Rivercraft out to save fuel, improve communications

What's ahead in technology over the next decade for the tows and barges that travel the nation's inland waterways? Many of the more dramatic gains in productivity -- such as the diesel engine and the giant jump in towboat horsepower -- have already occured.

Barge and towing company officials say that what is ahead may sound less spectacular but could prove economically even more significant. The search continues, for instance, for much greater fuel efficiency on the part of the fewer than 5,000 towboats that push the nation's fleet of barges along the web of inland waterways.

Diesel fuel, now going for 85 cents a gallon, accounts for as much as two-thirds of towboat operating costs. A powerful towboat may burn as much as 14,000 gallons a day, says tom Gladders, president of G. W. Gladders towing company in St. Louis.so even a 5 percent fuel cutback could save close to $200, 000 a year. As he sees it, fuel conservation efforts over the next decade, except in cases where safety is a concern, will be dictated increasingly by shore offices rather than by towboats pilots.

Some tows that used to race full speed ahead wherever a wide smooth patch of river was in sight now have computers on board which help that pilot select the best throttle setting for maximum fuel efficiency. The number of such computer-equipped tows is expected to grow.

One other fuel-oriented project, which could serve as a model for others, involves St. Louis Ship, a barge and tow company, the General Electric Company, federal Barge Lines Inc., and Breit & Garcia. The aim is a 10 percent fuel saving by taking the normally wasted exhaust heat going up the tow smokestack and transferring it back into the engine system for additional horsepower.

A major improvement in communications for the barge and tow industry is also on the horizon. Currently, many shore offices find it so time-consuming and difficult to make contact with their fleets on the water that they have no wait until the ships put to port and phone in.

A few years ago, however, 16 major barge lines joined together as Watercom and put up the initial funds to start work on a common- carrier system that would make ship-shore contact in either direction much easier. Those who decide to subscribe to the radiotelephone service will be able to transmit written and national priority,'" he insists. "If everyone is allowed his two bits worth of objections, we're never going to get the job done. . . . It's the old freeway argument: Everybody drives onit but no one wants it in the neighborhood."

Most who work in the barge and tow industry admit that updated and expanded terminal facilities at ports where cargo is transferred from one mode of travel to another are badly needed. A study by A. T. Kearny Inc. observed that it was not unusual for cargo handling costs at terminals to be as much as direct water transportation costs, or more.

"It's added storage and loading capacity that is needed," says Geoffrey Vincent of the American Waterways Operators Inc. He notes that a few major coal companies have recently announced plans to rebuild port terminal facilities on the East Coast.

There are now several varieties of barges designed to better protect the particular product carried, and research to improve design continues. However, most in the industry say that the basic shallow and narrow hull shape, necessary for passing through locks, is likely never to be replaced.

One relatively new development aimed primarily at handling increased coal shipments on coastal waters is the superbarge. It can carry the equivalent cargo of 100 railroad cars.

Also new in recent years is the "lash barge," which can be loaded intact onto a merchant ship for ocean crossings and unloaded quickly at a port such as New Orleans for direct river travel. It is particularly apt for crowded ports where docking space is limited.

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