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NEWS | Feb. 18, 2014

The little engine that could: Eustis rail ops

By Senior Airman Austin Harvill 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

A man in pinstriped overalls sounded the train's horn, scattering the birds near the rail yard and breaking the silence of the early morning. On the tracks below, an engineer heaved the stubborn railroad switch, turning the rails before jumping on the slow-moving behemoth.

Although they weren't picking up passengers in Victorian dresses or top hats, the crew of the U.S. Army Engine 1663 continues the age-old mission of supporting Fort Eustis' units via rail.

"Railroad capabilities have been integral to Fort Eustis since tracks were laid in 1918, and the mission remains strong across the military," said Billy Grimes, the pinstriped 733rd Logistics Readiness Division conductor and Utility Rail Branch engineer. "Throughout the nation, locomotives are used to transport tremendous amounts of fuel, equipment and other critical assets."

Fort Eustis established rail capabilities shortly after World War I, and transportation has been its primary mission ever since.

"At Fort Eustis, we have three trains: one with a 670-horsepower engine and two with 1,750-horsepower," said Grimes. "We can move more at once than any other transport system, so locomotive transportation still has a place in logistics."

To put its force in perspective, the two 1,750-horsepowered trains can carry up to 120 M1 Abrams tanks, whereas any truck or plane can only carry one.

In 2013 alone, Fort Eustis moved 374 rail cars in support of real-world missions like Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand. During the heights of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Fort Eustis alone moved hundreds of rail cars a year.

"In 2004, we moved 500 rail cars in support of [Operation Iraqi Freedom]," said Grimes. "Since we moved mostly vehicles, I can safely estimate we moved about 1,800 Humvees."

The impact of rail expands beyond Eustis' borders. Other installations worldwide rely or have relied on rail operations to provide support.

During the Korean War, rail units from Fort Eustis helped South Korea's Korean National Railroad. Soldiers protected the rail lines, upgraded facilities and streamlined processes to aid KNR personnel in the future.

At Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, locomotives moved 352 million tons of coal in 2011 to power the installation, according to the Eielson's official website. At Shaw Air Force Base, N.C., the base's F-16 "Fighting Falcons" wouldn't fly without the jet fuel provided by trains, said Grimes.

"There are 32 installations with rail capability," said Grimes. "No matter where our equipment needs to go, chances are, most of the journey can be made by rail."

From Alaska to Florida, Grimes hopes to see rail operations expand into the future of transportation.

"Without us, operations would cost more time, manpower and money than necessary," said Grimes. "If our trains alleviate that operational stress on our [Service members], then I guarantee these pinstripes aren't going anywhere."