Caution area not properly identified by tow pilot and captain

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that that the probable cause of the collision between the Baxter Southern tow and BNSF coal train in November 2021 was the tow’s pilot and captain not correctly identifying a caution area on the electronic chart before deciding, due to the high wind’s effect on the tow’s empty barges, to push the tow up against the riverbank alongside a railroad track.

Late last month the NTSB released the results of its investigation into the collision of a moving train with the Baxter Southern on the Upper Mississippi on November 13th last year. The Baxter Southern had departed Spechts Ferry, Iowa at mile 591 on November 9th, pushing four empty barges downbound on the Upper Mississippi River en route to Donaldsonville, Louisiana. The crew of the Baxter Southern consisted of a captain, pilot, engineer, mate, tankerman, and three deckhands.

On November 11th the tow moored at the Linwood Dock in Pine Bend, Iowa (mile 475), for fueling. Due to winds exceeding 25 mph, the captain decided to keep the tow there until the winds had decreased to below 10 mph. On November 13th at 06:00 the tow proceeded downriver.

At about 09:00 the BNSF train departed Burlington, Iowa, en route to West Quincy, Missouri, hauling 143 hopper cars loaded with coal. The sides of each locomotive extended about 2ft from the rails and had a ground clearance of 1ft (both by design). The pilot of the Baxter Southern arrived in the wheelhouse at 22:45 p.m.(the tow was near mile 375), and he and the captain reviewed the NOAA weather website and other weather applications related to area forecasts.

The weather forecast for the area of the Mississippi River through which the Baxter Southern was transiting predicted southwest winds of 10mph to15mph, with gusts up to 40mph after midnight, changing to northwest winds of 15mph to 25mph with gusts decreasing to 30mph at noon the following day.

The captain stated that he originally planned to tie up at Lock and Dam no 19 (mile 364) to wait for the wind to decrease However, there were two tows ahead of them, and he knew that those tows would occupy all available mooring space at the lock.

After assessing the forecast, the captain and pilot determined that, with the high winds continuing into the morning, it would be unsafe to proceed to the lock, since there would be no available space to dock or open shoreline for the tow to push up against. They also believed it would be unsafe to try to turn the tow around (top around) and find another place upriver to dock.

The captain and pilot reviewed the vessel’s Rose Point Navigation System, an electronic chart system (ECS), which was set on night-time display mode. The ECS provided them with detailed electronic navigation chart information for the waterway the vessel was transiting, including depths and widths of the waterway, as well as river mile markers to assist with determining the position of the vessel.

The electronic navigation chart showed railroad tracks along the riverbank but did not provide the distance from the river to the tracks. The captain told the pilot to head to the marked area on the chart at mile 372 and place the tow up against the riverbank at that location to wait out the weather.

About 23:36 the forward port barge was pushed up on the shore, and the tug and tow were at an approximate 45° angle to the riverbank, with the stern of the Baxter Southern angled downriver. The pilot did not note any problems with the tow pushing up against the shore, and the captain departed the wheelhouse after the head of the tow was on the bank.

A couple of minutes after this, three crew members were mustered and shortly afterward headed forward to verify that the forwardmost barge was clear of the railroad track. The pilot turned on the vessel’s search light atop the wheelhouse and pointed it toward the bow to illuminate the barges so the crewmembers could see where they were walking.

Before the three crew members could check the track clearance, they saw the headlight of the approaching train’s lead locomotive as it appeared to the starboard side of the tow, coming around a slight bend in the tracks behind some trees about 2,000ft away.

At 23:44, the left side of the lead locomotive collided with the port corner of STC 3020’s bow, and the 2ft overhang of the train impacted the deck of the barge, pushing it into the ground.

After the pilot, who was in the wheelhouse, and the crew of the Baxter Southern, who were out on deck, saw the light of the approaching train as it came into view about 2,000ft away from the tow, they had about 35 seconds to respond. On the train, the conductor and engineer did not have any indication that the Baxter Southern tow was pushed up against the riverbank before they visually saw the tow about 1,000ft away.

In addition, they did not realize that the bow of the STC 3020 had encroached on the tracks until the train was about 300ft from the barge and still traveling about 37mph. At that point the train’s engineer activated the train’s emergency brake on the three locomotives and all the hopper cars. After the Baxter Southern’s pilot saw the sparks from the train and realized that the train was not going to be able to stop, he put the tug’s engines in full astern to move the tug and barge away from the riverbank.

However, the engines took 4.5 seconds to respond because of the pneumatic throttle control, delaying the movement of the towing vessel and barges from the riverbank at a time-critical moment. With only seconds to respond, the activation of the train’s emergency brake and the placement of the tug’s engines in full astern occurred too late to avoid the collision.

The TSB said that ECS provided “a wealth of navigation information to mariners”. Depending on user settings and other conditions, ECDIS can display the same feature(s) differently (compared to paper charts, which display the same information constantly). ECDIS enables users to obtain more information about a feature by querying through a “cursor pick.” Additionally, NTSB said, there were many features – including warnings and other navigation information – that could be obtained through a cursor pick that are not specifically noted in the default chart display.

NTSB said that mariners should ensure they understood all symbols and applicable advisories identified in their ECS, and owners and operators should ensure that their crews were proficient in the use of ECS.