Earlier this decade, inland hopper barges were being built at a staggering clip. By 2015, demand had softened significantly and the industry was tying up barges in the middle of harvest time.

The problem was the industry didn’t have a lot of old barges to scrap and take out of the fleet, so the numbers kept growing. For example, in 2014 about 60 covered hopper barges were sold to buyers in South America. In 2015, no international sales of hopper barges were recorded. The situation helped drive prices down because there was a surplus of equipment available.

In the past three years, barge owners have shown restraint and the number of new hopper barges built has fallen sharply. In fact, that restraint was so significant that it led to barge builder Jeffboat shutting down its yard in Jeffersonville, Ind., after delivering more than 10,000 hopper barges over an 80-year time frame. In November,  according to River Transport News (RTN)Trinity Industries announced that it had completed the spin-off of its infrastructure-related business, including its inland barge group, into a public company, Arcosa Inc. Trinity describes Arcosa as a growth-oriented manufacturer of infrastructure-related products and services with leading positions in construction, energy, and transportation markets.

According to RTN, 2018 deliveries of new jumbo hopper barges, open and covered, to operators on the Mississippi River and its tributaries fell to 214, 22% below already scaled back 2017 levels. Ingram Barge Co., Nashville, Tenn., the company with the largest hopper barge fleet, took delivery of the greatest number of new hopper barges in 2018 with 75, all built by Trinity/Arcosa. Heartland Barge Management, Columbia, Ill., took delivery of 62, Crounse Corp., Paducah, Ky., had 30 built, American Commercial Barge Lines (ACBL) took delivery of 20, and PML added eight new hopper barges to its fleet.

“Given the diminutive level of new hopper barge construction activity in 2018, the inland hopper barge fleet shrank for the second straight year,” RTN reported in mid-January.

Meanwhile, RTN reported that 311 jumbo hopper barges were removed from the overall fleet in 2018. RTN said that “given the fleet loses identified thus far, it would be safe to say that the inland jumbo hopper fleet shrank by a minimum of 97 barges in 2018.” Most expect the hopper barge fleet to be reduced even more in 2019. That’s because new hopper barge deliveries are expected to fall well below 2018’s numbers.

One reason, RTN said, is the average cost of new hopper barges, which may hit a record high this year.

Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.