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The River Barge Still Plays a Role in U. S. Transportation

Published: 04 June 2009
Barges offer many advantages when they can be appropriately and securely fit in one's supply chain.

River boats first appear in history around 3500 BC, plying the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Water travel made trade and growth of civilization possible. Water transport in the post-colonial United States made it possible for the new country to grow and prosper. In fact, river transport was one of the first modes used in America, with a cargo of deer and bear hides traveling down the Mississippi in 1705.

Next came the “flat boats” or “keelboats,” flat-bottomed floaters that could be easily constructed by strapping planks or poles together. In reality, they were little more than box-shaped floats that needed a "push." Many were as large as 80' X 10' and carried substantial loads. If the cargo being transported was raw materials like coal or timber, the boats could be open. If the commodity needed to be kept dry, like grain or furs, then a top would be created. Traveling downstream, even when heavily loaded, was a fairly easy chore; flowing with the current, and poling and rowing when necessary. Once at destination, many boats were dismantled and the wood sold for use in house building and other construction because it would have been a herculean task to row or poll back upstream.

The "push" really became known as a "tow" and the term "towboat" came to mean the power boat that actually pushed the "tow" of barges along the river. The load of barges being pushed then came to be known today as the "tow." Modern towboats can be as long as 200' in length, depending on the rivers they navigate, and can be as wide as 50' with flat bottoms. Power from their diesel engines ranges from 600 to over 10,000 horsepower.

River barges also have flat bottoms and are usually 200' long and 35' wide. Based on data supplied by the American Waterway Operators Association, the following are basic types of barges currently in use on U.S. rivers:

1. The open dry cargo barge is 195' in length and has a capacity of 1,530 tons. These barges typically transport coal, steel, ore, sand, gravel, and lumber.
2. The inland liquid cargo tank barge is longer, at 297', and has a capacity of one million gallons for such commodities as petroleum and petroleum products, fertilizer, and chemicals.
3. The covered dry cargo barge is of similar size to the open barge (1), but is used for grain, soybeans, coffee, paper products, etc. or goods that must be sheltered from the elements.
4. Finally, the coastal/ocean-going barge is used in coastal service for transport of petroleum and petro byproducts and even the fuel tank for NASA flights. The fuel barges are 550' in length and have a capacity of 225,000 barrels. The hulls of ocean-going vessels are deeper for better stability in ocean waters.

There are also specially created barges for special tasks. For example, NASA uses a special barge for transporting the massive space shuttle fuel tank from its manufacturer in Mississippi to the launch site.

The U.S. Inland Waterway System is comprised of about 12,000 miles of commercially navigable waterways that are maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. IHS Global Insight's Commerce & Transportation Practice is in the process of updating its CostLine Barge Model for the Corps of Engineers. The updated study should be completed in the second quarter of 2009.

The Corps' work consists of dredging and channel maintenance, as well as repair of the locks and dams along the waterways. Most locks and dams are quite old, requiring almost constant maintenance. Excellent examples of age are the 37 locks and dams on the Mississippi near St. Louis that have an average age of 50 years. Many of these dams and locks are inadequate for newer, larger, heavier barge traffic.

The typical 15-barge tow for example is around 1,200' long; but only three of these locks have a 1,200'. capacity. The other locks are only 600' long. The entire system is comprised of 191 active locks with 237 dam chambers. Nevertheless, the barges provide the U.S. Supply Chain with enormous capacity at a relatively low cost.

One barge has the capacity of 1,500 tons; 62,500 bushels, or 453,500 gallons of products. The typical 15-barge tow is capable of hauling 22,500 tons; 767,500 bushels; or 6,804,000 gallons. Comparing these capacities to other transport modes:

  • One barge has the capacity of 15 jumbo rail hoppers or 58 truck trailers
  • One 15-barge tow is equivalent to 2 1/4 100-car unit trains or 1,050 trucks!


Or, expressed in a different manner:

  • A single 15-barge tow is 1/4 mile in length
  • 2 and 1/4 unit trains are 2 3/4 miles in length
  • 870 truck trailer combinations stretch 34 1/2 miles, (allowing for 150 feet between each combo)

Economically speaking, barge rates are almost 54% lower than rail and nearly 95% lower than truck rates. This discrepancy in rates leaves barge transport second only to pipelines as the most economical mode of transport today.

Should fuel prices surge in the future as they did in the summer of 2008, we just may see more freight diverted to barge through new and innovative handling methods. An average tow can carry one ton, 514 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel, compared with the touted 202 miles by rail, and only 59 by truck. When it comes to commodities transported, barges move nearly 30% of the nation's coal, over 60% of all grain exports, and add an estimated $5 billion to the U.S. economy.

A single, 15-barge tow means that 1,050 trucks are taken off the U.S. highways. There are additional benefits from barge utilization. First, barges are the safest modes of transport, with few spills and fewer accidents. Newer barges have environmentally safe hulls in the event of spills. Rivers and waterways are relatively uncongested, and underutilized, making traffic flow easy. Barges produce little pollution and noise, and the rivers are established routes. Barges have the potential to take trucks off the highways

There are also drawbacks to barges. Barge traffic is slow. With the exception of pipelines, barges are possibly the slowest means of transportation. Barge operators and established barge customers have arguable points when fuel is at $5 per gallon and the roads and rails are backed-up. Nevertheless, a typical barge movement from Cairo, IL to New Orleans takes four days by barge. A trip from New Orleans back to Cairo takes eight days.

Of course, there is the fact that barges rely upon, in most cases, other transportation to move goods to/from the river ports to inland destinations. Devout barge users located adjacent to river terminals are most fortunate in avoiding another handling and necessary means of transport.

Traditionally, barge transport has been overlooked in the modern era. This is not to say that barges do not currently play an import role, and one that can become increasingly more important as we continue to be challenged by fuel costs, pollution, and congestion on today's interstate highways. The railroads have always been keenly aware of the competitive position of barge lines , as rail operators must maintain their own routes and rights-of-way. Trucks and barge operators move over natural and/or governmentally supplied and maintained highways and rivers and locks. This argument over the ownership of infrastructure is on-going, yet should not impact routing decisions by potential barge users in the near term. barge movement should be considered as an alternate means of moving goods in the United States.

During the height of the fuel spike last summer, discussions escalated about receiving increased shipments of steel via barge. Most steel shippers have considered barge shipping of their product a distant third option after truck and rail. Several steel executives have expressed satisfaction with bringing steel down the Tennessee River and one metals supplier has been quoted as stating that "if more mills could ship by water, we would buy from them." Steel Warehouse, based in South Bend, IN, has been utilizing barge more often in recent years for shipments to one facility in Chattanooga, TN and others where barge complexes exist.

The major trade-off, of course, is the additional time the steel spends in transit. Even with that caveat, Scott Sandifer, Vice President of Superior Steel & Supply of Lake Charles, LA., says that his company looks to locate new facilities on water as a high priority. Superior has five plate-stocking facilities located on the water or very near river ports: New Orleans and Morgan City, LA; Tulsa, OK; and Mobile, AL. Also, the new facility serving the Midwest is located at Port of Chicago's Iroquois Landing, offering deep water, rail, and truck accessibility.

Thus, barges offer many advantages when they can be appropriately and securely fit in one's supply chain. Nonetheless, fuel costs alone are not enough to drive traffic to barge transport. The barge lines themselves must be proactive in demonstrating their numerous capabilities to all shippers able to utilize their services. The growth of freight once economic recovery starts will make the quick availability of barge capacity another advantage.

By Charles W. Clowdis and Natasha Horowitz
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