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FreightWaves Classics: Drayage is first-mile logistics (Part 1)

Intermodal containers on railcars after drayage moves. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

While the drayage function has been around for thousands of years, its importance has grown significantly in the past 70 years, following the introduction of the shipping container by Malcom McLean and his Sea-Land Corporation.


According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of drayage “is the work or cost of hauling by dray.” Also according to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “drayage” occurred in 1791.

Many other sources describe drayage in similar ways. Most agree that in the shipping and logistics industries “drayage is the transport of goods over a short distance.” They also agree that drayage is often part of a longer overall move. According to Wikipedia, some research defines it specifically as “a truck pickup from or delivery to a seaport, border point, inland port, or intermodal terminal with both the trip origin and destination in the same urban area.” 

Drayage traffic near Port of LA. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Drayage traffic near the Port of Los Angeles. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In today’s world of intermodal freight transport, drayage is generally considered to be the transport of containerized cargo by specialized trucking companies between ocean ports or rail ramps and warehouses or shipping docks. As generally practiced today, drayage specifically refers to short distance movements as part of the supply chain process.

Again, most sources would agree that drayage is a “key aspect of the transfer of shipments to and from other means of transportation.” While  drayage in the United States primarily refers to the movement of intermodal containers from one of the nation’s seaports to an off-port location, drayage can also refer to a pickup by vehicle to or from an inland/border point or an intermodal rail terminal.

In addition, drayage may also be defined and used as the term for the fee paid for such services. This use of the term is often used in the container shipping industry for international commerce.

There are subsets and different types of drayage as well (more on this below). However, port drayage is the term most often used when describing short hauls from ports and other areas to nearby locations. 

There can also be drayage within large buildings (such as shopping centers and convention centers) when goods are moved from a loading dock to an interior area. For many shopping malls, there may be a centralized loading area where receivers pick up their goods in order to limit road and parking congestion. 

In regard to trade shows and similar events, whether an exhibitor ships directly to the show site or to a show warehouse, every company’s exhibit needs to get from the loading dock to its respective spot on the show floor. Trade shows often employ outside services, delivering crates to each company’s designated exhibit space, and back to the loading dock after the show is complete.

An intermodal container being loaded on a truck. (Photo: Georgia Ports Authority)
An intermodal container being loaded on a truck. (Photo: Georgia Ports Authority)


Drayage is as old as shipping. The earliest forms of drayage have been around since the first ships carried goods from one port to another. 

When the term “drayage” began to be used it meant “to transport by a sideless or low-sided cart,” or a dray. Dray carts were pulled by dray horses, and were used to move goods of various types short distances such as from a dock to a larger wagon or railcar. The distance dray carts could be moved was determined in part by the physical limitations of a dray horse. Dray activities usually occurred at seaports, spreading to canal and rail terminals. Dray carts and horses were used from the 1500s to the early 1900s.

As shipping of imported and exported goods grew, a system to offload ships and move cargo from dock or pier to a distribution center or a different transportation mode was needed. As technology evolved, trucks eventually replaced the “dray” horses, providing more power and the ability to move goods more quickly. Eventually trucks became the standardized equipment for drayage.

In logistics terms, dray refers to the actual vehicle – today a chassis truck – used to carry out drayage. A dray truck transports containers over a short distance as a component of a longer shipping journey. The driver is referred to as the dray driver or in legacy terms, the drayman. 

The Intermodal Association of America (IANA) has noted that there are more than 60 million dray movements annually. Many loads require drayage at both the front- and back-end, and sometimes in the middle of the journey as well.

Although drayage is a very small component (in terms of both time and distance) of the supply chain, its cost and potential problems can be disproportionately high. 

A drayage truck hauling an intermodal container. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)
A drayage truck hauling an intermodal container. (Photo: Port of Los Angeles)

Key characteristics of drayage

Drayage is a specialty logistics service that is normally finished in one shift. Other forms of transportation take over after a drayage truck moves a container from a port to another location. 

The departure and arrival points are typically part of the same metropolitan area, in comparison to the regional or national movements seen in other forms of shipping.

During a routine freight move, in which numerous transportation methods are used for shipment (such as truck and rail), drayage occurs when the freight is transferred from the truck and placed on the train. At that time, shipping documents are updated, and possibly, the freight may be rearranged (split up or palletized) for the next leg of its journey.

A line of semi-trucks with intermodal containers with the Port of Tacoma in the background.
A line of drayage trucks leaving the Port of Tacoma. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Different types of drayage

Drayage services are not one-size-fits-all. Drayage is classified according to the services that it helps to link. Each classification is different and suits only certain types of container movement. In the end, it is a shipper’s call to decide what type of drayage is best suited for the transport of its cargo.

According to the IANA, there are six different classifications that are used to define drayage. These classifications are universal and serve as part of the vocabulary for those in the shipping business. 

Door-to-door drayage transports goods from one location (port, railhead, warehouse, etc.) directly to a receiver (either at a place of business or home). This type of drayage is often used in e-commerce fulfillment in which door-to-door delivery is offered.

This drayage method works best for cargo such as artwork or furniture to ensure safety and a minimum of damage.

Expedited drayage is usually the use of over-the-road transport for time-sensitive cargo or goods. This type of drayage transports cargo where it is needed urgently. Expedited drayage is a faster process than the other types of drayage on this list.

Drayage that is expedited requires that all transportation services are well-coordinated to avoid any unnecessary delays getting the cargo delivered to its destination.

Inter-carrier drayage refers to the transport of cargo between carriers, usually over a short distance. This is what comes to mind first when most people think of drayage. It involves the movement of goods between different carriers or from one mode of transportation to another.

As an example, inter-carrier drayage might involve transporting goods from a trucking terminal to a rail station, or moving goods from a port where a container was taken from a ship by a truck to a warehouse. 

Drayage trucks move intermodal containers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Drayage trucks move intermodal containers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Intra-carrier drayage involves a container being transported in a short-haul move between different freight terminals owned by the same company. For example, a carrier would take freight from its rail hub to its intermodal hub.

Pier drayage refers to the movement of cargo from a railyard or storage area to a pier where there is a ship that is waiting for the next leg of the cargo’s trip. With pier drayage a truck utilizes roads and/or highways to transport intermodal units to a dock or pier from a previous hub.

Shuttle drayage occurs when the hub of origin is full and cannot accommodate additional shipments. Some units are transported for temporary storage elsewhere. Shuttle drayage keeps containers and the goods they hold safe in storage until there is room for them. Shuttle drayage can also be a phase of inter-carrier drayage when containers need to be held at a lot or warehouse until the next mode of transportation is available – whether it be air, land or sea.

Shuttle drayage is used for both loaded and empty containers when overcrowding in the hub occurs.

Among the sources consulted for this FreightWaves Classics article were: ABCO, AsianUSA, BansarChina, BOA Logistics, Envase, FMI, FreightRight, Globecon Freight, Icontainers, InTek Freight & Logistics and Marine Insight. Thanks to each of these companies for the information provided.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.