Multimodal international transport: what is it?

Multimodal transportation

Multimodal transport combines different means of transport to speed up and make the transportation of materials and goods more efficient.


The creation of large terminals or logistics hubs connected by road, rail and sea with the centres of production and consumption has in recent years boosted the spectacular development of multimodal transport, which has the capacity to reach almost all parts of the world. Let’s take a closer look.


What does multimodal transport mean?


Multimodal international transport consists of moving goods in a single transport unit (container, swap body, etc.) from one country to another, using two or more means of transport: air, sea, river, rail or road (lorry).


The loading unit, with the goods inside, passes from one mode of transport to another by physical means, but the loading unit cannot be broken up, meaing that the goods cannot be separated. The international multimodal transport unit par excellence is the container, mainly the 20 and 40 tonnes container. There is also the so-called intermodal transport unit (ITU), which is basically used in operations that use the land mode and can be containers, swap trailers or semi-trailers.


The European Union is working to introduce a new type of container: the European intermodal loading unit, which combines the advantages of containers (strength and stackability) and those of swap trailers, in particular their larger capacity.


International multimodal transport has been regulated since 1980 by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in its Convention on International Multimodal Transport of Goods.


This convention provides that a single multimodal transport contract, the FIATA Bill of Lading (FBL), is to be used in a multimodal transport operation. It also defines the roles and responsibilities of the multimodal transport operator, as well as the responsibilities of the shipper.


The multimodal transport operator can be a logistics operator, an agency or a freight forwarder who undertakes a commitment as the main carrier vis-à-vis the exporter or importer. The operator issues the multimodal transport contract, a unified document of all the means and modes of transport used, in which it assumes the responsibilities for the execution of the contract.


Advantages of multimodal transport


  • Simplifies by using a single loading unit, a single transport operator and a single contract. It is the only mode that allows the use of a single contract, all others require more than one.
  • The contracting company has a single representative throughout the entire process, without having to engage different logistics operators.
  • It speeds up and reduces handling times when the unit load moves from one mode of transport to another. The FBL has preferential entry and passage through customs.
  • Lower costs.
  • Reduced controls, as unit loads are sealed.
  • Lower chance of theft or loss.
  • Goods can be monitored and tracked through digital and satellite systems, making it particularly suitable for the transport of high-value goods.
  • Increased certainty of timing of delivery.


Multimodal international transport is best carried out by an expert logistics operator such as Noatum, which can handle the entire logistics chain and choose the most suitable chain of transportation for each operation.