There are a number of different transportation modes available for shipping goods in the US logistics industry. The US boasts a robust transportation system, from busy airports to sprawling rail networks and endless highways. But does the US logistics network have options that can be more cost-effective and sustainable than the traditional modes accepted by most organizations? In this blog post, we will dive into shipping over inland waterways but first, let us quickly understand the full landscape of transportation modes.
Like most countries globally, US logistics mainly rely on three shipping methods: air, rail, and truck.
Yet, in this vast network lies a largely untapped sector: Inland Marine Shipping. Only about 5% of all freight in the United States moves on river barges, making it a sector ripe for exploration. What is inland marine shipping, what value does it offer over the other modes discussed, and is it relevant in 2023? We'll find answers to all of these questions below.
The United States inland waterway system has roughly 12,000 miles of rivers and 237 lock chambers at 192 locations. This complex network, which has the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, Illinois, Snake, and other connecting rivers and canals, is a commercial logistics asset. Annually, over 500 million tons of freight move through these waterways. This high-efficiency, low-cost system is pivotal for maintaining global marketplace competitiveness. The 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) has allocated billions to modernize this network further, highlighting its importance in the national and global shipping landscape.
As global trade dynamics shift towards more cost-effective, sustainable, and efficient transportation, inland waterways are a great option. With its rich history of river-based commerce, the US stands as a frontrunner, showcasing the immense possibilities of leveraging rivers for trade and transportation.
A standout value of inland waterways is their unmatched efficiency in transporting bulk volumes over longer distances. Towboats push barges, which are lashed together to form a "tow." On larger rivers with locks, a 15-barge tow is quite common, which is equivalent to about 225 railroad cars or 1050 tractor-trailer trucks. This efficiency translates to significant fuel savings and environmental benefits. For example, a gallon of fuel can ship one ton of cargo 514 mi (827 km) by barge, compared to 450 mi (720 km) by railway and 180–240 mi (290–390 km) by truck. This efficiency reduces greenhouse gas emissions, decreases traffic congestion, and has overall environmental advantages.
Barges are ideal for transporting large quantities of bulk commodities and raw materials cost-effectively. In a year, the inland waterway system handles about 630+ MT of cargo, approximately 16.9% of the total intercity freight volume. Key commodities include:
While traditional commodities like coal, petroleum, and agricultural products are shipped via inland waterways, new-age businesses also have a massive interest in leveraging it. Start-ups and modern enterprises, like the e-commerce, sustainable goods, and tech sectors, always seek efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly shipping solutions. Inland marine shipping offers several advantages that resonate with the values of these businesses:
Inland and Intracoastal waterways are vital economic arteries, directly serving 38 states and handling cargo valued at over $73 billion annually. States like Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and others rely heavily on these waterways, with some shipping goods worth over $10 billion annually. The transportation savings offered by waterways, estimated at $10.67 per ton, translates to over $7 billion in annual savings for the US economy.
With its vast potential, Inland Marine Shipping is waiting to be explored further. As the world moves towards sustainable solutions, river shipping offers a promising avenue for shippers and barge operators alike.
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