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Is True Intermodal Dead?

in•ter•mo•dal (ĭn-tər-mōd’l) adj. [Lat. inter, between and modus, manner, method, way]  1. being or involving transportation by more than one type of carrier during a single journey.  2. standardized equipment  and operations used for intermodal transport. 1963.

In 1966 the ISO world body adopted the 40’ x 8’ x 8’6” box as the base size for global marine containerization.  Why?  Because at the time 40’ x 8’ x 12’6” (8’6” cargo body height) was the standard and prevailing US truck trailer size.  The US standards dominated the ISO selection by virtue of America’s huge and uniform freight transport system as compared to any other country, union or trade group at the time.

For three glorious years (1966-68), the US and the world enjoyed the huge benefits of “true” intermodalism.  Already in the US, and increasingly throughout the remainder of the industrialized trading nations, 40’ x 8’ x 12’6” became the preferred size for not only container ship lines, but domestic truckers and railroads as well.  Because everyone was using the same size box, non-standard sizes were scrapped and box inventories were rationalized to more productive, non-duplicating numbers in balance with supply & demand.  Equipment sharing and pooling was extremely popular resulting in lower carrier costs, especially for truckers who could use shipping company containers in lieu of owning more trailers.

In addition, because the 40’ container was dominant, more freight stayed in the same box from door-to-door, without unnecessary mid-journey transfers and handling.  This reduced labor costs, as well as, product damage and theft, and decreased thru-transit times.  For the first time in the history of freight transportation, the 40’ ISO standard created an unprecedented optimization we call “true intermodal”.

Sadly, it was not to last!  In 1968 & 69, special shipper and trucking interests in the US began to press politically and economically for larger 42’ and 45’ trailer sizes on a state-by-state basis.  By the early 1970’s, 45’ x 8’ x 13’6” trailers became the dominant domestic preference and the magic chain of “true intermodal” benefits were broken.  Over time, the trend away from the 40’ standard continued with US Federal legalization of 48 x 102” x 13’6” in 1982 and state-by-state authorization of 53’ x 102” x 13’6” in the 1990’s.  Meanwhile, in the EU the 40’ ISO standard eventually yielded to the 13.6m x 2.55m x 4.0 m (44’7.5” x 100.4” x 13’1.5”) domestic trailer.  Only in 2008, did the EU authorities finally defer to legalizing the new marine ISO size of 45’ x 96” x 9’6”, positioning the industry for yet another potential change.

So yes, true ISO intermodalism, with all its related shipping productivity benefits, is in fact dead!  This fate was established in 1969!  And now, with the global cacophony of unique size standards and accommodating practices like transloading and stripping and stuffing…it is not only dead, but forgotten.

The S3M GeoContainer, however, provides hope to global importers and exporters that some of the tremendous benefits from the halcyon days of 1966-68 may again be possible.  The GeoContainer’s 45’ x 2.55m x 9’6” dimensions conform precisely with the new EU box laws, and, in conjunction with the unique S3M SolChassis design, also conform to overall the EU highway height, width and overall vehicular length regulations.  This means that there is once again an available container that maximizes shipper productivity on the road, rail and at sea and providing faster door-to-door transit, less handling and product loss, and huge gains in cargo capacity (especially for palletized shippers) per container-load.

The S3M GeoContainer…the time for “True Intermodal” has come again!