Has the time finally arrived for container on barge?

The cover story in the upcoming March issue of WorkBoat is about an old idea that on its surface makes a lot of sense. It’s fairly simple. Take containers off of trucks and railcars and put them on barges, shrinking the carbon footprint and easing congestion on highways and other roadways.

Now that sounds like an idea that should be wildly successful. Well, not really.

Over the years, the federal government has helped fund and promote the idea — container-on-barge (COB) transportation services. But once the government funding ran out, the COB service would usually be discontinued. For the private sector, it would be a money loser.

As editors Ken Hocke and Kirk Moore wrote in the story, despite this, the national effort to develop COB services continues. Why? In large part because of the nation’s transportation bottlenecks on land: choking highway traffic, delayed reinvestment in infrastructure, and the costs those impose on the public and private sectors. And the waterways can handle more traffic.

As Scott Davies of the Maritime Administration told WorkBoat, “the waterways are the only mode that has any major capacity available.”

He said that many highways around ports in major transport corridors are already at capacity, without enough money to make big improvements.

“We just don’t have the money in the Highway Trust Fund … the waterways is the only mode” with 25,000 miles including 30 major urban areas, Davies said. “The system is there, it requires a minimal amount of investment.”

Making better use of the waterways for these services seems to make sense. But unless the cargo and demand is there, and thus revenue, the private sector won’t jump in.

Davies said four factors must be there for a COB service to succeed. First, the community must be on board, commit freight. Next, the players must have the right operational framework in place from the beginning — the correct vessels to handle the job. Third, public benefits must be a priority. That means less highway traffic and improved air quality. Finally, COB must not cost more than truck or rail.

These costs, as Davies said, must be aligned.

About the author

David Krapf

David Krapf has been editor of WorkBoat, the nation’s leading trade magazine for the inland and coastal waterways industry, since 1999. He is responsible for overseeing the editorial direction of the publication. Krapf has been in the publishing industry since 1987, beginning as a reporter and editor with daily and weekly newspapers in the Houston area. He also was the editor of a transportation industry daily in New Orleans before joining WorkBoat as a contributing editor in 1992. He has been covering the transportation industry since 1989, and has a degree in business administration from the State University of New York at Oswego, and also studied journalism at the University of Houston.


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    The trick is to have quick, organized loading and unloading of barges. Otherwise shippers will balk at increased cost. With a little engineering, barge cargo could be loaded directly to the ship. Maybe with a barge channel behind the crane and an extended crane. In the major ports I’ve been in, marine traffic is minuscule compared to road traffic.
    With bigger ships and the end of the mosquitoe fleet of pre WWII, many harbors are almost empty. Family pictures from the 20s & 30s show very busy harbors and empty roads.

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    Several powerful forces will push against COB, and have for decades, the trucking industry lobbying effort because 70% of all freight moved in the USA is by truck. Then there is the railroads again another powerful lobbying force in DC.
    Everyone in the industry understand the efficiency of COB and how this mode can reach thousands of cities and get rid of long haul truckers except out west.
    It would be a win win for the industry and the consumer, but just Like several initiatives that would ebnifit the industry and the consumer watch who comes out againstbit and what their affiliation is with these other industries.

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    It is a complete stretch to use carbon footprint as a justification because there is no analysis possible of the benefit. So there is just an economic analysis available and the states love the truck taxes. The unions like the truck drivers dues. The Rail Roads are ready and would like the cargo. The logistics is slow and clogged with featherbedding. The boulder is going up hill here.

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    There is plenty of analysis to show that the carbon footprint is a real factor using towboats/barges to transport containers, using existing real Ton/mile calculations from the Trucking, Railroad and Towing industry and from Independent studies and the difference is significant.

    Railroads in the US are near capacity and putting more trains on the tracks can cause congestion by more roads blocked by more frequent crossings and very limited space in existing rail yards.

    Where do you get your information from?

  5. Avatar
    Alexandria Martinez on

    The other day, my fiance came home talking about barge loading. He was trying to tell me about a lot of different details included in this, but I did not know a lot and thought I should learn a little more. I think he would appreciate knowing that better waterways will help this business. http://sundbeckinc.com/services.html

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