Wondering what the safest, cleanest and most economical mode of industrial transportation is? It's the barge—and the waters of the Tennessee River provide safe passage for billions of dollars of goods each year.
As TVA’s director of navigation services, Nicole Berger has seen barges come and she’s seen them go, and she can say one thing for sure: It takes a strong constitution to work on one. “It’s demanding, physical labor—and a huge commitment,” she says, “They can be gone from their families for weeks or months. They’ve got to be tough, tough guys.”
Steven Southern is one such specimen. You might even say that river water runs in his veins.
“I’ve made my livelihood working on boats and barges, and it’s been a good life for me,” says the director of vessel operations for Ingram Marine Group, a barge company based in Nashville, Tenn., operating more than 150 towboats and 5,000 barges through the Tennessee River system and throughout the inland waterway system of the eastern seaboard.
Southern started as a deck hand back in 1983. Since then he’s worked his way up in this vital industry, working as a first mate, pilot and captain before taking his current position in operations.
For him, towboats were home for 34 years—1,000-horsepower to 10,500-horsepower homes shared with eight other teammates, each focused on the same goal: safely delivering a payload of up to 15 barges, each loaded with up to 1,800 tons of cargo, from Knoxville, Tenn., at the head of the Tennessee River, 652 miles to Paducah, Ky., at the confluence with the Ohio River.
Southern explains that riverboat men (and women) work 28 days on and 28 days off. “You’re very contained—you have everything you need in terms of living, eating and sleeping right there with you wherever you go. And you get half the year off.”
Plus, he says slyly: “You never have to fight traffic to get into work.”
River life is not for everyone, he notes. “It can get lonely sometimes., being away from your family for so long,” Southern says. “It can be challenging, too, being aboard with nine personalities living in a space that’s like a small, three story house of 2,500 square feet.”
But he feels it's worth any and all sacrifices for two important reasons. One: You get to see much of America via its extensive inland waterway, which stretches from Minneapolis to Mobile, and Pittsburgh to Corpus Christi. Two: You’re providing an essential, environmentally friendly service to keep businesses supplied with the raw materials to keep the economy moving.
“It’s rewarding to be part of a team that’s responsible for keeping a large portion of America’s commerce moving,” he notes.
Each year the barge industry in the U.S. transports over 550 million tons of freight valued at nearly $200 billion. The average cost savings of transporting goods via barge as compared with other transportation modes—truck or rail—is about $11 per ton, which translates into about $6.5 billion dollars. Those savings often lead to lower market prices for goods.
Here in the Valley, those local numbers are likewise impressive. Regionally, barges carry up to 50 million tons of freight up and down the Tennessee River annually, according to Berger, and the navigation system is worth about $8 billion in economic development to the Valley each year. Additionally, the barge traffic on the Tennessee saves about $1 billion for shippers compared with rail and trucks—again, an astounding savings
It’s not just about the money, either. It’s about the environment, says Southern. “It’s incredible what we’re able to ship in one fifteen barge tow,” he explains. “It’s the equivalent of 216 rail cars, or 1,050 large semi tractor-trailer trucks. Shipping via barge eliminates a lot of emissions, plus it cuts stress and strain on the highway infrastructure.”
According to the National Waterways Foundation, when compared to barges, rail generates 30% more carbon dioxide, and trucks generate a whopping 1,000% more emissions, meaning that waterborne transportation is far and away the best choice for the environment. And it’s not just about the carbon monoxide—barges also emit significantly less particulate matter, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides.
Moreover, National Waterways Foundations studies show that shipping via barge is also safest—recording 95.3 injuries in the rail industry and 1,609.6 injuries in trucking for every one in the barge business. And spill-wise, barges are much less likely to leak hazardous waste. The rate of spills per million ton-miles for each industry is 2.59 for barges, 4.89 for rail and 10.41 for trucks.
Barges are best suited to haul raw materials that are heavy—and minimally processed. These include coal, petroleum, iron, steel, grain, chemicals and aggregates such as sand, gravel and cement. The stuff, in other words, that makes stuff.
“Trucks tend to carry finished goods,” says Southern. “But if you eat it, drive your car on it, live or work in it or if it runs on electricity, you can bet a barge enabled it to happen. Barges play a huge role in our daily lives, only most people don’t realize it.”
Until TVA tamed the mighty Tennessee River in 1945, navigating the river by barge was impossible. Today, because TVA ensures a constant water flow, barge operators on the Tennessee River, says Southern, are able to move their loads through each of the nine locks between Knoxville and Paducah, which are all 600 feet long, with the exception of one 1,000-foot-long lock at Pickwick Landing in Ala. It’s a two-hour process that demands skill and focus.
The Tennessee River makes the valley a hotbed for economic activity because it provides access to any port within the 38 contiguous states served by the inland waterway.
Approximately 185 public- and private-use terminals along the Tennessee River make it a 652 mile superhighway that generates tremendous economic value for the Valley. The busiest port on the Tennessee is Decatur, Ala. The Port of Decatur handles over five million tons of river freight annually, almost half of which consists of grains moving inbound to be processed into food products and animal feed. Other major port areas in the Valley include Paducah and Calvert City, Ky.; Florence, Muscle Shoals and Guntersville, Ala.; and Chattanooga and Lenoir City, Tenn.
In Southern’s mind, the Tennessee is a vital link in the inland waterway system, not just because of its geographic importance and industrial relevance, but also because of its beauty. “From my standpoint the Tennessee River is the cleanest, and it’s the prettiest blue-green color you’ll ever see,” he says. “And I’ve seen them all.”
Learn more about the system of locks—owned and maintained by TVA and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers—on the 652-mile channel of the Tennessee River that lies between Knoxville, Tenn., and Paducah, Ky. You'll find information about economics, loads, ports, contact information, environmental benefits and much more. Click here to get the 411 on navigation at TVA.