Shippers Look to the Rivers to Move More Freight
18 April 2015
By Jon Schmitz
With increasing volume on the nation’s freight railroad system and
chronic congestion on highways, shippers are once again looking at
rivers as possible relief valves.
Their latest toe in the water came this month when shipping
containers — those multicolored units that look like railroad
boxcars minus the wheels — were loaded onto a barge in Kentucky
for an experimental jaunt on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to
Granite City, Ill., near St. Louis.
While containers on barges are a common sight at ocean ports,
efforts to ship them via inland waterways haven’t picked up much
A 2003 report prepared by the Port of Pittsburgh Commission cited
a “chicken or egg” problem. “Container shippers are reluctant to
commit cargo for a service that the barge lines do not offer on a
predictable, regular and reliable basis … Barge lines are
reluctant to commit barges to a service without the guarantee of
sufficient cargo,” it said.
Another obstacle to development of a container-on-barge market
here is that Pittsburgh is at the end of the line, so to speak.
Barges to and from the busy Gulf of Mexico ports would have to
pass through 21 locks on the Ohio.
“Pittsburgh’s location as the northeastern most point on the
inland waterways has the highest risk of inefficiencies due to the
number of locks and dams barges need to maneuver in and out of the
area. This could be detrimental to reliable service and transit
times,” the report said.
“What we need is volume. Pittsburgh is not the best place to start
this,” said Peter Stephaich, chairman and CEO of Campbell
Transportation Co., based in Washington County. “We don’t have the
volume of containers that come into places like New Orleans and
Without volume, transportation companies would be reluctant to
make the investments needed to enable them to handle containers,
Because river shipping is slower and subject to more uncertainty
than railroad or truck transport, “time-sensitive cargoes are not
really suitable” for barges, Mr. Stephaich said.
For its test run, Ingram Barge Co. loaded a barge with containers
at Paducah, Ky., using a 200-ton tower crane described as the
biggest in North America. The towboat M/V Miss Shirley pushed the
containers to Granite City and was to return to Kentucky to unload
“Currently our nation’s highways and railways are operating near
full capacity, while our inland waterways are vastly
underutilized,” said Dan Mecklenborg, senior vice president for
Ingram Barge, based in Nashville, Tenn. “We know there is
substantial room to grow in transporting goods on the rivers with
minimal investment. And the inland waterways network is the safest
and most environmentally friendly mode of transporting cargo in
In response to questions from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr.
Mecklenborg said the next step “is to work with shippers,
retailers and associations affiliated with commodities that are
transported to get a clear understanding of what they need and
what we can provide to benefit them. We believe that when shippers
realize the potential here, they will be open to moving their
goods via barge.”
Coal and aggregates such as sand and gravel, loaded in open
barges, make up the vast majority of river shipments passing
through the Port of Pittsburgh.
While efforts to develop inland river transport of containers have
sputtered for more than 20 years, population growth and increased
demand for goods will expand the need for multi-modal
transportation, Mr. Mecklenborg said. “The completion of the
Panama Canal expansion is another factor that will affect the
shipment of goods and the amount of cargo moved.
“Pittsburgh is certainly a city that could benefit because of
location and capacity,” he said. “However, at this stage, we
really cannot predict the impact on a single city.”