RIAC Discusses Barge/Rail Safety, L&D 25 Update

Members of the River Industry Action Committee (RIAC), along with towing company captains, met with Coast Guard and Corps of Engineers officials on June 29 in St. Louis to hear the latest updates on Lock & Dam 25 and to provide industry feedback on ways to avoid rail/barge incidents.

The meetings were held in downtown St. Louis at the Robert A. Young Federal Building.

The first meeting with Coast Guard officials, which included rail industry representatives, grew out of an incident on November 15, 2021, when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train collided with a barge that impinged on a railway track.  Multiple coal cars overturned, some went into the Mississippi River, and two diesel locomotives derailed. There was some loss of cargo and two minor injuries. The incident happened in Lee County, Iowa, near the town of Montrose.

The Coast Guard is still investigating the incident, according to Cmdr. Daniel Every, head of prevention at Sector Upper Mississippi River. The new sector commander is Capt. Andrew Bender, who also presented at the meeting.

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Out of that November incident grew the idea for a meeting between rail and barge representatives to explore ways to reduce the possibility of such incidents happening in the future.

“This is a working group,” Every said. “Everything discussed here is pre-decisional.” 

Nosing In

The main topic under discussion in the first session was the practice of barges “nosing in” to the riverbank while waiting their turn to enter locks. At some of these locations, rail tracks run close by. Derek Lampkin, a manager of hazardous materials at BNSF, said his group responded to the Montrose incident. He noted that BNSF moves 3,000 cars full of hazardous materials each year. It takes 1.5 to 2 to miles  to stop a train.  Railroad rules call for any potential obstructions to be more than 25 feet away from the track centerline. 

One issue is that towboat wheel-washes can erode riverbanks, moving “nosing-in” areas closer to tracks. 

A representative from Canadian Pacific Railroad noted that 7 or 8 trains a day run through the Mississippi River corridor. If an expected merger between Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern railroads receives final approval from the Surface Transportation Board, he said, traffic could increase to 21 trains a day. 

The attendees discussed ways and means of better coordinating and distributing information, including “scour reports” of eroding banks. One idea suggested was importing markers of the estimated 50-plus “rail-sensitive” areas of the Upper Mississippi where tracks run close to the river into Rose Point software and/or sending it via AIS to Coast Guard vessels and towboats, where it would appear on charts. Lee Nelson, a RIAC member and president of Upper River Services, suggested that the U.S. Army Engineers Research and Development Center could broadcast scour reports.

Every noted that Rose Point software already provides notes on some rail-sensitive locations, along with an 800 number to notify the Coast Guard of any issues. He reminded participants that the river industry mile point system differs from the railroads’ mile system and suggested that informants should be aware of the difference. 

Lampkin said locomotives have forward-looking cameras that can identify track encroachments in some locations and have sent reports, with still pictures, to the Coast Guard. Trains also report track encroachments to some local police and sheriff’s departments, he said.

Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Moore said the Coast Guard has been working on a river information software program that would integrate multiple sources of river information into one platform.  

Nelson suggested that a small group collect information on every possible hot spot as a basis for any further mitigation, which could include signage. Every said the Coast Guard could explore ways to better handle reports of bank erosion and possible track encroachments that don’t rise to the level of a formal “incident” that requires a documented response. 

Lock & Dam 25

After a break for lunch, an update on the progress of work on Lock and Dam 25 was provided by Andrew Goodall, senior program manager at the Rock Island Engineer District, and Jose Lopez, program manager for Lock and Dam 25. Goodall began by noting that the Lock and Dam 25 construction project recently received full funding of $723 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act under the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program (NESP). 

“These are exciting times for NESP,” Goodall said. “We can actually design and construct the project now!” Along with full funding for L&D25, the funding also covered a mooring facility for Lock and Dam 14 and work on LaGrange Lock and Dam. Five more mooring projects were authorized but are still awaiting funding. Goodall said the Corps team intends to design all mooring facilities at the same time. 

On the ecosystem side, the funding covers a fish passage at Lock and Dam 22, plus a “whole slew” of ecosystem restoration projects on the Upper Mississippi. 

Lopez said the project includes construction of a new 1,200-foot lock chamber, a new upstream approach wall and a downstream approach wall designed to block flow through the wall. The new structures will be added to the existing 80-year-old, 600-foot lock chamber structure, which must be assessed.  

Lopez said the project design is about 35 percent complete. The design team is addressing conditions at the site that have changed since the project was originally authorized in the 2007 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), including a scour hole in the vicinity of the planned new lock. On June 15, the Corps held an Industry Day with potential contractors to familiarize them with the project and assist them in presenting their bids. The district will follow up with one-on-one interviews with interested contractors in the last week of June, he said. The team is also preparing a comprehensive topographical survey of the site. 

Bryan Dirks, technical lead on the project, said the Corps’ Engineer Research and Development Center will conduct both physical and computer simulation studies of the project this autumn. He said previous iterations of the project—including all design and construction work—envisioned a 10-year timeline from the initial Notice to Proceed to full operability of the final project, and initial estimates he was getting from contractors for the construction portion fit roughly into that timeline. 

Mooring Cells And Switchboats

In the day’s last session, Corps civil engineers Dave Lovett and Matt Fitzgerald discussed NESP funding for mooring cells and switchboats to make lock passages quicker and more efficiently.

The Corps had already developed, with industry input, a priority list of 20 locks where mooring cells would be most helpful. Using Google Earth, Lovett displayed the sites of the top eight priority locks, and meeting participants adjusted some tentative locations of possible mooring facility sites. One change was made to the top eight priority list. All the lock locations specifically mentioned in the 2007 WRDA are already covered; the few that are not must be justified using cost-benefit analysis. 

All mooring cell sites must be surveyed and approved. Design work would be completed for the mooring facilities this year, and construction contracts would be awarded in 2024, if further funding is forthcoming. Lovett said it costs between $2 million and $3 million to build each mooring cell. Some of these mooring cells could address concerns about rail-barge interactions raised in the morning meeting with rail officials.