Poor communication between bridge operator, tow cited in Louisiana collision

(WASHINGTON) — Poor communication led to a tow striking a railway swing bridge near Slidell, La., the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in Marine Investigation Report 22/01 released Thursday.

On Jan. 12, 2021, an empty hopper barge being pushed by the towing vessel Robert Cenac struck the CSX Rigolets railway swing bridge while it was opening. The bridge sustained damage estimated at $1.1 million and the barge sustained minor damage estimated at $5,000. No injuries or pollution were reported.

The pilot of Robert Cenac called the bridge operator around 10:31 p.m. CST to request the bridge be opened. The bridge operator informed the pilot two trains had to pass first before he would be able to open the bridge, which normally took about 12 minutes to open fully. Robert Cenac held about 1.5 miles from the bridge awaiting further communication from the bridge operator.

The Rigolets Bridge is pictured in the closed position on Jan. 29, 2021. It is shown as being approached from the south. Red navigational lights on the west and east fenders are circled. Note the bridge was not fitted with all navigational lights as required by regulation. Bullard Marine Solutions/NTSB

According to CSX records, the second train cleared the bridge at 11:34 p.m. The captain began his approach to the bridge at 11:48 p.m. The captain told investigators that by the time he noticed the bridge was not fully open, the tow was too close to stop. Investigators determined the bridge operator did not immediately open the bridge after the second train had passed.

Neither the captain nor the bridge operator confirmed the status of the bridge opening with one another. Their accounts of communication surrounding the accident differed. Investigators were not able to confirm the accuracy of the statements as there were no audio recordings or witnesses to the communications.

In addition, investigators found the swing span of the bridge was not fitted with any navigational lighting, as required by regulation, to indicate that it was in the open or closed position, nor were navigational lights located at the end of the fenders protecting the bridge piers, also required by regulations.

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident was the poor communication between the bridge operator and vessel operator. Contributing to the accident was the absence of bridge span navigational lighting that would have provided the vessel operator with a visual indication of the bridge’s opening status.

“Communication between drawbridge operators and vessel operators requesting bridge openings must be clear,” the report said. “Commonly used in all modes of transportation, closed loop communication, in which the sender confirms the message is understood or provides additional information or clarification, ensures the receiver understands the message.”

– National Transportation Safety Board

By Rich Miller