5 myths about barge – the inland transport solution no one’s talking about

Stacked cargo containers on large barge on the Rhine River

By David Schulingkamp, Vice President, Barge Services

The word is out. Shoppers have been put on notice. The time for holiday shopping is yesterday.

Global supply chains are in gridlock. America’s largest ports are backlogged. The average time in transit for goods moving across the Pacific is 80 days (double that of pre-pandemic times). E-commerce goods are often on backorder. Rail terminals are congested and struggling to move imports. Capacity for truckload and less-than-truckload land transport is at near zero. Truck drivers are in short supply. Low-value goods are being shipped via expensive air freight from overseas. Large retailers have even resorted to chartering high-cost cargo ships.

For most businesses, the current situation seems untenable. And it is. Nevertheless, retailers continue to pull out all the stops to ensure they’re able to meet soaring consumer demand. But there’s one method of transport that seems to be consistently overlooked – barge.

For retailers moving goods across the U.S., one of the most underused modes of transport are inland waterways. In fact, America boasts more than 12,000 miles of waterways and 13,000 miles of coastal channels that are ideal for the transport of all sorts of goods. The marine highway covers 38 states (including 16 state capitals), but is mostly relegated to the area stretching from the Midwest into the Deep South (from Michigan’s Canadian border down to New Orleans and over to Brownsville, TX, along the Mexico border). Three-quarters of it lie within the Mississippi water system.

Despite their extensive reach, inland waterways, such as the Great Lakes, rivers and coastal routes are rarely considered for domestic transport, creating unused capacity that would be highly valuable to shippers given the gridlock taking place across other modes of transport. Moreover, greater use of barge service would free up capacity on U.S. highways as a single 15-barge tow can haul the equivalent of more than 1,000 full truckloads. There are significant environmental benefits as well. A barge generates only a fraction of the emissions that would be generated on the road and only the emissions of rail transport.

The U.S. Department of Transport has been working to revitalize the waterway system since 2010, working with rail terminals and ports to ensure goods can be transferred seamlessly. Despite the improvements and the desperate need for alternative transport modes in the face of congestion everywhere else, there’s little interest in using barge services, and mostly because of false perceptions.

Let’s take this opportunity to dispel some myths.

Myth #1: Using waterways is an outdated form of transport.

Reality: While waterways pre-date highways as transportation routes, waterways were widely used for transport even after the construction of the interstate highway system. In fact, 608 million tons of goods were transported through inland waterways in 2018, moving $232 billion in commerce.

Myth #2: Moving goods by inland waterway is much slower than by highway

Reality: It is true that moving goods by barge versus rail or truck is considerably slower, but in today’s environment where railyards are backlogged with container congestion and driver shortages are reducing trucking capacity, the accessibility of barge results creates a net-neutral disparity for transit time. Moreover, the slower speed of barge means it commands a lower price point, ideal for the shipment of goods that are not time sensitive.

Myth #3: Inland waterways can only be used for organic or non-harmful materials.

Reality: Barges frequently carry petroleum and petroleum products, fertilizer, chemicals and coal, as well as metals, such as steel and ore. However, agricultural goods are frequently transported using barge, as well.

Myth #4: Inland waterways are strictly for movement of goods within the U.S.

Reality: America’s inland waterways connect indirectly to critical seaports from which goods are exported to international markets. Similarly, imported goods can be transported inland using the waterway system. U.S. goods shipped by marine highway can also make their way to Canada along coastal routes or across the Great Lakes.

Myth #5: Barge transport cannot be part of intermodal transport.

Reality: Barge-to-rail and barge-to-truck (and vice versa) are common forms of inland, intermodal transport used by several industries across the U.S. The concept of container-carrying barges is also being considered so that barges can eventually connect directly with seaport container terminals.

There are many considerations at play when using barge vs. rail or truck, including time in transit, cost, volume of shipment and destination. While it may seem easier to use rail or truck, barge shouldn’t be discounted, especially when transit times or wait times for land transport are considerably long. The end result may be a win-win of cost savings and time savings, resulting in improved customer service, greater market competitiveness and stronger relationships with supply chain partners.

David Schulingkamp holds more than 35 years of experience in the international freight, customs brokerage and global logistics. He oversees all aspects of Livingston’s barge business in the United States and previously served led several logistics companies in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.