Preserving Strategic Rail Mobility

by Robert S. Korpanty
The Railroads for National Defense Program ensures that the commercial railroad network is ready to deliver combat power where it is needed when it is needed.

    Tell any mechanized maneuver commander he has to fight a battle without his Abrams tanks or Bradley fighting vehicles, and you probably will see a puzzled look on his face that could be interpreted as, "What planet are you from?" or, "What language are you speaking?" Since it is doubtful that a major conflict will occur just outside the gates of Fort Stewart, Georgia, or Fort Hood, Texas, a key element of a successful engagement will be getting combat power wherever it is needed on time.

Without a reliable commercial rail infrastructure, it is doubtful the tanks and Bradleys will make it to their place of business. To make sure they do, the Military Traffic Management Command developed the Railroads for National Defense (RND) Program in 1976. In 1991, the RND Program was assigned to the Military Traffic Management Command Transportation Engineering Agency (MTMCTEA), which now executes the program on behalf of the U.S. Transportation Command. This program ensures that the commercial rail infrastructure in the United States meets Department of Defense (DOD) requirements for deploying a force. The RND Program works to preserve our strategic rail mobility.

RND's Functions

The poor condition of the rail industry in the mid- 1970's led to development of the RND Program. At that time, the rail industry was characterized by poor track maintenance that caused several derailments and the bankruptcy of six major eastern carriers and foretold a questionable future. DOD experienced on-post derailments that delayed deployment exercises. At this point, DOD realized how important the rail infrastructure was and became concerned about the state of the commercial rail industry. DOD also realized that it did not know which installations required rail service or which commercial rail lines between installations and ports were important to national defense.

The RND Program performs three major functions. First, it identifies DOD's requirements for commercial rail service. Second, it integrates these requirements into commercial rail planning to support DOD transportation policy. And, finally, it ensures strategic rail mobility by protecting required rail infrastructure.

The RND Program works by following four fundamental procedures and by using an integrated network of transportation agencies and contacts to support its objectives, including state departments of transportation and several other civilian agencies and commercial rail carriers. Those procedures are—

To update this report, MTMCTEA works with the various Service headquarters staffs to identify their requirements for commercial rail service. Under the direction of the headquarters staff, each major command tasks installations to provide written justification for rail service. These justifications are forwarded to the headquarters staff for approval. The approved justifications are compiled into a requirements list. When the list is complete, MTMCTEA works with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to implement the program. FRA monitors traffic levels and identifies trends in increasing or decreasing traffic on rail lines. From this analysis, FRA makes recommendations to the RND Program for changes to the designation of STRACNET rail lines. This ensures that the lines designated as part of the STRACNET are economically viable and are not likely to be candidates for abandonment. FRA also conducts annual safety inspections of STRACNET rail lines to ensure that tracks are maintained adequately and are safe for travel. Based on these two analyses, FRA recommends the refined network that forms the foundation of the STRACNET report. MTMCTEA publishes and coordinates the report with appropriate agencies to encourage those agencies to support the current DOD transportation policy, which is to rely on commercial transportation whenever possible to minimize costs to DOD.

Of the more than 3,300 abandonments filed with the STB so far, 70 have impacted national defense. Using the options above, MTMCTEA has resolved 64 of these without using DOD funding. Recently, the rail line to Camp Ripley, Minnesota, was a candidate for abandonment. MTMCTEA is working to preserve the line with a minimal expense to DOD.

The excessive rail end gap in the photo above left typifies the poor condition of railroads in the mid-1970's. Without a reliable commercial rail infrastructure, it is doubtful the M1 Abrams tank at left could be delivered where it is needed when it is needed.
The excessive rail end gap in the photo above left typifies the poor condition of railroads in the mid-1970's. Without a reliable commercial rail infrastructure, it is doubtful the M1 Abrams tank at left could be delivered where it is needed when it is needed.

The option to participate in an STB proceeding gives DOD an opportunity to submit its reasons for termination of the abandonment to a neutral authority. The STB acts as an impartial arbitrator to decide if an abandonment should be approved. In 1996, this arbitration option nearly was lost through a streamlining of the abandonment process. MTMCTEA, through the RND Program, submitted testimony on the value of the process to national defense. Every comment in the MTMCTEA testimony to the STB was approved, which resulted in DOD's retaining this valuable option for preserving rail service to Government installations.

Commercial rail carriers and several agencies are vital to achieving the goals of the RND program. MTMCTEA has contact with each state rail planner. Through their knowledge of the state rail system, their contacts, and their experience with abandonment options, they help considerably in preserving lines proposed for abandonment. FRA actively participates in the implementation of the goals of the RND Program by monitoring traffic levels and conducting safety programs.

The RND Program maintains information on the location of structures, such as this bridge, that may be out of service as a result of a natural disaster, as well as the location of alternate lines that could be used. The RND Program maintains information on the location of structures, such as this bridge, that may be out of service as a result of a natural disaster, as well as the location of alternate lines that could be used.

These four established procedures have a track record that has supported strategic mobility time and again over the 23 years of the program's existence. The RND Program uses a powerful network of agencies and personnel that, when combined at the appropriate time, ensures that defense requirements are met.

RND Evolution

Any program that exists for a period of time eventually goes through some changes, no matter how effective it is. This is true of the RND Program, which has evolved successfully over the last few years. One recent key initiative involves access track to each of the power projection platforms. Access track is the section of track between an installation's boundary and the commercial mainline track. MTMCTEA has analyzed all 15 of the Army's major power projection platforms, determined the condition of the access tracks, and taken action to improve their condition. On two occasions at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, MTMCTEA worked with the Union Pacific Railroad to improve the access track. This action not only supported strategic mobility, it also improved the rail competition for the installation, since two carriers now serve it. Having two carriers permits the installation transportation officer to accept bids from both of them, which helps to keep transportation costs low.

At the request of Fort Stewart, MTMCTEA had its access track inspected by the FRA to ensure that it met the standard for safe track. FRA determined that it did meet the standard for safe track but offered suggestions for improving the track, which the carrier implemented. Since the installation hauls heavy tanks to port, MTMCTEA talked to the carrier about installing additional ties. In conjunction with a mainline construction project, the carrier saved some material that will be used to make these track improvements whenever their crews are in the vicinity of Fort Stewart. It is a slow process, but progress is being made. Additional work still may be required.

A similar situation existed at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, and the post requested MTMCTEA's assistance to get the track upgraded. Again, the FRA conducted an inspection of the track. After the FRA noted defects, the carrier repaired the track to a safe operating standard. MTMCTEA currently is coordinating with the carrier to improve the track at no cost to the Army.

To monitor the status of STRACNET, MTMCTEA obtained information on the location and condition of the tracks on or in structures such as bridges and tunnels that may cause problems for rail traffic during natural disasters. The information on rail clearances has been valuable in determining if wide combat tanks transported by the Army can be accommodated on a particular line. This information can help determine if an alternate line exists that would meet the requirements of the RND Program if a particular STRACNET line were out of service. FRA agreed to automate the clearance data for these alternate lines. MTMCTEA continues to gather additional data on rail lines and to automate them for easy access.

This map shows the interconnected STRACNET lines that are important to national defense as well as other rail lines that serve as connectors.
This map shows the interconnected STRACNET lines that are important to national defense as well as other rail lines that serve as connectors.

As a part of its effort to monitor STRACNET, MTMCTEA met with major rail carriers to determine how they monitored their rail lines. Through these meetings, MTMCTEA obtained a direct link to the National Response Center and now receives daily incident reports on the status of the rail network. These daily reports help to determine if a STRACNET line is out of service. The ultimate goal is to automate this process so it will provide the information by computer.

MTMCTEA also performed an analysis to determine if the key rail routes between the power projection platforms and the nearest ports had alternate bypass routes available. This report supports the Critical Asset Assurance Program to protect assets in the United States that are vital to readiness and operations.

The commercial rail network was put to the test during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and no significant problems were noted. It proved to be a crucial link in transporting combat power. The successful use of the commercial rail network helped to ensure a swift end to the war, which was a real testament to how well the RND Program supports strategic rail mobility. ALOG

Robert S. Korpanty is a licensed professional engineer employed by the Military Traffic Management Command Transportation Engineering Agency in Newport News, Virginia. He has a master's degree in systems management from the University of Southern California. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and is assigned as the commander of a military police unit training battalion.