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January 19, 2024
Carbon Savings With Intermodal Shipping
Businesses around the world are trying to go greener to offset the impact of global greenhouse emissions on the climate. A significant part of this effort has been a shift in transportation methods. For freight, this includes the switch to alternative fuels for HGVs, more sustainable packaging and optimising capacity. Perhaps the most promising new solution, however, is intermodal shipping.

In a separate article, we outlined how intermodal uses a combination of shipping modes—rail, road and sea—to increase the efficiency of logistics and cut carbon emissions. Let’s dive deeper into how exactly it results in carbon footprint reduction for the freight industry, and the best practices for maximising its potential to cut emissions.

What is intermodal?
Intermodal transportation uses two or more modes or carriers to transport freight from shipper to recipient. While it’s not a new strategy—its origins lie in 18th century Britain—it has become more widely adopted in recent years as a more sustainable solution to traditional road freight.

Instead of using one sole method, shippers can transport goods from a truck to a rail terminal, which takes the consignment to another destination—such as a central transport hub within the city. At this point, the package is transported via truck to its final destination. For overseas shipping, this solution can then involve sea ports as well.

The main motivator for intermodal for freight shippers has traditionally been balancing the cost of shipping and the quality of service. Combining each of these modes of transport lets businesses leverage their unique strengths to achieve the best possible performance.
Intermodal vs. multimodal
The terms ‘intermodal’ and ‘multimodal’ are often used interchangeably. The difference is a contractual one: with intermodal, shippers using different modes of transport sign contracts with different carriers for each stage of the journey.

Multimodal does the same, except all transportation is under a single contract and one bill of lading (the detailed cargo list). Therefore the freight and transportation is the responsibility of a single carrier.

What are the carbon savings from intermodal?
Vehicle Fuel Efficiency
Research from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggests rail is between 1.5 to five times more energy efficient than trucking, with a similar ratio for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Plus, depending on the journey length, not only are freight trains more aerodynamic, faster and have more capacity than road vehicles, sea freight also offers substantial carbon efficiency. Leveraging varying modes of transport with more energy efficiency helps achieve a better bottom line and emissions reduction.
Route optimisation
Intermodal transportation saves businesses from transporting containers with no cargo inside (“empty miles”). It also enables more effective route planning, coordination and scheduling to eliminate unnecessary movements in freight journeys. This helps bring down the total carbon emissions from logistical journeys.
On top of fuel efficiency, having cargo remain in one container reduces the time and labour involved in transportation, allowing shippers to keep to budgets. Ships and trains are also bigger than FTL vehicles — giving them more weight and space capacity, allowing them to move larger volumes per unit of fuel. Intermodal thus reduces the need for excessive transport by eliminating surplus space.

Tips to get the most from intermodal
Identify the need
Shippers should only choose intermodal for longer journeys—around 750 miles and above. Even though intermodal can provide more efficiency and speed, it is worth considering that this is not the same for every lane. If the distance between the intermodal terminal and the end destination is too great, it may not justify the potential savings. Intermodal may also lead to longer lead times, offsetting the advantages of switching transport modes.

Develop Infrastructure
Inadequate technology and infrastructure cancels out the carbon savings made by intermodal shipping if it results in delays or obstructs the seamless flow of each mode of transport. Investing in proper infrastructure to boost coordination between carriers and other stakeholders is vital to get the most out of this strategy. If a shipper does not have the time or the capital to upscale operations in this way, they can partner with the 3PL with access to the necessary infrastructure.

Route Planning
The added route efficiency and subsequent carbon reduction that intermodal brings to logistics is not the end of the story. Shippers can improve on it further by using a range of tools to maximise the benefits with optimised and more sustainable intermodal routes.

For instance, many choose route optimisation software that includes real-time traffic monitoring and GPS to help drivers avoid congestion, for example. Others look at strategic points at which containers are transferred between different modes of transport. From this they identify where to enhance movement based on capacity and the distance from transport hubs and terminals.

Partner with Amazon Freight for fuel-efficiency
Amazon Freight now provides intermodal transport for our shipper partners. So far, our service has achieved almost 50% in carbon reductions. Compared to road equivalent shipping, rail transport provides cleaner transportation and reduces emissions by up to 56%. Amazon Intermodal Sea similarly cuts carbon emissions by up to 45%.

When you ship with Amazon Freight, you can leverage our GPS-tracking and other route optimisation tools for your long-haul transportation needs.

Contact us directly today to get started: freight-uk-interest@amazon.com.
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