Tuesday, February 2, 2016

News and stuff

If you're tired of hearing about last night's Iowa caucuses and you're not yet ready to jump into Super Bowl madness, try some of these river-related things from around the Internet.

The hydroelectric plant at the Smithland Locks and Dam is one of several projects mentioned in an article by International Water Power and Dam Construction.

People in Indiana are talking about building a riverport near Cincinnati.

And two wastewater treatment plants in the Dayton, Ohio, area want more time to comply with regulations limiting how much phosphorus they can discharge into a tributary of the Ohio River. The regulations have to do with slowing the growth of algae blooms like the one we had last year.

Wall Street Journal video on aging locks

A tip of the hat to my two-time former coworker Taylor Kuykendall at SNL Financial for pointing me to this video about lock and dam infrastructure on the inland waterways from the Wall Street Journal. It's a good introduction to the problem of aging facilities, and I was pleased to see some familiar faces on it.

The down side is that whoever did the captions apparently doesn't know the difference between "phase" and "faze" or the difference between "steel" and "steal." I mean, two references to the "steal industry"?

I would provide a link to the print story, but it's behind a paywall.

Monday, February 1, 2016

AEP and $550 million

Ever wonder what AEP did with the $550 million it received from ACBL in that big sale from last fall?

From last week, when AEP issued a news release on its quarterly and year-end earnings: "We are reinvesting the proceeds from the sale of AEP River Operations back in our core, regulated businesses." -- AEP CEO Nick Akins.

Again last week, from AEP's quarterly conference call with investment analysts. Again, Nick Akins: "AEP sale of River Operations occurred during the fourth quarter and the transaction occurred according to plan. The cash proceeds were redeployed in advance of the sale by raising our capital forecast for transmission and then by raising our overall capital plan to $5 billion for 2016 at the November EEI Financial Conference, focus on additional regulated operating company and transmission activities. So, we have successfully converted that portion of volatile earnings to a more consistent, regulated earnings profile."

In the fourth quarter, AEP River Operations recorded net income of $13 million, versus $33 million in the fourth quarter of 2014. Remember, River Operations was in business as an AEP operation for only about half of the quarter.

For the full year, River Operations posted net income of $29 million, down from $50 million in 2014.

AEP wants to focus on its regulated business and get out of business that is not regulated by states' public utilities or public service commissions. That's why it's also looking at selling its generating assets in Ohio now that that state is deregulated.

M/V Jincy (again)

Here are a few more shots I got of the Jincy as it rearranged barges at Virginia Point Park at Kenova WV a couple of days ago.

First, a view of the boat from several angles.

Here's a deckhand doing what deckhands do.

And here's a guy in the pilothouse. I guess he's sitting on what I've heard called the liar's bench.

As noted before, I rarely get this close to a Crounse boat. It's a company that prefers to fly (or sail) under the radar and not draw a lot of attention to itself. I've been aboard boats that belonged (at the time) to Ashland Oil, Ingram, AEP, Ohio River Co., Amherst Madison, Marathon, Marathon Ashland, McGinnis, Murray Energy, Neale, Merdie Boggs, White Brothers and maybe ACBL. I may have forgotten a couple. But Crounse is one company whose boats I have not touched.

Yet. Maybe someday.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

M/V Jincy

The good news: I rarely get to see a Crounse boat up close. Today I did, so I got lots of pictures.

The bad news: Now I have to sort them, select the good ones, edit them and post them somewhere.

Friday, January 29, 2016


One thing about less barge traffic on the Ohio River is that it's easier to find still, reflective water.

Even when a tow goes by.

On the other hand, if you have a river flowing right to left and wind blowing left to right and a downbound boat pushing barges loaded to ten feet, you don't get reflections. You get big splashes.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A bridge to go silent

During the quarterly conference call with investment analysts yesterday, executives of Norfolk Southern confirmed they plan to shut down the rail line between Charleston, W.Va., and Columbus, Ohio.

NS had said earlier this month that idling parts of the line known as the West Virginia Secondary was under consideration. Although they did not come out and say it at the time, you had to figure the shutdown was almost certain merely from the fact they had mentioned it.

The line crosses the Ohio River at Point Pleasant, W.Va. On the Ohio side, it uses CSX tracks up to Middleport at a place called Hobson yard, where the railroad does crew changes and such and sends trains on to Columbus if they are northbound. CSX itself hasn't used those tracks in years as far as I know, considering the tracks that led to them from Gallipolis, Ohio, and points north was removed in the early 1980s.

The fact the West Virginia Secondary is being idled is not surprising, as there are few if any major customers along it between Charleston and Columbus. Norfolk Southern is fending off a takeover attempt by Canadian Pacific Railway, and it's doing what it can to cut costs to the bone to increase earnings and convince stockholders that it will function best as a stand-alone company.

The shutdown of the West Virginia Extended means train traffic will come to an end across the Point Pleasant bridge. A short-line railroad might take it over, but if Norfolk Southern doesn't have enough traffic to justify keeping it active, who else would?

The bridge was finished in 1907. Its owners have included the Kanawha and Michigan Railway Company, New York Central, Penn Central, Conrail and now Norfolk Southern. I don't know how many other railroad bridges there are on the Ohio that are no longer in service, but this is the only one I know of within an easy drive of where I live near Huntington, W.Va. This does not count the Purple People Bridge in Cincinnati or the Big Four Bridge at Louisville, both of which have been converted to pedestrian use and so are still in service in some way.

I do know of an unused CSX bridge over the Kanawha River at Charleston. The bridge had deteriorated since it went out of service. A few years ago a study was done to see what it would take to make it into a bicyce and pedestrian bridge. The cost was about $12 million, which quickly killed that idea. The dream might be floating out there, but if anything concrete is going on, I haven't heard about it.

I don't know what shape the bridge at Point Pleasant is in. There may be talk about converting it to pedestrian or bicycle use if no railroad is interested in it, but there's always the question of money.

So for now, an uncertain countdown begins to the day another bridge goes silent from lack of use.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Coal collapse on the Ohio, part 3

Text and chart © 2016 Jim Ross

About twenty years ago -- give or take a few -- coal truck traffic on U.S. 52 in Wayne County, W.Va., was a significant public safety concern. Overloaded trucks carrying coal from mines in southern West Virginia to docks on the lower eight miles of the Big Sandy River were involved in several accidents, plus they were so numerous that it was rare to drive a few miles on a weekday without encountering one. There were probably trucks in Kentucky supplying docks on that side of the river, but U.S. 23 is a four-lane road with more room for error.

The last few times I was on U.S. 52, there were still coal trucks but not as many. Likewise, when I've been down at the mouth of the Big Sandy, I don't see as many small boats bringing coal to the Ohio for the larger boats to pick up.

The graph explains a lot about that.

A caveat here is that I had to use two different kinds of publications from the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center to get numbers from 2008 and earlier to compare with 2009 and later. But the chart does reflect the reality that less coal is coming out of the Big Sandy, and that's probably a big reason why less coal is moving through the Greenup and Gallipolis Robert C. Byrd locks nowadays.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Coal collapse on the Ohio, part 2

Text, charts and data © 2015 Jim Ross

The Kanawha River has long fed the Ohio River in terms of water and commerce. Undoubtedly part of the reason coal traffic on the middle Ohio is down is due in part to traffic on the Kanawha being down.

(Volume numbers in thousands of tons).

Campbell Transportation removed most of its operations from the mouth of the Kanawha a couple of years ago. Because power plants are burning less coal, there is less demand. Plus coal exports are down. The combination of the two means less coal coming out of the Kanawha to be moved on the Ohio.

Tomorrow: The Big Sandy River

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Coal collapse on the Ohio, part 1

All text and charts © 2016 Jim Ross

My return to serious river photography began in late 2007 when I bought my digital SLR camera. I found boats I was familiar with from the 1960s and 1970s, and I found some that were relatively new to the river. I missed some familiar names such as Ohio River Co. and M/G Transport Services, but the industry was undergoing a consolidation similar to those of others I had covered as a business reporter.

Thanks to losing my job as my then-employer had to slash payroll by 12 percent, I found myself with some free time in the summer of 2009. So, I began getting new pictures of towboats, dams, bridges and other things you see along the river. That year and 2010 were good years to be on the river, as traffic was strong and companies were bringing new boats to the Ohio.

As I've mentioned before, nowadays when I go down to the river, I see fewer boats. Here, in two graphs, is why.

Coal is the main product moved on the Ohio River in the area that I am most familiar with. Here is a chart comparing the amount of coal moved through each lock in 2005 and 2015.

If you want to look at that in terms of how tonnage numbers changed in those years, take a look at this one.

(All numbers in both charts are in thousands of tons).

I spend most of my time in the Greenup pool, and as you can tell, the locks at Greenup and Gallipolis Robert C. Byrd have gone from being the busiest in moving coal to being among the least busy. That's probably due to the collapse of the Central Appalachian coal industry.

More on that soon.

Next: The Kanawha River