Since late 2011, Kuwait-based Agility has been transporting rail cars from Spain to Kazakhstan on behalf of Kazakhstan’s state railway. It’s a massive undertaking: 43 rail cars have already shipped; a total of 420 slated will have moved by 2014.
Though not a military move, defense logisticians should pay attention to the project, especially as they employ private contractors to supply forces in nations where regimes may be shaky or, at the very least, in transition.
Any time supplies cross a border into states with emerging or unstable governments, logistical hurdles are bound to arise, said Grant Wattman, president and CEO of Agility Projects Logistics, a Houston subsidiary.
“The first issue has been just keeping up with the changes. What may have been the process months ago may be different today. In some cases, those requirements may change when the equipment hits the border, which means you have to react even faster,” he said.
Agility has experience moving heavy military equipment, including helping transport U.S. machinery from Kuwait to Iraq.
In the Spain-Kazakhstan project, the logistical demands have required a less direct route. Since European rail gauges don’t match the size used in Russia and neighboring nations, Agility has shipped its heavy load by sea to Finland, where an appropriate rail gauge makes it possible to run the trains through to their destination.
Boots on the ground have proven the most effective approach to head off any potential paperwork hurdles, Wattman said. Agility has individuals in place at major border crossings to ensure things flow smoothly.
“You have to keep in contact with local offices. It may not be them changing the regulations, but they are the ones who are there to enforce and regulate. So this is not something you can do from behind a desk,” he said. “You have to run the traps, be on the ground and understand what you are up against.”
The same holds true for the more mechanical aspects of the operation: People are the backbone a heavy-machinery transport, as much so in the military as in any civilian undertaking.
“The easy part is getting the rail cars to Finland. The challenge is in once they start moving. Then you have to start monitoring the rail. You may want to put on a caboose with people in it because the tracking systems are not effective. In some of these countries they will literally just drop a postcard in the mail when they get to the station, just to be sure we know where they are.”
If nothing else, these on-scene monitors can make sure nothing gets left behind, for example if a rail car fell by the wayside due to mechanical troubles.
“If you have someone on board, at least you have a record of where it was set off,” Wattman said.