International Rail

International Rail

Intermodal freight transport involves the transportation of freight in an intermodal container or vehicle, using multiple modes of transportation (e.g., rail, ship, and truck), without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. This results in lower cargo-handling costs while improving security, and reducing damages and losses. 

 Intermodal rail — the transportation of shipping containers and truck trailers by rail — enables railroads to provide their customers with cost-effective, environmentally friendly service for almost anything that can be loaded into a truck or a container. Shippers benefit from the flexible service that trucks provide, at the competitive rates that only rail intermodal can offer. The general public benefits from a reduction in highway congestion and harmful emissions and from the reduced cost of moving goods to market via intermodal. 

 Starting with the advent of the modern shipping container in the 1950s, freight railroads in the US have invested heavily to build a world-class intermodal rail network. Rail-owned, US domestic containers comprise nearly one-third of the total domestic container population. 

 The vast bulk of these containers have been in two fleets: 

EMP, a domestic interline container program created by Union Pacific Railroad and Norfolk Southern Railway; and UMAX, a domestic interline container program created by CSX Intermodal and Union Pacific, which provides customers access to thousands of 53-foot containers for intermodal marketing companies, motor carriers, freight brokers, truckload, parcel, and less-than-truckload customers.

 The remaining two-thirds of the fleet are privately owned units, operated by such companies as J.B. Hunt, Hub Group, and the like. The rail-owned fleets cater to non-asset carriers, while the private fleets are typically operated by integrated intermodal carriers.

New and expanded intermodal terminals at ports and inland are using advanced technologies to transfer containers to and from trucks in minutes. Additional track capacity and advanced signaling systems allow for faster, more frequent intermodal trains. Bridge and tunnel improvements accommodate the additional height required by double-stack trains.

Timely JOC coverage of this sector provides the latest news, data and analysis about how such developments are affecting not only the intermodal rail sector itself, but also impacting shippers, transportation service providers and other stakeholders in the US and elsewhere around the world.


On the surface, China’s Asia-Europe rail subsidies seem like a slam-dunk win for shippers, a free lunch. But as the axiom states, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And that axiom applies to international shipping as well.

News & Analysis

08 Sep 2022
The rising cost of electricity is the latest challenge facing rail freight in Europe, which finds itself being uncompetitive with trucking while at the same time being overwhelmed by growing volumes.
01 Sep 2022
Multiple crises in Europe are leading to greater demand for rail transport, but the network is not able to handle any large-scale cargo shift from the disrupted road and barge sectors.
05 Aug 2022
The main rail option from China for European importers is via the so-called “middle corridor,” but as demand steadily increases, so too are the many chokepoints along the route.
30 Jun 2022
Elevated demand for rail cargo on the only viable China-Europe rail route continues to overwhelm the existing infrastructure, with congestion building at Central Asian intermodal points.
23 Jun 2022
Three FMC members ask the STB not to approve the proposed merger of Canadian Pacific Railway and Kansas City Southern, saying the deal would result in the loss of cargo to Canadian ports.
01 Jun 2022
The only real option at present for rail cargo from China to Europe is the so-called “middle corridor,” even though the transit is often longer than ocean and 30 percent more expensive than the largely out-of-bounds northern alternative through Russia.
31 May 2022
A new multi-year agreement will allow Canadian Pacific to handle the majority of CMA CGM’s freight through Canada, underscoring the railroad’s aggressive approach to gaining international intermodal volume.
06 Apr 2022
Shippers and their service providers exiting the China-Europe rail route through Russia has slammed the brakes on a trade lane that expanded by almost 30 percent in 2021.
16 Mar 2022
For China-Europe rail shippers, there are precious few alternatives to the northern corridor that passes through Russia and Belarus and handles almost all the volume moved on the land bridge.
04 Mar 2022
The land bridge rail network between Asia and North Europe, a popular alternative to ocean shipping, is now restricted as carriers suspend bookings to a key rail hub in Belarus.
26 Jan 2022
The freight volumes that have stressed the Asia-Europe rail trade for the past 10 months after shifting from the congested and costly air and ocean markets have begun to ease ahead of Chinese New Year.
27 Dec 2021
Pandemic-born disruption will continue forcing logistics practitioners to rework supply chains in 2022 to deal with ongoing congestion and equipment shortages.
23 Aug 2021
Block train activity has lately become a hot carrier play as operators active out of India work to deftly manage available capacity in an elevated freight market.
12 Jul 2021
The new Balli intermodal play in India builds on Maersk’s ongoing efforts to target new customer segments predominantly tethered to transshipping in the absence of long-haul direct carrier calls in the region.
01 Jul 2021
CMA CGM has acquired a rail operator in Spain, adding an intermodal dimension to the ocean carrier’s expanding integrated service portfolio.
14 Jun 2021
Heightened cargo demand and congestion issues at transshipment hub Colombo, Sri Lanka, are spurring new containerized rail services to India’s interior.
08 Feb 2021
As cost-conscious India shippers seek “more for less,” value-added services have begun to occupy center stage in freight contract negotiations, including bespoke intermodal services.
25 Jan 2021
Maersk has teamed up with intermodal rail giant Container Corporation of India to offer block train movement from Kolkata to Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust to feed the carrier’s weekly long-haul sailings out of the busy public harbor.
23 Dec 2020
Carriers believe new Indian rail incentives, coupled with the recent lifting of a 14-day quarantine for incoming Chinese vessels, will have a positive impact on inventory flow.
18 Sep 2020
As container volume has picked up, trucking and logistics executives say that CSX’s domestic intermodal service has become unreliable in two key southeast US rail ramps.
14 Sep 2020
BNSF has named Kathryn Farmer, who has been with the western railroad for 28 years, as its new CEO effective Jan. 1, 2021. She will become the first female CEO of a North American Class I railroad.
25 Aug 2020
Union Pacific Railroad will institute a $500 surcharge on excess cargo for all shippers in Seattle to divert as many assets to Los Angeles as possible amid record-breaking cargo spikes in Southern California.
20 Aug 2020
For the third time this month, Union Pacific has increased spot rates and its peak season surcharge in Los Angeles, raising prices on small shippers to record levels and likely pushing excess cargo back to trucking.
19 Aug 2020
Freight forwarders in the US Midwest and Eastern Canada fear the rail problems plaguing Vancouver could quickly result in excessive delays in delivering containers to the eastern half of the continent.
07 Aug 2020
While Indian rail operators have a long way to go to sufficiently meet the bargains BCOs are seeking to permanently migrate away from their traditional mode of transport, those gaps seem to be narrowing.
29 Jul 2020
A containerized train carrying 50 TEU from India reached Bangladesh’s Benapole port on Sunday, opening a new avenue for trade between the two countries that will cut time and costs.
Texas inland port to offer rail link to Mexican manufacturers
19 Feb 2020
The developer of a Texas industrial park scheduled to open in early 2021 says it will work with Kansas City Southern of Mexico to offer a shorter, cheaper way for Mexican manufacturers to ship goods to Houston and other Texas markets.
New services, auto growth to drive Mexican intermodal gains in 2020
17 Jan 2020
Despite Mexico’s sluggish economy, the intermodal sector could see benefits in 2020 from the expected implementation of the United States Mexico Canada Agreement and new rail services.
16 Jan 2020
Touting it as a game-changing move, Indian Railways has opened consultations with stakeholders to introduce double-stack “dwarf container” train operations at Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in a bid to better compete with over-the-road haulers.
03 Jan 2020
The country's government is looking to improve cargo fluidity at key seaports and border crossings — and reduce traffic on congested roads — via increased use of intermodal rail and a new marine highway program.
30 Dec 2019
As volumes on the China–Europe rail route continue to grow, stakeholders are looking at ways to make the network more efficient, as well as potential reforms to the system of subsidies that fund operations.
28 Nov 2019
Despite the lifting of Russian sanctions on the transit of agricultural products through its territory, some big issues stand in the way of rising volume.
26 Nov 2019
If the heavy support of subsidies from China was withdrawn quickly, it is likely only higher-value products would be viable on the China-Europe rail network.
26 Nov 2019
The week-long strike by workers at Canadian National Railroad will end Tuesday after the railroad and Teamsters reached a contract agreement that will go to the union membership for ratification.
22 Nov 2019
Canadian Pacific Railroad is looking to enhance the services offered at its facility in Montreal, starting with the construction of a transload terminal that will open next year.