Intermodalism. This word is particularly related to the provision of transport services where more than one mode of transport is used. Even in the early days of transport, the carriage of goods may be considered to have been intermodal, e.g., from the factory to the port and then from the discharging port to the consumer’s premises, but the cargo owners had to make separate contracts with carriers on each mode.

One form of dual-mode ocean transport was the through transport service where a cargo was carried from one port to another port where it was discharged from the original carrying vessel, stowed ashore and then loaded on to a second carrying vessel when this arrived at the port. This was called “transshipment” and can also be seen as an early form of intermodal transport except that although two (or more) transport vehicles were used, they were the same mode of transport.

The development of containerisation and the development of concepts of physical distribution management (PDM) brought about as much a revolution in the transport of goods as containerisation itself. In the past the ocean carrier was dominant simply because he was in control of the break bulk goods for a longer period and also because huge amounts of goods transported in international trade moved by sea. When it became obvious that the users of transport services were more interested in the services being provided for the whole journey rather than for different carriers, the idea of “through transport” began to develop into the carrier’s attempting to offer what the market wanted: transport for the total journey, from door-to-door. The product being sold was no longer merely space on board a vessel but a service where the goods would be transferred in a continuous flow through the entire transport chain from producer to consumer. The developments were therefore more “market-driven” than carrier-driven.

Intermodalism therefore evolved as a natural extension of containerisation and also the transport operator seeing the need to develop a closer understanding with the cargo interests, i.e., the manufacturer or producer on the one side of the transport chain and the importer or trader on the other side.

For the carriers, now “transport organisers”, this meant that they could capitalise on the relative advantages of the various transport modes on the different legs of the journey. For the customer this meant that one body was the “carriers’ and, hopefully, that carrier would be responsible for the total carriage for one price and also be liable if the goods were lost or damaged. This was a change from the old days of conventional transport when the cargo owner had to discover where the loss or damage took place and bring an action against the carrier on that leg.

Many changes resulted. The documentation, itself changed from simple, ocean bills of lading being used, to “combined transport documents” being used and also accepted by the banks. Changes also occurred in relationships between parties. “Carriers” were no longer merely the owners of the vessels or other transport vehicles in which the goods were carried. Large freight forwarders could operate as “NVOCs” (non-vessel owning carriers) and provide the service of carriage, subcontracting out the intermediate carriage.

Other changes took place, especially in the United States. In that country, for example, not only did some ports attempt to enter the intermodal system by offering consolidation services to shippers and ocean carriers. To take Seattle as one example, the port authorities attempted in 1984/5 to undertake to transfer containers from the vessel to the inland transport bases and also to arrange inland transportation, including documentation. The Pacific Northwest ports also tried to operate railways.

In the United States, the deregulation of the railways in March 1981 meant that the railway companies were generally free from Government control and could negotiate transport rates freely. They were assisted by the enactment of the U.S. Shipping Act 1984, which allowed ocean and other carriers to combine with railways. This was another major change. Indeed, some traditional ocean carriers even began to operate trains (for example, in 1984, the American President Lines introduced a double stack rail car that could carry 200 containers and, in the 1 990s, the large railway companies have bought into the ocean carriers, e.g., the large CSX merged with Sea-Land Service, the United States shipping company).

New terminology resulted: landbridges, minibridges and microbridges became normal words. “OCP” was a new term meaning “Over Common Point”, covering cargo moving East of the Rocky Mountains, and so on.

In the 1990s, intermodal transport is developing widely, even in Europe where in 1992/1993 a Single European Market will be formed. The traditional ocean carriers are transport organisers and this seemed to take away the importance of the transport intermediaries, the freight forwarders.

The overall objective behind intermodalism is that it reduces the time and money lost at the interface between the different modes of transport. If and when the United Nations Multimodal Convention 1980 comes into force, there should be a more uniform system of liability for loss or damage to the goods anywhere during carriage. Before this occurs, the ICC rules for combined transport, which impose a system of liability known as “network liability” has to suffice, where the cargo owner must be satisfied with being compensated according to the location of the loss or damage.


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International Container Bureau (BIC)