The Development of Intermodal Transport

by TJ on January 27, 2011

Intermodal transport has its roots much further back in time than many would think, and it certainly did not originate here in the US. To understand what drove the development of intermodal transport, we have to go to Industrial Age England in the late 18th Century.

Coal fueled industry in England and the growing engine of the world’s first manufacturing economy needed a lot of it. Coal traveled by barge and cart to the factories for power generation, and the first specially designed containers were employed to cut out the costly transfer process which was done by human muscle.

The concept spread to other times of goods movement, notably furniture and durables which were being manufactured for export. From factory to dock to ship – it was the same wooden container. By the time of the First World War, containers were being used to ship passenger luggage on the luxury steamers of the age.

By modern standards, these intermodal containers were small beer – around 5 to 10 feet long, but they failed as standardized cargo containers, because they could only be stacked one high (they had a curved top) and were not particularly strong.

Enter the United States and the Second World War, and the sheer logistics of moving millions of men and thousands of millions of tons of material around the world. Palletization allowed far more efficient shipping of cargoes, but still there were drawbacks – pallets could be shifted from one form of transport to another quickly, but it was a piecemeal approach which took time and cost more.

Post-war, the US Department of Defense started a logistics project which would revolutionize the transportation world.  The DOD specified a container for use by the military which was to be constructed according to standard specifications – 8 foot by 8 foot by 10 foot. By the late 1960’s, the DOD’s container project had become internationally recognized and established as the ISO model.  For the first time, there was full interchangeability between different transportation modes and the ISO containers could be stacked, leading to cargo facilities starting to resemble what we have today.

Containerization became the adopted standard form of transporting goods by road, by sea and by rail – allowing a manufacturer to load a container and that container be transported to the dock, loaded onto a ship, exported around the world and then transported to final destination on a semi trailer, and only then need to be unloaded of the contents.

No other driver has played a greater force in the development of the tractor trailer’s rise to dominance in the North American market, and indeed everywhere else in the world.  Fixed trailer configurations are by comparison far less flexible and therefore less popular; this is reflected in the much larger market for new and used semi trailers and tractor units.

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