Barge Transportation

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Barge Transportation Overview

What is Barge Transportation?

Barge transportation is a way to transport bulk goods. Barges are flat-bottomed boats that can move more material than 18-wheeler trucks or trains. They are more energy-efficient and create less noise and air pollution than other methods of shipping.

Some barges are self-propelled and use a diesel engine, but most are pushed with towboats. One towboat can push up to 40 barges at the same time. This is a carrying capacity equivalent to more than 2,000 trucks

Their pathways are slightly restricted compared to land vehicles because they travel through waterways like oceans, rivers, and canals. Still, there are about 12,000 miles of navigable water in the United States. However, these waterways are not as congested as surface roads, so barges can avoid accidents.

What Problems It Solves:

Barges ship large amounts of exports and can also carry bulky or heavy items that can’t fit on planes, trains, or trucks.

Shipping by barge also cuts down on the traffic congestion on the highways.

Images of Barge Transportation

Advantages & Disadvantages of Barge Transportation


If you’re shipping large amounts of non-perishable goods, using a barge is a cost-effective way. 

  • More affordable fuel consumption than other freight 
  • Prevents congestion on the highways
  • Easy to load and unload due to open structure
  • Can transport bulky goods that won’t fit into a truck, train, or plane
  • Employs over 80,000 workers in the United States alone


Though there are many advantages to shipping goods on a barge, there are also disadvantages. You have to consider what type of goods you’re transporting and to what location before you can judge if it’s right for you.

  • Slower travel means it’s not advised to ship perishable goods
  • Shipping times depend on water levels and weather conditions
  • Can be difficult to track items on a barge compared to surface road shipments
  • Problems with bridge infrastructure can cause delays

Barge Transportation Process


  1. Ensure your goods can be shipped by barge. Almost anything can be transported this way, but if you’re moving perishable items, you’ll want faster shipping. The volume also factors into this decision; shipping a few items is cheaper with other methods.
  2. Determine the size of the barge you need.
    1. 180-foot barges can transport up to 2,000 metric tons of goods
    2. 230-foot barges can ship up to 4,000 metric tons of cargo
    3. 270-foot barges can carry 6,000 metric tons of materials
    4. 300-foot barges, the most common, can ship 8,000 metric tons of exports
  3. Plot the course from port to port using navigable waterways.
  4.  Find shippers who have routes connecting your points of shipment and delivery. Keep in mind that there are tariffs that will be added to your shipping charges.
    If more than one shipper is available, get quotes from both. Most transporters charge on a “dollars-per-ton” rate and might require a minimum weight before they can ship your items. Other shippers charge a “dollars-per-barge” rate.
  5. Get a bill of lading from the transporter. This acts as a contract for the shipment itself, as well as a receipt for the goods you’re shipping.
  6. The shipper will load cargo containers onto the barge with a crane. At the destination, they will unload them from the barge. You will have to secure a truck or train car for transport from the port.


When you ship via barge transportation, you’ll use shipping containers, a loading crane, a barge, and a towboat. You might need a truck or train car if the port city is not the final destination of your goods.

Common Problems

If you’re not shipping a large number of goods, it might not be cost-efficient to use a barge.

Shipping by barge might cause delays depending on the levels of the waterways, as well as the weather.

When you ship by barge, your materials will only get to the barge port. You will still have to find a way to transport them to your other locations. Sometimes the hassle of this aspect of shipping makes people choose trucks or planes for the entire shipment process.

Questions To Ask Contractors

  • How much weight can your barges carry?
  • How many days will it take to get to the destination city?
  • Will the freight be secured to the barge during transportation?
  • Do you inspect goods at any time during transport?
  • Do you have any contracts or partnerships with companies who can help transfer my goods to their final destination?

Alternative Solutions to Barge Transportation

If you’re shipping items and can’t use a barge, you can use land delivery options like 18-wheeler trucks or trains. Depending on the size of the items, you can also ship by plane. Each method of transportation offers benefits and disadvantages. Depending on what you’re looking to ship, and how much you’re looking to transport, one option may be more worth considering than another.

Keep in mind that these vessels can’t carry as much as a barge, so you might end up spending more and having to ship several loads when compared to a single barge. Let’s look at a few other things to consider based on alternative transportation methods.

Service vs ServiceAdvantagesDisadvantages
Barge Transportation vs. Ground Transportation

Barge transportation, compared to ground transportation:

  • has less of an impact on the environment.
  • can carry more cargo per tonne of fuel.
  • is more cost efficient.

Barge transportation, compared to ground transportation:

  • has a slower transport time.
  • can be difficult to predict the transport time based on congestion at ports.
Barge Transportation vs. Air Transportation

Barge transportation, compared to air transportation:

  • is significantly less expensive.
  • can transfer more cargo and more variety of goods than a plane.
  • can transport heavy equipment such as machinery.

Barge transportation, compared to air transportation:

  • is not as beneficial for time sensitive goods such as medications/fresh foods.
  • is more likely to damage goods in transit.

Costs of Barge Transportation

Shipping one ton of materials by barge is $0.97 per mile. Comparatively, shipping one ton by train is $2.53 per mile, and using an 18-wheeler truck costs $5.35 per mile.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Can Barges Transport?

Barges can transport any non-perishable goods. They’re often used to ship coal, grain, sand, gravel, and petroleum. Some barges even transport people and vehicles from location to location.

How Are Barges Safer Than Other Transportation?

Because the waterways aren’t as heavily trafficked as highways, barges won’t encounter as many other vessels on their journey. This keeps the goods safe and prevents them from spilling onto land and water.

Workers are injured less frequently on barges. For every barge injury, there are 80 train injuries and over 800 trucking accidents. Fatalities for barge workers are also much lower than other methods of transportation. For every barge fatality, there are more than 20 train deaths and almost 80 trucking fatalities.

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