Barge Allision: River Conditions Overwhelming
On March 11, 2017 the towing vessel Steve Plummer was pushing three loaded barges on the Cumberland River in Nashville, Tennessee. As the tow passed beneath the CSX Railroad Bridge at mile 190.4, the second and third barges allided with the bridge’s upstream guard pier. No injuries or pollution resulted from the accident. However, the two barges sustained damage and the guard pier was destroyed in the allision.
The National Transportation Safety Board has released its investigation report and determined that the probable cause of the allision was the pilot’s decision to tow three loaded barges during rising river conditions with swift currents, which overwhelmed his ability to maneuver the tow through the bridge.
The Steve Plummer pilot was familiar with the route, having made the transit almost daily in both directions for the previous three months without incident. He said that, on the day of the accident, the current was swift at three miles per hour and his 3.5mph speed was the maximum forward speed that the tow could make. The Steve Plummer tow had little additional power and thus limited maneuvering ability when passing through the bridge’s right descending bank channel span.
The company stated that the number of barges the Steve Plummer towed depended on the river conditions, weather, the area of transit and the pilot’s level of comfort. The Steve Plummer could tow four barges during slack-water conditions, typically towed three barges during normal river conditions, and towed one or two barges during high-water conditions.
The company stated that it left the barge number decision to the individual tow pilots. Although not required in company guidance, a pilot could check with a more senior pilot (if conditions warranted) about reducing the tow size to allow for more control in high-water conditions. The accident pilot did not check with a more senior pilot before the transit. After the allision, the company reduced the tow size to a maximum of two barges through the CSX Railroad Bridge.