Transport Modes in International Logistics: Usual and Unusual

a day ago   •   5 min read

By Silverbird Content Team

Transportation is the backbone of the global economy, the circulatory system that transports vital nutrients through the body of the supply chain.

Timely delivery isn’t a luxury anymore – it’s an expectation, and the success of your business will be determined by your choice of transportation.

Which is the right transport mode for you? Let’s take a look at the available transport modes – both usual and unusual.


This article at a glance

There are four primary modes of transportation in international logistics – truck, ship, train, and plane. However, what other methods are out of the ordinary?


Choosing the right transport mode for your business

Speed isn’t everything. The nature of your goods also determines the correct choice of transportation. For example, flammable items are generally restricted on air freight.

Consider your shipping origin and shipping destination. Knowing this before you choose a shipping method will help you determine your mileage tracking, access to maritime ports, railroads or airports, the shipping distance, checkpoints you need to cross, and whether it fits into your budget.

Ultimately, all shipping methods have advantages and disadvantages. The vast majority of freight will require more than one type of transportation. Picking the right ones can make or break a business.

The four primary modes of transportation in international logistics

Road freight (Truck)
Road transportation is popular in North America for a few reasons. There are fewer restrictions when compared to transportation by air or sea. It can also be used in tandem with almost every other mode of transportation. Better still, there’s less packing, shipping and offloading involved.

A crucial point to note is that road freight is highly accessible – every country in the world has a road network. This means that your product can be delivered door-to-door if needed. This surely cannot be said for sea, rail or air networks. Not every country or city has an offloading port.

However, if time and safety are a primary concern for you, you might want to steer away from road freight. Firstly, it’s probably the slowest form of transport. There is a higher risk of accidents and breakdowns due to machinery and unforeseen weather or road closures. Worse still, it’s more vulnerable to criminal activity.

Sea freight  (Ship)
More than 90% of all goods around the globe are transported by ships. This is unsurprising. The number of goods a single ship or shipping container can carry is significantly much more than the maximum load of a truck, train or plane. It’s cheaper too. If you’re shipping bulk materials like raw materials or produce, sea freight is no doubt one of your best options.

You’ll only need to move your products twice. Once when loading, and another when offloading. Essentially, your goods are far less likely to be damaged – especially on a slow-moving vessel.

Nonetheless, the long transit times are a downside. Although sea freight may be both friendly to the environment and your wallet, you are likely to experience slow and tiresome delivery speeds. In any case, if you are partnering with a freight forwarder, make sure you choose one that's reputable and has access to a global shipping network.

Rail freight (Train)
Rail freight declined over the course of the 20th century owing to competition from trucks and the massive expansion of European and North American highways. Now, rail freight makes up 15% of all freight shipments in the USA.

Rail freight is extremely safe. Rail transportation of hazardous materials is recognised to be the safest method to move large quantities of chemicals over long distances, such as inter-country transportation.

Even so, rail freight may not be suitable for all locations, especially for countries that don’t have an extensive rail network. Choosing rail freight is good over long distances, but it doesn’t allow for the smooth door-to-door efficiency of road transportation. Simply put, you will require additional transportation via road freight to accommodate door-to-door service because trains follow predefined routes and have specific offloading locations.

Air freight (Plane)
Speed, speed, and more speed. Air freight is your best choice for speedy shipping and delivery. Accessible, convenient, and simple for moving smaller shipments across the world. If you have promises to provide deliveries within a certain timeframe, air freight will work to your advantage.

You don’t have to worry about security when choosing air freight. As with all flights, the security level is high, so that you can be assured your shipments undergo rigorous protection measures. The high standards of safety can be a downside – hazardous and flammable products are more likely to be rejected.

The perks come with a price tag. Air freight is expensive due to high fuel costs and security checks. It comes with added risk too – restrictions on size, weight and product types, and also that any crashes in the air may result in a complete loss of your products.

Intermodal or multimodal transportation: What happens if you need two or more different transport methods?

It’s rare for any shipment to only utilise one transport method. For example, shipping a product from Europe to China will involve air, road, and probably rail freight. You can’t possibly ship across the globe without a combination of transport modes unless you only plan on shipping domestically.

So, let’s consider intermodal and multimodal transportation.

The terms are confusing. Both modes involve moving cargo from the shipping origin to the shipping destination using more than one mode of transport. The main difference is in the contract.

Putting it simply, this is the main difference between intermodal and multimodal transportation.

Intermodal Multimodal
Cargo goes through: Cargo goes through:
1. Rail freight company A 1. Containership company A
2. Air freight company B
3. Sea freight company C
4. Road freight company D
5. Air freight company B
6. Rail freight company A

In multimodal transportation, the entire shipping journey is covered under a single contract. The shipping company or carrier provides all modes of transport needed to ensure that door-to-door delivery is completed for you, and takes sole responsibility for your shipment.

In intermodal transportation, however, each leg of the journey – no matter which type of transport method – is covered under their respective contracts.

No matter which method you choose, always ensure that you have a reliable transportation management system (TMS) that allows you to track door-to-door deliveries.

What is the future of transportation?

Technology is advancing at an alarming pace. This opens up doors for shipping methods we used to believe were impossible. Self-driving trucks are already in development. Some, supervised by humans, are already on the road. Over the next decade, 90% of all long-haul truck freight may be automated.

Development in orbital transportation is gaining momentum. Recently DHL partnered with D-Orbit to launch “tens of thousands of low- and medium-Earth-orbit (LEO and MEO) satellites” in the next few years.

Cable cars as a logistics support are being studied in rural areas such as Garut, West Java. Unlike the four common methods of transportation – train, ship, plane and truck – cable cars can access areas with difficult terrain, including mountainous areas. This could be a viable and innovative solution to bring crops and mass commodities to hard-to-reach areas in rural cities.

Simplify your shipping process

Putting your business on a global scale means you have to work with international freight companies in different countries – a costly affair. Add to that the high forex rates and SMEs can struggle to stay afloat.

Silverbird lets you avoid the high costs and smothering regulations that come with international trade. We enable you to hold, transfer and exchange foreign currencies online simply by using a single multi-currency account. Make and receive payments in over 30 currencies without fuss.

Start onboarding today.


Author: Silverbird Content Team
Illustration: Kate Faldina

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