On November 13, 2021, the towboat Baxter Southern was downbound on the Mississippi, pushing four empty barges for a destination in Louisiana. At about 2200, the wind picked up with gusts of up to 35 knots, making navigation difficult for the 700-foot-long empty barge tow. The forecast showed that the winds would continue through the night. After consulting with the pilot, the master ruled out continuing onwards to the next lock or trying to turn around and head back upriver. Instead, they decided on a plan to push the barges up against a bank to wait for better weather conditions.
Using a non-ECDIS electronic chart system, they selected a site with a magenta dashed line around it where there were no trees or visible obstructions. They were aware that there was a rail line in the area but did not believe that it was a substantial risk. Because of the rough weather, no lookout was posted on the bow as they approached the bank.
At 2336, the barge tow’s bow rake was pressed up against the bank, and the master left the bridge. Three crewmembers were sent forward to verify that the bow was not overhanging the track.
Before the deckhands reached the head of the tow, they saw the lights of an approaching train coming around the bend some 2,000 feet to the north.
At about 2342, the conductor and the engineer saw the barge tow and the towboat, but were not concerned; it was common to see barges pressed up against the bank in this area. Following protocol, they accelerated down a straight section of the track, heading towards the barge.
One minute later, when the locomotive was about 300 feet from impact, the engineer realized that the barge’s bow was overhanging the rail bed, and he pulled the emergency brake. The pilot, who was still on the bridge of the towboat, saw what was happening and put the throttles in reverse to back off the bank – but too late to have an effect.
Nine seconds later, the left side of the lead locomotive struck the barge’s bow and derailed. The second locomotive followed, along with ten hopper cars, including six which went into the river. The engineer and conductor sustained only minor injuries and escaped from the locomotive on their own; none of the crewmembers aboard the Baxter Southern were injured.
After the collision, the master of the Baxter Southern backed off the bank, contacted the Coast Guard and moved upriver to another berthing location. The lead barge had sustained minor denting and scraping with no impact to its structural integrity.
*Culled from The Maritime Executive