New directions, expanded growth ahead
For those operating in the inland trade of the U.S. barge and towing industry, this autumn's bumper crop of grain and soybeans helped promote the feeling that the industry had turned the corner from the dark days of the fall of 1993, when the Midwest was still recovering from a devastating flood. The crop windfall certainly gave inland towing companies cause for celebration.
However, the barge and towing industry as a whole also has reason to expect a brighter future for reasons beyond the grace of mother nature. Change and progress also hold many future favors for this vital industry.
While change is necessary for the success and growth of any industry, the barge and towing industry is currently undergoing a sea of change the proportions of which have not been felt before. This change is wholly positive, bringing increased attention by industry leaders to better customer service, clearly defined operating standards and procedures, continuous quality improvement, and higher standards of safety and professionalism. These principles have helped to shape an industry which is safer, stronger and more efficient than it was a decade ago. And, these are changes that the industry recognizes as necessary and which it embraces. While corporate practices have long exceeded federal regulatory requirements in most aspects of towing vessel operations, industry standards have continued to rise dramatically in recent years, fueled in part by the quality movement, in part by higher customer expectations, and in part by the transformation of a barge and towing industry comprised primarily of small, entrepreneurial companies to one in which a smaller number of large companies exists.
This latter transition has been propelled in large part by the overall condition and pressures of the marketplace. And, while small, family-owned companies continue to play an important industry role, their numbers have declined substantially over the past decade, as the economic downturn in the industry in the 1980s forced many small companies to close their doors or sell their equipment to larger firms. It is interesting to note that while the number of companies that make up the industry continues to shrink, the size of the U.S. towing vessel fleet and the volume of cargo has not. Closely aligned with the changing character of the barge and towing industry, and the quality movement as a force for change, is the ever increasing expectations of the industry's shipper- customers, most notably the major oil and chemical companies.
Many shippers have established detailed equipment and operating standards which their carrier- vendors are required to meet. There has been a growing commitment by the industry's customers to buy transportation service based on total value and not just the cheapest rate. These shippers have perhaps no greater transportation need than to know that their cargoes will reach their destinations not only on time and at a competitive rate, but safely and without incident. The future of the barge industry is directly linked to this goal of total customer satisfaction. The industry's commitment to safety, reliability and high operating standards will continue to gain even greater importance in the years to come. The challenge for the U.S. towing industry at this juncture is profound — to manage the inevitable process for change and, in fact, to lead that change. AWO's recently announced Responsible Carrier Program, a safety program which identifies sound operating principles and practices over and above the requirements of existing law and regulation, will assist companies in achieving those standards and carrying the industry forward into the next century. A significant new initiative for AWO, the program implements the directive of AWO's strategic plan, AWO 2000, that the association "improve industry safety and environmental protection by establishing preferred industry operating principles and practices." The Responsible Carrier Program is the product of an intensive, eight-month effort by a specially- constituted task force of senior barge and towing industry executives. The program includes three principal parts — management/administration, equipment/inspection, and human factors — reflecting the role each of these components plays in ensuring safe and efficient vessel operations. The program seeks to complement and build upon governmental initiatives to improve safety in the barge and towing industry and to identify sound operating principles and practices over and above the requirements of existing law and regulation.
After a series of regional outreach sessions were held around the country to generate AWO member feedback on the program and identify changes and improvements needed, the AWO board of directors last December voted unanimously to accept the task force's recommendations as a code of practice for member companies, and it set January 1, 1998, as the target date for full member compliance with the Responsible Carrier Program. During this three-year implementation period, the association will pursue a comprehensive member assistance program aimed at ensuring that all AWO member companies have the tools they need to adopt the new safety program. AWO will also work to identify tangible incentives for companies adopting the Responsible Carrier Program.
The program was officially unveiled at AWO's 50th anniversary luncheon on December 7 in Washington by keynote speaker Deputy Secretary of TransportationMortimer Downey, who described the program as "far-reaching." Mr. Downey applauded the industry's efforts, saying, "Secretary Pena and I believe, as you do, that the industry must be the first line of defense in the safety chain. The commitment of management and the competency of personnel are the bonding elements of genuine progress. This puts the primary responsibility on ensuring safety in the hands of the industry itself — where it belongs." This is a groundbreaking achievement for the barge and towing industry. While its publication marks the end of an intensive effort by AWO's members to develop and establish a comprehensive safety program, it marks only the beginning of a national effort to strengthen safety in our industry, and ultimately save lives on our nation's waterways.
Moreover, the AWO Responsible Carrier Program and individual company quality practices will help to ensure the strength, viability and competitiveness of the industry long into the future.