoubtedly the Port of Los Angeles, a massive seaport covering 7,500 acres of land and water along 43 miles of waterfront that brands itself as America’s Port. Indeed, it is the nation’s No. 1 container port and prides itself on providing a global model for sustainability, security and social responsibility. 

Founded in 1907 as a far smaller operation, today it holds 82 ship-to-shore container cranes spread across 15 marinas with 3,376 recreational vessel slips and dry docks, facilities that enabled it to move 9.2 million TEUs in 2020.   

It adjoins the Port of Long Beach, itself one of the busiest seaports in the world. The operation here houses 68 gantry cranes, which between them move around 7.5 million TEUs every year, all valued at close to $200 billion. 

This is not to forget the contribution of Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fourth busiest, which handled almost 2.5 million tons of cargo in 2018, FedEx alone is responsible for carrying 16 percent of the freight that moves in and out of the site. 


It is also important to consider the significance of intermodal transport infrastructure away from the coast. Memphis, unlike our other four locations, is situated in a landlocked state (Tennessee) and is home to one of the country’s most active intermodal freight systems.  

Its focal point is Memphis International Airport which, thanks to its heavy use by FedEx, is the top U.S. gateway in terms of cargo weight and the second busiest cargo airport in the world. 

FedEx employs more than 11,000 staff at its Memphis hub and has more than 34 million square feet of space under lease on airport property. The company operates around 400 flights daily and handles over 180,000 packages and 245,000 documents per hour.

In striking distance of Memphis International Airport is America’s fifth-largest inland port–the Port of Memphis. It serves more than 150 industries and moves a rich variety of goods, from petroleum and cement to grain and steel, and can connect to sea, rail, road and air via the Mississippi River, five class 1 railroads, major north-south and east-west interstate highways, and the nearby airport. 

Such is its vital role in facilitating economic activity, it claims to carry an annual economic impact of more than $9.2 billion. Indeed, it refers to itself as “the Mid-South’s best kept industrial and economic secret,” even though it has been operational since the 1950s. 

Exploiting the Intermodal Advantages

These are just five examples of cities and regions enabling supply chain and logistics firms to exploit the numerous advantages offered by intermodal transit hubs. 

Economically, they help to minimize truck movements, which reduces fuel consumption, driver costs and the need to invest in road-based vehicles. Lower fuel consumption also results in fewer carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, vital if the country is to drive future development along a sustainable path. 

From an operational perspective, businesses can benefit from more reliable transit times (due to reduced road reliance), elimination of border documentation and hold-ups, reduced impacts from adverse weather and fewer accidents and damage to cargo. Meanwhile, hauliers can benefit from working within their own country and avoid making long trips across borders. 

Intermodal transportation is, above all else, designed to create an even more fluid supply chain from which all commercial enterprises and consumers can benefit. By taking advantage of the numerous modes of transport via critical junctures and hubs along long-distance routes, freight need not rely on a single truck to make it from destination A to destination B. 

Rather, intermodal relies on input from a variety of stakeholders along the way, spreading the wealth generated by commercial and consumer-based purchases more widely than it otherwise would. Hubs such as those seen in Chicago, Dallas, Norfolk, Los Angeles, Memphis, and many others not cited, help to realize this.   

And as the country recovers from the enormous health, social and financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, intermodal transport will no doubt play its part in remobilizing the U.S. economy for the betterment of all American businesses. 

port cities


From a logistics perspective, one of the biggest lessons learned (so far) in the COVID-19 pandemic is that long supply chains stretching across the globe can spell trouble. Shutdowns in one manufacturing center in Asia—or the United States, for that matter—can imperil companies down the chain. 

“The golden rule of the supply chain in a post-COVID-19 world is to avoid sourcing everything from one location or one company and to maintain alternative sources of supply,” said Brian Leonard and Mark Volkman, JLL’s managing director and executive vice president, respectively, in a July 2020 article in Heartland Real Estate Business magazine.

Morris Cohen, a professor of Manufacturing and Logistics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further.

“The question of global sourcing will continue to be critical,” Cohen said in a March 31, 2020 Bloomberg News story. “I believe that there will be a shift toward more regional and local solutions, with less dependence on single sources in other countries, as companies determine that the costs and risks of offshoring are even more significant than what they perceived them to be in the past.”

Cities with inland ports are uniquely situated to localize manufacturing and make supply chains more agile and transparent. Here are 20 we looked at that can do supply chain wonders.  

St. Louis, MO

From a supply chain perspective, St. Louis is fairly close to ideal. The region, which stretches along 15 miles of the Mississippi River, includes four ports, six Class I railroad carriers, four interstate highways and two international cargo airports. It also offers more grain handling capacity than anywhere else on the Mississippi, which is why the region is known as the “Ag Coast of America,” according to Inbound Logistics. St. Louis is also very attractive to manufacturers, brought by in low tax rates and close proximity to a highly skilled workforce, much of which has been trained in Supply Chain Management at local colleges.

Cincinnati, OH

In their Heartland Real Estate Business magazine piece, Leonard and Volkman point to the fact that Cincinnati is “within a 10-hour truck drive of 54 percent of the U.S. population.” This is absolutely critical for companies trying to make their supply chain(s) as nimble as possible. Couple it with Cincinnati’s three intermodal terminals, quarter-million feet of industrial space, another 8 million square feet under construction and close proximity to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, and you have a desirable location from a supply chain perspective.

Pittsburgh, PA

Business leaders in Pittsburgh are taking the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the supply chain very serious. So much so that in July 2020, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that a coalition of companies, labor organizations and business associations called Pittsburgh Works Together—which formed as the pandemic lockdowns began—unveiled a new plan to shorten the region’s supply chain. Their proposals included that the region should “fully develop its energy sector, especially around natural gas; encourage trade school routes for high school graduates who don’t go to college; rebuild local infrastructure; and reduce Pennsylvania’s corporate tax burden,” according to the Post-Gazette

Kansas City, MO

Because four major interstate highways intersect in Kansas City, trucks leaving the region can reach virtually the entire continental U.S. within 48 hours. This is a major advantage for companies located there, and the city’s economic officials are doing what they can to make their supply chains more agile. “Technology is something we need to learn how to embrace and use to solve problems,” said Chris Gutierrez, president of KCSmartPort at its industry briefing in April 2020, according to the Kansas City Economic Development Corporation. “In Kansas City, we are proud to carry that innovative thinking into discussions around making our regional supply chain companies more successful in today’s global marketplace.”

Memphis, TN

One of just four cities in the U.S. that’s served by five Class I railroads, Memphis is uniquely suited for all supply chain needs. According to a September 2019 Supply Chain Dive post, the city is also served by Memphis International Airport (the largest air cargo airport in the Western Hemisphere), three major highways and a port that moved about 11 million short tons of goods in 2017. It’s no wonder that Udo Lange of FedEx Logistics told Supply Chain Dive that Memphis “is one of the great logistics hubs in the world.”

Chicago, IL

Chicago is a global supply chain powerhouse. “On the national scale, the region is a transportation node in a number of North American supply chains,” states the 2015 Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) report “Chicago Region Supply Chain Trends and Trading Partners.” “On a regional scale, transportation infrastructure supports the region’s manufacturing cluster, which benefits from strong connections to international markets.” All of which is made possible by Chicago’s connections to two major waterways, six Class I railroads, seven interstate highways and the nation’s fourth busiest cargo airport.

Houston, TX

As one of the top energy producers in the world, Houston is a part of many global supply chains. While steel imports at Port Houston are down considerably from this time last year, according to a June 2020 webinar on global supply chains hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, the reason is due more to Section 232 tariffs and lower oil prices than the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall cargo remains steady, while aggregates and grains are up considerably, and the port itself is investing $2 billion in terminal and channel improvements, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. Houston is also served by three Class I railroads, three interstate highways and a major international airport.

Charlotte, NC

The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) says Charlotte “sits at the heart of the Southeast’s manufacturing and distribution sites.” The city connects to four interstate highways (two of which tie into the port). There are also two intermodal facilities in the city and Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the seventh busiest international airport in the world. According to a 2019 analysis of Charlotte’s logistics by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, the region sits within 12 hours of slightly more than half of the U.S. population. 

Stockton, CA

A transportation hub since the mid 19th century, Stockton is located in California’s Central Valley. Though the city is best known for its 35-foot-deep inland port, it also boasts extensive rail connections. According to a December 2019 Business View Magazine article, nine of the city’s 13 industrial parks have rail access. In addition, all of its industrial parks are freeway close, and are within five to 15 minutes of both the port and Stockton Metropolitan Airport, which can accommodate all wide body aircraft currently in service.

Cleveland, OH

Port of Cleveland officials say their public and private harbors handle about 13 million tons of cargo every year. Cleveland processes a lot of heavy machinery, containers, iron ore, limestone and steel, among other cargoes, which isn’t surprising given that it’s the first major port of call on the Great Lakes for ships traveling the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Cleveland Bulk Terminal can handle 5,200 tons of iron ore per hour and is connected to one of the two Class I railroads that serve the port. Given that the port is just an eight-hour drive from half the U.S. population, it’s no wonder Cleveland is big on a lot of supply chains.

Duluth, MN

The Duluth Seaway Port Authority considers the Port of Duluth-Superior to be the “bulk cargo capital” of the Great Lakes, which isn’t surprising since it handles 35 million short tons of bulk cargo every year. “Maritime’s inherent efficiencies are critical to the success of supply chain managers worldwide,” states the port authority. “Shared by two cities and two states, the Port of Duluth-Superior has been the backbone of this region’s economy for well over a century.” Couple this with the city’s immediate access to I-35 and four Class I railroads, and it’s clear why this inland port city is so valuable from a supply chain perspective. 

Detroit, MI

Detroit is the busiest northern border crossing into Canada, according to that city’s Chamber of Commerce. It’s also the second largest customs port of entry into the U.S. in terms of the value of goods. The city is served by four Class I railroads, three intermodal terminals and the Port of Detroit, which handles 17 million tons of cargo every year. Much of that is raw materials, according to port officials: high grade steel, coal, iron ore, cement, aggregate and other building materials. In fact, the Port of Detroit is the third largest port in the U.S. in terms of handling steel. 

Louisville, KY

Louisville actually has two inland ports, both of which are vital supply chain components. There is, of course, the Port of Louisville on the Ohio River, which handles a variety of bulk cargos, including coal, grain and potash, and is served by three major eastern railroads. But there’s also the massive UPS Worldport, an air hub built in the early 2000s that today moves a staggering quantity of packages—many of them within a day. Three hundred flights carrying 2 million packages move in and out of the Worldport, which is as large as 90 football fields, every day. Eventually, Worldport officials say the center will be able to process as many as half a million packages per hour.

Vicksburg, MS

The only rail crossing of the Mississippi River in the state of Mississippi is at the Port of Vicksburg. The port currently handles 14 million tons of freight each year, but Vicksburg officials are looking at expanding it in the near future. In July 2020, the Vicksburg Warren Economic Development Partnership released a report outlining the supply chain growth advantages of such an expansion. “The top six market opportunities identified in the report include scrap iron imports from Mexico, containerized soybean exports, wood-chip exports in containers, resin exports, steel (mini) mill attraction and the imports of spruce logs,” the Vicksburg Post reported.

Green Bay, WI

Logistics and supply chain management jobs have been centering in Green Bay for many years now. Today, the region has the 18th highest concentration of transportation logistics jobs in the nation, according to an August 2019 Go Press Times article. The Port of Green Bay ties into enough major interstates to allow trucks to make overnight deliveries to anywhere within a 400-mile radius, according to the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “The Port of Green Bay is the westernmost port of Lake Michigan,” port officials say. “The Port of Green Bay offers the shortest, most direct route for shipments between the Midwest and the world.”

Tulsa, OK

The Tulsa Port of Catoosa is one of the largest (and most inland) ports in the nation. It’s always ice-free and hosts more than 60 companies, according to the Oklahoma Chamber of Commerce. The port allows Oklahoma industries to take advantage of navigable waterways that connect Minneapolis, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Sioux City, Brownsville and the Florida coast. Tulsa is also served by two Class I railroads, three interstate highways and Tulsa International Airport, which is just 10 minutes from the port. Six air cargo carriers and the U.S. Postal Service all maintain operations at Tulsa International. 

Shreveport, LA

The Port of Caddo-Bossier, which is just four miles south of the Shreveport city limits, ties into two Class I railroads, two interstate highways and two U.S. highways. The port also provides access to the Red River, Mississippi River, Gulf Intercoastal Waterway and the Gulf of Mexico. The port authority considers it one of the fastest growing ports in the nation, and it currently handles liquid petroleum, aggregate, coiled steel, plate steel, fertilizer, over dimensional cargo, scrap steel, steel beams, coal, tire chips and frac sand. 

Philadelphia, PA

Because of its location in the heavily populated coastal Northeast, Philadelphia has nearly unmatched strategic value. In fact, because of the interstate highways and two Class I railroads that serve the Port of Philadelphia, shippers can move products to 70 percent of the nation’s population within 72 hours. In November 2016, when state officials announced a $300 Port Development Plan that would double container volume processing, Philadelphia Regional Port Authority Chairperson Jerry Sweeney said, “This new service validates what we have known for a long time. Philadelphia is a more efficient supply chain option for major beneficial cargo owners.”

Milwaukee, WI

Situated on Lake Michigan, 467-acre Port Milwaukee provides easy access to the St. Lawrence Seaway. According to Transportation & Logistics International, it’s also the only “Lake Michigan port beyond Chicago approved to serve the Mississippi River inland waterway system, which provides direct river barge access to the Illinois River that connects other U.S. ports on the Gulf of Mexico.” The port also connects to I-94/795, ties into two Class I railroads and processes around 2.5 million tons of cargo per year—much of grains, cement and limestone.

Toledo, OH

The supply chain advantages in Northwest Ohio almost defy belief. The region boasts a 130,000-strong workforce, according to Toledo’s Regional Growth Partnership. The city and its port are just a single day’s drive to 60 percent of the U.S. market. The three major interstates and four railways that service Toledo provide a huge advantage for shippers. And in terms of natural disasters, Toledo is a relatively low-risk area, and the whole region boasts an affordable cost of living.