What was intended as a way to reduce traffic congestion on the highways through short-sea shipping along the East Coast more than 50 years ago has ended up playing a key role in making offshore manufacturing in low-cost locations across the globe economically viable. The innovative use of large metal containers to ship goods eventually led to the development of an intermodal transportation system that today is the unsung hero of global trade.
Few could have foreseen the future trade implications of Malcolm McLean's small experimental move of 58 metal containers on the ship Ideal-X from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston in April 1956. It was a small step for transportation that became a giant leap for global commerce. The container's impact on lowering shrinkage at the docks, and speeding up port loading and unloading, is widely and rightly praised. However, to provide seamless transportation from a point of production to a point of consumption anywhere in the world requires more than just a metal box - it requires an integrated system. The real growth and success of global trade is due to the creation of the entire intermodal system that not only streamlines loading and unloading of cargo at ports but also simplifies the transfer of goods from one mode to another.
Intermodal transportation is, as the name implies, the coordinated use of multiple modes of transportation for a single shipment. While intermodal can refer to the transfer of goods between any mode of transportation, it is most commonly used for ocean-rail, ocean-truck or rail-truck combinations. The use of common containers, which are standardized reusable steel boxes used for the safe, efficient and secure storage and movement of materials and products, is critical in any intermodal transportation system.
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