Shippers Look to the Rivers to Move More Freight

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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 steam.

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 Houston.”

Without volume, transportation companies would be reluctant to make the investments needed to enable them to handle containers, he said.

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 them.

“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 the U.S.”

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.”