There are three major types of intermodal terminals, each having its own locational and equipment requirements:
- Port terminals. They are the most substantial intermodal terminals in terms of traffic, footprint, and capital requirements. A gateway (container terminal) provides an interface between the maritime and inland systems of circulation. The growth of long-distance maritime container shipping has also favored the emergence of intermediate hub terminals, some having an offshore location. Their purpose is mainly to transship containers from one shipping network to another, and many have limited hinterland connections. The terminal is used as a buffer while containers wait to be loaded on another ship. The containerization of inland river systems has led to the development of an array of barge terminals linked with major deep-sea terminals with scheduled barge services. At the maritime container terminal, barges can either use regular docking areas or have their own terminal facilities if congestion is an issue. Although barge-to-barge terminal container services are technically possible, they are not very common.
- Rail terminals. For inland intermodal chains, rail terminals are linked with port terminals. The fundamental difference between an on-dock and a near-dock rail facility is not necessary the distance from the terminal facilities, but terminal clearance. While for an on-dock rail terminal, containers can be moved directly from the dock (or the storage areas) to a railcar using the terminal’s own equipment, accessing a near-dock facility requires clearing the terminal’s gate, using the local road system, and clearing the gate of the near-dock rail terminal. These can be prone to congestion and delays. On-dock terminals tend to be designed to only handle containers on flatcars (COFC). Near-dock facilities tend to have more space available and can thus play a significant role in the maritime / rail interface, particularly if they are combined with transloading activities. The satellite terminal, the load center, and the transmodal terminal are all forms of inland ports. They are commonly designed to handle both COFC and trailers on flatcars (TOFC). A satellite terminal is mainly a facility located at a peripheral and less congested site that performs activities that have become too expensive or space-consuming for the maritime terminal, such as the storage of empty containers. Rail satellite terminals can be linked to maritime terminals through rail shuttle or truck drayage (more common) services. A load center is a standard intermodal rail terminal servicing a regional market area. If combined with a variety of logistical activities, namely freight distribution centers, it can take the form of an inland port. The surge of inland long-distance containerized rail traffic also requires transmodal (rail to rail) operations as freight is moved from one rail network to another. This can be done by switch carriers, trucking containers from one terminal to the other, or by dedicated rail-to-rail terminals.
- Distribution centers. Represent a distinct category of intermodal terminals performing an array of value-added functions, with transmodal operations dominantly supported by trucking. Distribution centers can perform three major functions. A transloading facility mainly transfers the contents of maritime containers into domestic containers or truckloads (or vice-versa). It is common in North America to have three 40-foot maritime containers transferred into two 53-foot domestic containers. Sometimes, shipments are palletized as part of the transloading process since many containers are floor loaded. Cross-docking is another significant function that commonly takes place in the last segment of the retail supply chain. With very limited storage, the contents of inbound loads are sorted and transloaded to their final destinations. Warehousing is a standard function still performed by a majority of distribution centers that act as buffers and points of consolidation or deconsolidation within supply chains.