Railroad drawbridge breakdown closes the Tennessee River

December 11, 2015

Railroad drawbridge breakdown closes the Tennessee River

Our region’s economy is being adversely affected as a result of a lack of modernization of our aging transportation infrastructure. The century old L&N Railroad drawbridge over the Tennessee River near New Johnsonville, Tennessee suffered a mechanical failure of critical operating components on the morning of Tuesday December 8.

Serving as a vital rail link between Memphis and Nashville, the bridge was safely secured in the down position providing for uninterrupted movement of railed freight integral to the region’s economy. However, with only approximately 25 feet of vertical clearance above the waterline, waterborne commerce will suffer interruptions and delays until repairs to the bridge can be accomplished.

Loaded and empty barges are not affected by the vertical clearance. Unfortunately, the tow boats that push the up to 15 barge tows on the Tennessee, with necessarily elevated pilot houses, are unable to navigate the channel’s span.

Immediately following the initial assessment of the condition of the drawbridge, and the resulting river closure, towing industry representatives working with the U.S. Coast Guard, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other impacted industries and government agencies, joined together to devise an action plan to mitigate impacts and return the movement of time sensitive delivery of commodities to the river.

A specially designed tow boat, with a hydraulically retractable pilot house, is being used to shuttle barges through the channel span. Primary operators on the Tennessee who are fortunate to have tow boats on either side of the bridge are now able to exchange tows and continue deliveries with limited delays. Small operators, or tows pushed by companies whose operations are limited or infrequent on this stretch of the River, will not fare so well. In many cases, they will be stranded until the repairs to the bridge can be completed, currently estimated to be on December 18.

The bridge owners have indicated that fabrication of replacement parts was contracted to a firm that will work around the clock and over the weekend to provide for the fastest delivery possible, and have offered time based incentives in their contract, with the goal of returning the bridge and river to normal operations as soon as possible.

Time sensitive commodities now waiting in queue, or are scheduled to soon transit the affected bridge include: salts for chlorine product production in east Tennessee; corn for feeds products to support the poultry industry in north Alabama; TVA coal for energy production in northwest Alabama; asphalt for highway and road construction and maintenance throughout the Tennessee Valley and; sand and aggregates for concrete and cement products across the region.

The cooperative spirit and dedication of industry professionals to develop a workable, safe, and fair plan to facilitate the movement of beneficial commerce through this breakdown, with the oversight and cooperation of the U.S. Coast Guard, Tennessee Valley Authority, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, will ensure minimal adverse impacts to the Valley economy.

Regrettably, given the deteriorating condition of America’s critical transportation infrastructure, similar breakdowns will likely be repeated on the Tennessee River and elsewhere in the very near future. Congratulations and thank you to those industry leaders, the related workforce, and dedicated public servants who will continue to work tirelessly to endure and resolve this failure of our vital infrastructure that makes tremendous contributions to our region’s economy.