WASHINGTON — For more than 100 years, the U.S. military has used the expansive American railroad network to move heavy tanks, trucks and even rocket engines between military bases.
During times of war, these mammoth military trains carry this equipment — often too large for roadways — to coastal ports, where the goods are loaded on cargo freighters and shipped overseas.
Problem is, many of the commercially owned flat rail cars that compose the military trains are so old they face mandatory retirement. Now, Defense Department officials are working to determine how it will meet rail transportation needs.
“There’s been enough of those [flat rail cars] in the commercial sector that we don’t have to pay for them … and there’s no subsidies given or anything,” said Curt Zargan, of the Transportation Engineering Agency, part of the Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, which oversees DoD rail operations.
“It’s just the commercial marketplace dictates that they exist and [we] have been able to benefit from that and fulfill about 80 percent of our requirements with what’s available out there at no cost to DoD,” he said. “It’s been a sweetheart deal for a number of years, but that’s getting ready to change.”
Zargan is part of a niche community within the Pentagon’s gigantic organization that oversees military rail operations. How small is that community?
“I can almost name them all by name,” he said. “That’s how tight of a group it is.”
When mobilized for war, DoD has access to 5,862 flat rail cars. Of those, 4,504 are owned by commercial railroads. DoD owns the remaining 1,358, which are more robust than their commercial counterparts and carry heavy tracked vehicles, such as M1 Abrams tanks.
These flat rail cars are preconfigured so a vehicle can simply drive on, get chained down and the train can depart.
The low commercial demand for these rail cars means DoD can essentially use them free whenever it wants, according to Army officials.
In 2012, the Army spent about $120 million on rail transportation, about 5 percent of the transportation budget. Most of that money goes toward contracting the commercial companies to operate the trains.
The Army has a requirement for more than 5,000 flat rail cars, Gen. William Fraser, the head of U.S. Transportation Command, told the House Armed Services Committee in March.
“Fortunately for us … the cars that we’re most interested in — these chain-tie-down flat cars — generally speaking aren’t really engaged in much use other than us,” Zargan said. “That means it’s easy for us to get them when we need them.”
Transportation Command oversees the movement of all military equipment in and out of war zones.
When not in use, these rail cars typically sit in holding yards near military installations.
Commercial railroads actually operate the military trains around the United States. Even military-owned rail cars are pulled by commercial railroad locomotives, operated by companies such as Norfolk Southern or Union Pacific.
“We only own what we need to own,” Zargan said. “We don’t just nonchalantly decide that we’re going to have to own a whole bunch more rail cars, but it would appear that we’re going to have to own several more because industry is not going to replace them, and they’re just not going to be out there.”
Most of the commercial chain-tie-down rail cars were built between 1964 and 1970. Federal Railroad Administration regulations specify that flat cars need to retire at 50 years, meaning DoD has about five years to come up with a replacement plan or overhaul the existing cars.
The commercial industry has replaced the existing flat rail cars with larger, more profitable freight cars and has been phasing out the smaller ones.
“They don’t have as great a need for these types of cars, and so many of them are going to be scrapped or salvaged at the end of their useful life,” Zargan said. “That presents a substantial challenge to us in terms of meeting our needs in the manner that we have been over the last several decades.”
A new commercial flatbed rail car cost about $150,000, according to Army railroad officials.
Industry had been looking at extending the lives of its flat rail cars but has abandoned that plan, these officials said. The program would have added 15 years to each car, but they would need to be retired at the end of that time.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the federal agency that oversees U.S. railroads, would have to sign off on an overhaul plan, should DoD choose that option.
Defense officials examining the overhaul or replacement options hope to make a decision in the coming months, Zargan said.
The more robust, heavy hauling rail cars owned by DoD were built around 1981, so DoD officials are “not too worried about” them since they have about two decades of operational life remaining, Zargan said.