Marine Link
Sunday, September 26, 2021

Safety in the Towing Industry: Meeting the Challenge

In the early hours of September 22, 1993, the Amtrak Sunset Limited derailed after a six-barge tow struck and damaged a railroad bridge at Big Bayou Canot, Alabama. In the aftermath of the tragedy, in which 47 passengers and train crewmembers were killed, a flurry of activity ensued: in the Congress, the leadership of the House Coast Guard Navigation Subcommittee moved quickly to hold hearings on the casualty, and subcommittee ChairmanBilly Tauzin (D-LA) promptly introduced legislation (H.R. 3282) to increase navigation equipment requirements for towing vessels. At the Department of Transportation, DOT Secretary Federico Pena acted within days of the accident to direct that a fivepart study of towing industry safety be undertaken by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). In the media, the accident received front-page coverage. And, within the industry itself, the painful process of understanding why the accident had oc- curred, and what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, began. For the barge and towing industry, the Amtrak accident was a stark reminder of the one lesson common to all casualties: no matter how good our safety record is or has been, we must get better.

Continuous improvement must always be our objective.

The lesson that one such casualty is too many is all too apparent in the aftermath of a tragedy. The other lessons which accidents teach us are often less easily identified, however, and may vary considerably with the circumstances of a particular case. Unearthing these lessons, and identifying the measures which will prevent such casualties in the future, demands sober assessment, careful thought, and no small measure of operational expertise.

Effective in preventing future casualties, we believe, is a deep-rooted commitment by the industry and by the governmental agencies which regulate it to improving safety on the waterways and identifying real solutions to demonstrated weaknesses in the system.

The industry itself has perhaps the greatest ability, and surely the paramount responsibility, to take the lead in that process. The USCG, as the principal regulatory agency which governs our industry, has a special role to play as well. Together, we believe the industry and the USCG are well positioned to identify those measures which will have a real impact on navigational safety and environmental protection. Since the Amtrak derailment occurred, AWO has worked closely with the USCG and with the Congress in an effort to achieve that goal. AWO has endorsed H.R. 3282, a bill which would bring statutory requirements for navigation equipment on towing vessels to a level which more closely approximates actual practice in the inland industry. The association has lent its expertise to the USCG as that agency embarked on its DOT-mandated study of safety in the towing industry, and is now prepared to work closely with the USCG in implementing the study's recommendations regarding operator licensing, navigation equipment, aids to navigation, and bridge marking.

AWO has also embarked on a rigorous internal process aimed at identifying other ways in which safety in the barge and towing industry might be improved. In December 1993, the association testified before the National Transportation Safety Board, offering nine recommendations for enhancing navigational safety. Among AWO's recommendations were: • Navigation equipment requirements (compasses, fathometers) should be tailored to a vessel's area of operation to ensure that required equipment makes a genuine contribution to the safety of the vessel. In addition, consideration should be given to requiring that a searchlight, whistle light, and general alarm — equipment widely used in the inland towing industry — be carried aboard all towing vessels; • Greater use of fendering systems, radar reflectors, range lights, buoys, and approaching guidewalls should be instituted to alert commercial navigators to nearby bridges.

• The USCG should consider in- eluding within the license issuance and renewal process a requirement that a navigator's proficiency be checked by a qualified person within the industry; and • Initial notification procedures for reporting marine casualties should be standardized to avoid inconsistency and confusion.

• Entry-level training for towing industry personnel should be standardized via voluntary guidelines now under development within the Towing Safety Advisory Committee. We believe these recommendations have the potential to produce real improvements in navigational safety. And, within AWO, we are continuing our examination of industry operations and governmental requirements in an effort to identify other areas in which safety may be enhanced. That process will continue, as will our cooperation with all parties who share our commitment to sound, fact-based safety solutions. Finally, much of the public debate in the wake of the Amtrak accident has focused on the need for more rigorous governmental regulation of the barge and towing industry.

Indeed, AWO has not hesitated to endorse or to call for such regulation where we believe it will yield concrete results. At the same time, however, we must bear in mind that safety is a process in which many actors must play a part.

Clearly, government, as the guardian of the public trust, must set the floor — the basic standard of safety below which industry operations must not take place. Shippers, who employ carriers to move their products, must be willing to insist on, and to pay the price for, high standards of transportation safety and quality. But, it is carriers themselves who bear the ultimate responsibility for ensuring safe navigation on our nation's waterways. Government regulation is not, and will never be, a substitute for a company's own responsibility to ex- ercise the highest and most rigor- tempt to bypass this most important ous standards of care. Rigidly pre- link in the safety chain will never be scribed safety "solutions" which at- more than partially effective.

Navigation History

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