Container Feeder Barge

Could this be something to help improve domestic container transport in the US?:

Forget about the “Self-propelled” part and increase the scope to also cover inland and coastal transport.
Such barges could be pushed by tugs and serve small depots without own crane facilities situated along the inland waterway, rivers and canal systems.

They could also be used to “lighter” container ships at protected anchorages, thus reduce port congestions. Maybe in conjunction with inland transport?

I could envisage a system where containers were loaded on barges directly from container ships at anchorages. The barges marshalled by smaller local tugs to basin(s) nearby, formed into rafts for different areas and pushed by a single large tug in inland waters.

Barges could be dropped of a depots along the route, discharged and loaded with container for export, (and/or empties) and picked up on the return trip.

This should suite better to the existing US system than adopting the European system of self-propelled inland feeder ships:

Barge traffic such as container barges is important for the Antwerp port community as a whole and for sustainable transport of freight to and from the hinterland. Around 7 000 barges operate on Europe’s inland waterways and the Port of Antwerp handles around 150 barges per day
Photo courtesy ShipPhoto.

In short, No. Not at all.

But I’m curious what the perceived impediments to feedering are that this design would solve.

Maybe this committee will be able to answer your question:

If they are able and willing to look at how the rest of the world does things that is.

I was more curious about your understanding of the situation.

Maybe you could enlighten me about “the situation”??
AFAIK if the barges and tugs involved are US owned, US flag, US built and US manned the JA is not a hindrance to operating in US territorial waters, or between US ports. (??)

I think the biggest thing about this situation is the current existence of a well developed rail network that moves boxes from container ports to points inland. Can the setup you described offer cost and or time benefits over what currently exists?

Don’t get me wrong, I hope the answer is yes but it doesn’t feel like this is new technology we’re talking about here… If it is a superior method, why hasn’t it already been done/attempted?

It has been done/attempted. In fact it is done every day worldwide.
Geared container feeders are used both for inland, coastal, inter-European and inter-Asian trade:

Some Inland container feeders are equipped with low profile cranes:

I was of the impression that the Longshoremen’s Union was the main obstacle to developing domestic Short Sea and Container Feeder services in the US.

The “aversion” against self-propelled ship and love of barges, tugs and ATBs in domestic trade may also be a factor.

The combination of barges with cranes to load/discharge containers in shallow ports with minimal facilities and tugs to push them around sounds like it overcomes the last, but maybe not the first obstacle??

I meant why hasn’t it been done/attempted in the US (which is where you were suggesting) where there is an existing well developed rail system that it would have to compete with.

There are well developed rail and road transport system in Europe and other places.
That doesn’t stop development of an efficient short sea and inland waterway transport system.
The main reason for improving the existing system is to reduce GHG emission, pollution and road congestion.

I can see that to built the ships/barges required to develop a US system would be VERY expensive if they are required to be built at US yards,

That’s correct as the US also has a well developed inland waterway transportation system… Just not for containers. Why is that?

All the barges (and push boats) currently plying our rivers are also US built so it’s not an impediment for current cargos, but no expansion into containers. Why is that?

Ah so the main reason is not an economic one. That means the billions of dollars in upfront investment required to get something like this put into action will not be put up by businesses especially with marginal or even non existent time/cost improvement over the currently in place system. (Which is why it hasn’t already happened).

All that being said, if MARAD wants to write some checks, it could happen. Time will tell.

Some people are looking to develop inland container port in my neck of the woods.
Proposed Jefferson County shipping container port makes progress |


This is great news, I hope it comes to full fruition.

As bugge pointed out above, I think getting the boxes off the ocean ships onto the river vessels in an efficient manner is key. Hopefully there’s something in the works in Louisiana for that.

What would be cool is a double ended gantry crane on a long, skinny pier. Ocean ship on one side of the pier, barges on the other. Box gets lifted from the ship and placed in the barge in one lift.

I’m not so sure that the reason he gives isn’t at least somewhat an economic one. The emissions thing is obviously not economic in nature, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would not view a reduction of road congestion as an economic positive.

America’s road transportation infrastructure is being pushed to its limits from sea to shining sea so I think anything that shifts a hefty amount of cargo off the roads and onto some other form of transportation should have some positive economic impact.

As I understand it, and it could be that I am misinformed so I’m just throwing this out there for consideration, the primary barrier to a viable short sea shipping system in the United States is that handling of cargo at water’s edge is prohibitively expensive.

I have heard this attributed to things such as cripplingly expensive longshoreman’s contracts, but also to regulatory issues like harbor tax. I am sure there is much more to it than just those two things but those are the two that I most remember from previous conversations on this subject.

I am not knowledgeable enough on this to comment on how those circumstances compare to Europe, but it would seem to the casual observer that Europe does not suffer from the same issues, or if they do then the seem to have found some solution that we have yet to try.


I couldn’t open the link you posted. (EU privacy rules no accepted by
But I googled it and found this article:
Container port facility may be built in Jefferson County – Sun Times News Online
I assume that is about the same project.

IIRC there were an earlier posting about a project building a Container Terminal near the mouth of the Mississippi and ships to carry containers upriver as far as St. Louis.
Don’t know if that is part of the same, nor how far that have advanced, if at all??

Yes, it is the same project. As they are beginning to budget and spend money for it, that is a good sign.

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In Europe there have been a well developed inland and short sea transport system for a long time, using self-propelled ships as well as barges and tugs.
To adapt that to container feeder service has been going on for years as the same time as rail and road transport has been developed. (In many cases given priority by the authorities)
The new “green” conscience by the population and businesses has “forced” governments to change tack and now put their emphasize on marine transport.

Yes, obviously it is going to be costly for the US to build up a “green” short sea and inland container feeding system, even if the public opinion should demand it and the politicians should be able to agree on anything as “drastic” as that. (Fat change of both)

Good question!! Do you have an answer?

One more question:
Why can’t you just put containers on existing river barges, push them upriver by existing tug and use existing facilities to handle the containers at destination point(s) without involving Longshoremen’s Union?

I think I know at least some of the answers, but I’ll like to hear yours.

The challenges to U.S. short sea container shipping are multi- dimensional and include the following, some of which have been already discussed:

  1. Labor costs - discussed at length elsewhere.
  2. Infrastructure costs - both vessel and shore side.
  3. Geography
  4. Rail competition
    On geography, in Europe and east Asia many of the continental container traffic lanes are oriented in the same direction as the waterways. In the U.S. the container traffic lanes are mostly east/west from the East and West coasts. waterways are quickly obstructed by the mountain ranges. The Mississippi River is a notable potential exception as a possibly viable north/south corridor. But due to the length of the route has its own set of challenges competing with point 4.
    Rail: The U.S. passenger rail network may be dysfunctional, but the fright rail network is 6 - 10 times more efficient than the European rail system. This makes the margin between the train and water options much narrower than in Europe or Asia. Especially when factoring in points 1 & 2.
    All that said I could imagine scenarios where the barges you discussed could be used. Say as feeder vessels to St. Louis if the Mississippi river service ever floats, a service serving NYC from the Erie Canal, a Columbia river service if Portland’s port ever resolved their problems, or the proposed route between Norfolk and Chowan County North Carolina.
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Yes, my answer was in that same post you quoted from…for review:

Theoretically you could. I think the bottlenecks are:

  1. Getting the boxes off the ocean going ships and onto the river barges efficiently; no existing process for that.
  2. Getting the boxes off the barges onto land and into the land based transport system; no existing infrastructure for that.
  3. What to do with the empties.

None of these are insurmountable, but will require substantial upfront investment most likely from Govt. agencies (see @Chief_Seadog 's post above). I hope it happens.

“Why can’t you just put containers on existing river barges, push them upriver by existing tug and use existing facilities to handle the containers at destination point(s)”
This has been tried to one extent or another notably Norfolk to Richmond and Norfolk to Baltimore and Philadelphia. I’m not sure if anyone has ever made a profit before subsidies on these enterprises.