Container Feeder Barge

Yes you can put containers on a flat top deck barge and tow it between locations by wire boats.
In fact it is done every day in the US, between JAX and PR, from USWC to Hawaii and Alaska.
Why it is not done as a feeder service between ports along the coasts? I don’t know, but apparently it has been tried

To put containers on existing river barges is a different proposition. To be efficient they need to have box shaped holds and “open hatch” construction, The hold dimensions has to be suitable for a certain number of standard 20/40 ft., both in length and breadth. Load capacity of the tank top has to be sufficient for the intended max. weight/point load that may be asserted by fully loaded containers.

The height of the container stacks MAY be limited by bridges along their intended route.
If the barges are to be pushed by Pusher tugs the wheelhouse height may also limit the stack height.
(Since the existing US pusher tugs have a “fixed” wheelhouse height, line of sight MAY be the limiting factor)

The normal way is to use STS cranes and stack the containers on the terminal, then use same STS cranes to load the feeders/barges, or to move the containers to a different wharf and load with smaller cranes.

Mobile wharf cranes are used in many places:

In an ideal world they would be filled with goods and returned to a main line terminal for export.
Unfortunately it isn’t an ideal world, so sometime empty containers has to be transported half way around the world to be repositioned where they are needed.
Who take the expenses for this transport?
It depends on who owns the containers. Some are owned by shipping companies, others by leasing companies and some may even be owned by large shippers or importers.
In any case there are some form of agreement, or contract, stating how this is arranged. In most cases the consignee has a fixed number of days to collect, transport, un-stuff and redeliver the container to an agreed depot or terminal. Failing to do so and a demurrage charge is applied.

This from lot of years experience, cargo always determines routing. Not the ship port railroad or truck. Consumer destined cargo moves to market centers. Los Angles, New Orleans Savannah New Jersey, relativity small percentage is for local consumption, Exception NJ-NY probably 50% local, majority moves out of the port limits. Small ports don’t have markets large enough to attract modern vessels. Large vessels we see today have lower slot cost because they turn fast due minimum port calls with large volume per call.

Consumer goods always have a time factor to consider. Here’s a actual example. Importer of small goods with distribution center in Memphis, geographic center of the US, sells Chinese made product to a major big box store with specific delivery time, Containers could move via Prince Rupert BC LA New Orleans or Savannah . Each has a cost & transit time. Trust me he’s going to pick fastest transit every time. Cost is a factor but vessel routing Gulf or East coast has a higher slot cost due size and longer voyage resulting in higher cost. LA weeks faster than Gulf or Easy Coast. Prince Rupert faster than LA at slightly higher cost.

Same factor other inland destinations with differences how close they are to the final market. US has invisible cargo demand point about Memphis that moves East or West depending on conditions, not very far though. And low value or seasonal cargo can often accept longer transit. These factors small percentage of total.

Last and having experience with feeders globally only places in the US that can employ feeders successfully are low volume destinations with low value cargos & most often operated under some government subsidies.

US is not Europe. No cargo demand to move containers coastwise or on rivers.


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No demand because there are no facilities and no available service, or no facilities because there wouldn’t be any demand for such service??

In Europe public demand for such services are created by the need to reduce GHG emission globally to meet the Paris Agreement targets, reduce particle pollution locally for improve health and wellbeing and reduced road congestion for the convenience of everybody.

PS> The same reasons apply when it comes to developing fast rail, public transport, bicycle tracks and the use of electric cars.

US has had demand and service most put to rest by competition and domestic infrastructure improvements give you some examples.

Early 70s with a subsidy supported US carrier we were obligated to provide service to named ports. One I was involve with Indian castings Wilmington NC destination required. We discharged Norfolk & moved by Norfolk Baltimore Carolina line, cut down WW 2 LST barges. Found the cargo was destined to central North Carolina, consignee wanted lowest cost. Moved by truck Norfolk to destination splitting savings with the consignee.

Same NBC line cargo base was Norfolk Baltimore service. Still offered by another carrier more modern barge tug operation. It pays Baltimore local delivery, outside the metropolitan area little used. Purely commercial, no subsidy I know of. Virginia has barge service Norfolk ports to Richmond terminal, 100 mile trip formerly serviced direct vessels about 23 foot draft restriction depending on the River . It’s subsidized by the State and mostly attracts heavy cargo that has over the road weight restrictions. Very small volume.

On the East Coast in theory you could serve Boston from NJ at increased expense and time with barges Also cut 3 Days off a Panama routed vessels voyage . It’s rarely done truck to New England better option. South US Interior cargo that would have been Wilmington or Jacksonville discharge can be economically served via Charleston and Savannah. Significant tonnage coastwise US East Coast Petroleum products.Tug & barge could do the same containers with very slow transit times .Infrastructure & routes are there.

If there is demand Gulf to move coastwise Houston New Orleans Mobile Container cargo I don’t know about it. Lot of bulk & petroleum moves coastwise those routes, infrastructure is there.

New Orleans up the River to interior US often discussed it’s never been viable. Have done several study’s for Ship Owners about it , Infrastructure is there and it’s back haul for barges. Cost minimum factor. Sticking point always long transit voyage to US Gulf coupled with slow up the River. Memphis from China add 3-4 weeks compared to California

Up and down the West Coast Southern California to Washington State. No demand port to port cargo mostly goes inland. . Also a long and possibly difficult ocean voyage. West Coast Rivers don’t go North South. & except for the Columbia not East West inland .

Outside the US have worked with several coastwise & short sea feeders, notably Zeebrugge were the Scandinavian owner I worked for consolidated RO RO cargo from several European points. RoRo different requirements from containers & grouped facilities servicing autos more important than transit time or even proximity to factory. If there is demand and service to link ports between Hamburg & LeHave coastwise have not seen it. Certainly container cargo moves inland on the major rivers.

Asia I was involved with Malaysia Indonesia parcel cargos barged to Singapore with success, & feeders very common there. However we needed a bottom cargo first load port, did not have time to call direct, or it would not have paid. South America we handled some RORO units Asia Panama fed coastwise to small countries on our own vessels. Few inland river options South America, Uruguay on the Pate or up the Amazon all I know. Never paid for us to offer either.

Key point is market demand combined with fairy simple economic factors will support short sea and river feeders as shown by Europeans When they don’t as in most of the US , businesses won’t develop to meet demand that’s not there. Government intervention can and will alter patterns, & our current administration thinks they can. Speech our President gave in LA recently shows lack of understanding transportation issues.

Boats 3

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It looks like there has been some progress boosting volumes through Richmond. This source from 2021 says the port moved 42,254 containers “last year”.

Agree there is no need for any coastwise feeder service between the main ports from Hamburg to Le Havre as there are several hub ports along that coastline. (There MAY be some feeders serving smaller ports though)
Those hub ports have feeder services to/from other parts of Europe, like Scandinavia, the Baltics, the British Isles and Iceland.

North and West of Norway have regular services by geared container feeders, Roros, breakbulk and reefer ships to all the major hub ports in NW Europe. There are also some modern ships that cover the whole spectrum:

Yes a lot of feeder services to/from Singapore / S.E.Asia region, the Indian subcontinent and Australia. Barges are used mainly to/from river ports in Sumatra (Siak, Jambi & Musi Rivers)

My experience with the Richmond terminal is not recent. Looks like they have grown even eclipsing the rail served Virginia inland port. It’s a easier port to develop than some, formally operated for ocean vessels, days trip up river that handles barges easily. Well managed by established terminal operator.

I was involved in assessing Richmond for Asian Container carrier about 10 years ago. Decision not to issue the Richmond B/L was based on two factors. Very heavy export cargo, they preferred to load to Panama draft last US port not mid coastal rotation . Heavy export cargo, low rates, able to obtain all the weight cargo required minimum container dispatch, loading empties rest of the vessel. Empty velocity rules the Asia US export trade. Much faster turn on empty equipment limiting bookings to direct service port last out for China. Same factor restricting US Ag cargo exports today. Dwell time on containers long freights low and the ship books out on deadweight.

Success it may be Richmond still supported by the port authority. Pure business venture much more difficult.




I think of the Continental Europe to Baltic & Northern ports as far as Iceland same way as some US trades. Miami to Central America, Jacksonville to Puerto Rico both I have experience with . Also Alaska or Hawaii either one have no experience. All served by short sea vessels successfully. Might not be well known but some volume Iceland cargo moved US to Germany transshipped to Iceland. Empty US China origin equipment loaded back to Germany - Iceland then to China . Movement basis was positioning US empty equipment to Iceland for high revenue China loading. Then China to US, around the world frozen fish.

When there is demand and makes sense cargo will move.


Short sea container feeder NCL Svelgen and NCL Haugesund are in Ålesund today:

Both ships are regulars, serving NCL’s feeder service to/from North and West Norway - NW Europe.
Much of the cargo from Norway is frozen seafood destined for USA, Japan, China etc.
For the return voyage many of the reefer containers are empty, or contain fruit and vegetables.

Many of the ports along the coast has few facilities aside from a wharf, a stacking truck and a bit of flat area to stack containers waiting for pickup.

The crew undo lashings and operate the cranes while the stacker driver move containers away from the shipside , or v.v. No stevedores involved.
PS> The Stacker driver also takes and let go the lines.

The container are move to/from the final destination by trucks fitted with cranes able to handle both 20’ and 40’ containers:

No need for the containers to stay on the flatbed while stuffing/unstuffing.

I don’t say that this could be copied in the US, but maybe something can be learnt from how it is done in other parts of the world. (not only Norway/Europe)

I’m sure that when some Irishmen first suggested to put wheel on sledges he was met by the same arguments;
“We have always done it like this”
“No it can’t be done, at least not here in Ireland”.
“If it was such a good idea, why hasn’t it been done before?”
“It would cost too much”

For what it is worth this paper/study being linked was written in 2004.
Moving Containers on the Mississippi River
Not much has changed since the time it was written.


An interesting read. To me, the data page (page 15) was most telling. Takeaways:

  1. Barge is 2x/3x slower for the down/up river transits respectively.

  2. Break even point is somewhere around 40-45 boxes. Less than that, not only is rail much faster but also cheaper.

  3. I feel like this sample transit isn’t realistic. Seems like a shipper in Pittsburgh would send their ocean freight to an east coast port rather than all the way to Louisiana. I wish they provided data for Memphis, Cairo, Paducah, St Louis, and Cincinnati as I think these places would be more apt to use a barge service like this.

Good question on why Pittsburgh was chosen other than that is the longest transit by the river system. As you stated other data points would have been more useful. St Louis for example, and all points south on the Mississippi have no lock & dams to deal with.

Lightering got invented again?
We USED to do this here 100 years ago, small freight boats took cargo to and from Baltimore from ports all over the Bay until rail and road transport became more available and cheaper.

Curious, what. is the labor cost for longshoremen in the EU, including all Scandanavian countries compared to USA longshoremen cost? For years we have heard about longshoremen cost in the USA being an impediment to short sea shipping and other proposals. Does anyone have accurate information on what it cost to load/unload a ship in Rotterdam or similar port compared to USA cost?

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Cool stuff

Those trucks are common in New Zealand. With US rail what is the maximum number of TEU the train can load of average weight say 20 tonne for a 40’? A 10,000 tonne train as I understand it the rolling stock forms half the total weight.

Not sure if Stevedoring charges are a major factor with largely automated container handling at major hub ports in Europe.
These tariffs from OOCL may be a guide to the costs that is incurred in some European ports:

Lashing and unlashing may or may not be handled by Stevedoring Companies, or by ship’s crew.
Stuffing and unstuffing containers is usually done on site by Shippers/Consignees by their own staff

As for feeder services; in smaller ports the handling is usually done by terminal staff and ships crew, (as described in my post #28 above)

At larger ports Stevedores are available.

I don’t know their charges, or what they pay their workers, but wages, terms and conditions are set in annual bargaining between their Union and the Employer’s Association centrally.

PS> The agreement for 2020-22 is 53 pages long and refuse to be translated to English:

Interesting report key items omitted. He did not factor not factor the ocean voyage Europe or Asia to US Discharge ports. Transit times reflect barge vs rail vs truck from New Orleans . Ignoring the ocean voyage gives a false picture.

Vessel from Asia to California transit week to 10 days faster than New Orleans. With higher volumes to Houston it’s likely to be first port adding more time to New Orleans transit. Vessels slot cost pre expanded Panama Canal much higher to Gulf. Even after Panama expansion container ships still limited by New Orleans vessel size ability’s . Europe origin no comparison with via US East Coast ports, same factors much faster transit lower vessel slot cost due distance & vessel size limitations vs New Orleans. Typically US Gulf ocean rates much higher than California & slightly higher than US East Coast.

Real omission is the large “other cargo” category. It’s certainly consumer goods . Sit in front of a major importer & pitch transits weeks longer. They simply won’t accept the additional time.

This all clouded by the current cargo surge. We have seen these conditions before, volumes go back to normal levels extraordinary routings will stop & usual gateways will receive the cargo.



Supposed to be retired and past all this discussion. A few more points though.

ILA contracts have a number of accommodations for feeders barges and small vessels. I have always found ILA to be reasonable and focused on developing business not restricting new methods or ideas. Yes they earn a living wage with benefits, can’t compare US with 3rd world wages or conditions, in fact factor production US ports are not extremely expensive. If European ports are less expensive per move and some are it’s generally due to better terminal design and equipment not the labor force.

The small feeders pictured are comparable to short sea feeders US to Caribbean & Central America. If fact many vessels in these trades came from European feeder operations.

Self unloading chassis will never be seen in the US . Chassis weight would dramatically cut into cargo capacity. Almost all US distribution centers are level loading dock fitted. No need to drop containers on the ground.

Boats /3

They have no choice but to accept the longer transit time caused by congestions at USWC and USEC container port, which is again caused by inefficient infrastructure, or at Chinese ports caused by pandemic lockdown.

Maybe the best, quickest and cheapest way to fix the first is to move domestic transport from rail and road to the water? (The second problem is outside the capability of the US Gov. to fix)

PS> Moving from land to water transport has the added advantage that it will help reducing the GHG emission, especially if you have to build a new and more efficient fleet of ships and tugs to do so.

If I haven’t said so before, I’ll repeat it now; Money isn’t everything. The safety, health and wellbeing of the population counts for something too.