Intermodal transport looks to inland waterway options

By: | at 08:00 PM | Intermodal  

By Paul Scott Abbott, AJOT

As the intermodal shipping industry continues to search for alternatives to traditional land-based links with seaports, inland waterways are gaining increasing attention.

“The only place we have excess capacity is on the water,” said Deirdre McGowan, executive director of the Inland Rivers Ports and Terminals Inc. (IRPT) professional trade association. “We’ve just got to move more freight on the water, and it’s got to go up rivers.”

McGowan is among industry leaders scheduled to speak at the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA)‘s inaugural Shallow-Draft Ports Seminar, set for Oct.5-6 in Pittsburgh. That event will immediately follow the first SmartRiver 21 International Symposium, hosted on Oct. 2-4 by the Port of Pittsburgh Commission.

James McCarville, executive director of the Port of Pittsburgh Commission, said he believes the US transportation industry can benefit from an understanding of inland waterway successes in Europe.

“Our hope is to more successfully coordinate and integrate waterways with highway and rail transportation as part of the intermodal global supply chain,” McCarville said.

Inland waterway transportation (IWT) has suffered from an improper poor image, according to Reinhard Pfliegl, vice president for technology of Austria’s government-owned, private-law company that serves as that country’s only waterway infrastructure operator.

“Basically, we have to reshape the image,” said Pfliegl, who pointed to misconceptions that IWT is slow, unreliable and operationally nontransparent. Rather, he said, IWT is safe, environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and reliable, and it can become even more reliable with application of telemetrics such as river information systems, instrumented locking systems and electronic data interchange with authorities.

Otto Schwetz, manager of the Danube Corridor and, like Pfliegl, a scheduled SmartRiver speaker, added that implementation of IWT into the logistics chain requires appropriate infrastructure, a supportive political structure, awareness on the part of freight forwarders and “removal of nautical and mental bottlenecks along the intermodal corridors.”

Since its genesis five years ago, the US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration (MARAD) Short-Sea Shipping Initiative has been championing IWT as a much-needed wave of America’s future. Wide-ranging support has come from trade associations, environmentalists, ports, shippers, vessel operators, shipyards and union leadership.

But IWT remains in its infancy in the United States compared to Europe, where more than 40% of all cargo tonnage within the continent moves by water, nearly equaling the 45% that travels by truck.

Wade Battles, managing director of the Port of Houston Authority, who is among AAPA seminar speakers, noted that container-on-barge operations such as those that have been deployed through Houston offer numerous benefits. These include a reduction in impact on the port’s gate system, less pollution because fewer trucks are on the highways, increased efficiencies, the ability to move large volumes quickly in a single batch to a specific inland location and the capability to transport containers that exceed weight limitations placed on over-the-road loads.

The positive impact on air quality is particularly important in “non-attainment areas,” such as Houston, where air pollution levels persistently exceed national ambient air quality standards.

“The challenge, of course, is being able to adhere to a schedule because of the variables involved with the waterway because of the lock system,” Battles said.

“In today’s environment, there is a focus on looking for intermodal alternatives to the traditional marine-road or marine-rail distribution, and an area of potential growth is container-on-barge,” he said. “Houston has looked at it as an intermodal alternative. We’re looking at all the alternatives we can.”

Through Osprey Line, Houston now enjoys container-on-barge services with Baton Rouge


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