Keeping Barge Operator Profits Afloat as Drought Ebbs and Flows

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Year after year, drought conditions present a challenge across industries in the US, and the barge transportation industry is particularly hard-hit. Low river water levels pose significant challenges for barge operators, impacting the vital transportation infrastructure that supports commerce in the region.

If current trends hold, varying water levels and drought conditions are here to stay. To remain competitive, barge companies can adopt several strategies to maximize productivity when the waterways are navigable. Technology platforms like BargeOps can help. 

Maximizing Boat Miles During Good Conditions

In recent years, water levels on the Mississippi and surrounding waterways have reached historic lows. Though there was some easing of drought conditions throughout the US in 2023, many rivers in the Mississippi River Basin remain too low for commercial traffic. Dredging operations by the US Army Corps of Engineers help maintain water levels in some conditions, but their success varies and is difficult to predict. 

Dry conditions affect not just barge operators charged with hauling hundreds of millions of tons of cargo each year but industries that rely on them for transportation, notably, US agriculture. In 2022, low water levels caused by drought grounded barges and halted river traffic through ports at the worst possible time: Harvest season. Delays led to $20 billion in estimated losses

For farmers, the situation remains bleak. In some cases transportation costs for their crops have increased sharply, cutting into already slim margins. In other cases they are faced with unmovable harvests when river traffic is stopped. Many find that it’s cheaper to dump product stranded at the river than pay to ship it back to the farm. 

Historically, inland barge shipping has been significantly less expensive than trucks and railroads for reliably moving large volumes of crops. However, unlike these other options, barge transportation is tied to availability of sufficient water. Lower levels can mean reducing cargo weight (and therefore profits) to stay afloat or being grounded altogether. To remain competitive and deliver for farmers, barge operators must strike while the iron is hot, so to speak, and maximize operational efficiency when water levels are favorable. BargeOps offers numerous features that help barge operations streamline the flow of information to make informed decisions faster and stay ahead of the flow. 

How Intelligent Automation Can Maximize Efficiency 

There are numerous ways barge operators can increase efficiency to make every trip count, and most start with improved, automated communications and reduced paperwork. The key to operational efficiency lies in effective team communication and a focus on impactful work (not shuffling papers). BargeOps vessel management software is designed to enable more efficient communication and process automation with an easy-to-use platform. By implementing some or all BargeOps modules, a barge business can simplify internal systems, leading to quicker response times and a competitive edge. 

Automate Logistics Management and Planning

The BargeOps Fleeting module streamlines fleeting operations to maximize productivity. It automates capture of activities like mid-streaming a barge into the fleet, keeping track of how long it’s in the fleet, and then invoicing the customer when it moves out of the fleet.

Intelligent automation eliminates emails, spreadsheets, and paper with a system for managing all fleeting or harbor management activities in one place, which reduces errors while saving time. Improving accuracy and reducing the need for manual labor means crew members are now free to concentrate on keeping operations moving. 

Streamline Information Exchange from Shore to Boats (and Vice Versa)

Using BargeOps Onboard, information like orders and movement of barges can be exchanged seamlessly between shore-based dispatch and boats on the river. Traditionally, a dispatcher calls orders to a boat via radio. The captain takes down the details, which are later entered manually to create an invoice. This process is time consuming, and manual transcription can be error-prone, both of which cut into efficiency and the bottom line. 

Information from boats to shore is just as important. When traffic updates from boat to shore are automated, shore data is kept up to date without an office user needing to manually enter traffic from boat logs.

Using BargeOps software to automate information exchange, information is sent and logged automatically. Boat captains are freed from data entry to focus on maximizing boat miles during favorable conditions. 

Automate Crew Tracking

Automated crew tracking with a customizable crew activity list offers real-time visibility into crew activities for better decision-making and resource management. Removing the need for manual crew tracking reduces time consuming paperwork as well as the potential for human error, to increase efficiency and productivity both on the water and at port. 

The crew is the heart of a boat and its greatest asset—and tracking crew members’ responsibilities is critical both for efficient operations when conditions are favorable as well as in emergency situations. 

In the event of an emergency, automated crew tracking allows for quick and accurate identification of which crew members are on watch, which are off duty, and who is acting captain. This is crucial for prompt and targeted emergency response efforts, such as search and rescue operations, as well as the associated compliance and accountability regulations. Recovering from accidents and other incidents quickly gets boats back on course faster. 

machines up to regulations
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Streamline VGP Compliance

The last thing a boat needs is to be grounded due to regulatory compliance issues. Penalties for non-compliance with the EPA’s VGP (Vessel General Permit) are steep, costing operators both fees and precious time wasted. 

Keeping up with the regulations is similarly time consuming, requiring frequent completion of numerous different forms with accurate data. Streamlining regulatory compliance is essential for keeping a fleet moving and productive at all times.

The BargeOps VGP Compliance module helps fleeting and towing companies comply with the VGP requirements by replacing the time consuming, paper-driven process (which involves completing a lot of forms as well as tracking data in various Excel spreadsheets) with forms embedded in BargeOps as part of the routine workflow. Forms are always up-to-date, and the system pre-populates fields and walks crew members through entering the required data on a touch screen. Simplifying compliance keeps barges on the water when it’s available and frees crew members to focus on more impactful duties. 

Improve Operations with Data Insights

A major advantage of using BargeOps automation software for barge operations is the sheer volume of data that then becomes available for analysis. The BargeOps Analytics module generates actionable insights based on analysis of the data from BargeOps Onshore and BargeOps Onboard. These insights can be used to make informed decisions that improve operational efficiencies, lower costs, and increase revenue. 

For instance, BargeOps Analytics can analyze metrics such as ton miles, lock delay time, shifts between O/D pairs, midstream-in/out times, fleeting days, miles, shifts, other delays, and more to streamline operations, making the most of every boat mile while the river is passable. It can also track important financial metrics, such as revenue, expenses, and modeled vs. actuals.

Navigate Drought Conditions with BargeOps

Drought and low water levels will likely continue to impede river travel in the years to come. By maximizing efficiency to drive the highest productivity during favorable conditions, barge operators can protect their profits while continuing to provide cost-effective transportation for the nation’s crops. 

Let us demonstrate how BargeOps can streamline your operations across the board to keep you profitable whatever the climate brings. Schedule a free demo today. 

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