Years ago, Lionel model trains offered collectors some very unusual cargoes for miniature rail shipments. These included such things as a pickle car, aquarium car, and so forth. The inland waterway system has moved its own share of novelty cargoes over the years. These include shipments of new automobiles loaded on deck barges and rolls of paper transported in covered barges.
By contrast, today’s inland waterways industry is considerably more focused on what it does best — barge-load movements of bulk commodities. Shipments of non-bulk items like lumber still exist, but these types of movements are declining. Various efforts to expand beyond the industry’s bulk niches with larger jumbo barges for the Mississippi River trade below St. Louis and develop compartmentalized less-than-barge-load shipments (for example, steel imports from New Orleans) have not spread.
Basically, the industry still pushes 195’×35’×12’ steel boxes that can each carry up to 1,500 tons of whatever can be poured into the barge bottom and shoveled out. The barges can haul just about any bulk commodity in any form over a vast waterway network. The only choice is whether the barges are open or covered.
While the capabilities are there to carry almost anything, it is rare that inland barges move anything packaged or wrapped. Notable exceptions are a small percentage of marine containers that are legally overweight for highway traffic and empty marine containers that are not time sensitive. Planners who envision a green waterway sector modeled after Europe will be frustrated because shippers simply find it prohibitive to move time-sensitive small shipments on the waterways. Also, it requires more than 50 containers to fill a barge.
The reality is that our floating steel boxes will only be used for bulk shipments and some novelty cargoes. High-value, time-sensitive consumer goods will usually avoid using barges that only move 5 mph. While there may be some attractive niche markets out there, the reality is that barges will only move what can be poured inside of them and scooped out.