The moment the New Hampshire Army National Guard’s 197th Fires Brigade was selected to lead the artillery component of the 2018 Operation Northern Strike live training exercise, planning got underway to transfer the gunnery command unit’s equipment from several locations in New Hampshire to the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center in Grayling, Michigan. The live exercise was scheduled for 04 – 18 August.
Convoying the ~250 vehicles nearly 1000 miles via the close, congested roads of New England and then round the lengthy southern diversion under the Great Lakes would add unnecessary wear to the vehicles, carry a high cost in fuel and crew expenses, and stress the 197th’s citizen-soldier personnel schedule.
Rail was the hands-down choice over truck for the fleet of heavy, large-dimension vehicles. Camp Grayling has a substantial railhead, with on-site track for 150 cars, and many more spots on nearby Lake State Railway (LSRC) property. LSRC interchanges with CSX at Flint, MI.
That kind of open loading and switching space isn’t readily available in Central New Hampshire. To match the expansive facilities in other regions, New England short lines rely on Yankee ingenuity to tackle unique customer challenges like the NHARNG move. Pete Dearness and New England Southern (NEGS) stepped up to put tracks and backs into the effort. NEGS knew what it was getting itself into. In 2015 the railroad had sent off the same units [?] on 93 cars to Northern Strike out of its recently expanded four-track Canterbury yard, ten miles north of the state Capitol, Concord.
By 15 July, Sixty-seven 89’ Special flat deck railcars gathered from southern and western depots into Concord Yard. NEGS #2555 pulled 34 cars north (33 on second turn). Like clockwork, units of the 197th from Manchester, Concord, Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Somersworth mustered vehicles at the Canterbury Yard. Equipment included M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) units, M198 and M777 Field Howitzers, hauled and pulled by Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks (HEMMT) and Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) variants.
Roll ’em, boys
Now began the deft railroading needed to build a mile-and-a-quarter, long-haul unit train on 3000’ of track (plus the use of the m. From the long string of empties spotted on the main line south of Canterbury Yard, five at a time were brought into the the yard to be spotted on either of the east and west loading spurs, both butted with permanent ramps. With spanner plates bridging the cars, vehicles were loaded circus-style according to a car-by-car load plan developed by Taylor Transfer Service, Inc. Taylor managers were on site to oversee the loading, which was executed by NHARNG logistics specialists and NEGS employees. The action kept the main line and a siding warm as the switcher ran up and down, pulling and pushing cars through the process.
Once each batch of south-spotted empties had flowed through the operation to become north-spotted loads, the train was brought back down to the Pan Am yard in Concord. The unit was assembled and pulled by PAR to Barbers Station (Worcester, MA), where it was picked up by CSX for the road run to Flint, via Albany, Buffalo, and Toledo.
The NHARNG Extra was one of four Northern Strike unit trains picked up in Flint by LSRC, totaling more than 300 cars pulled into Camp Grayling and unloaded in a matter of days. With ~15,000’ of on-base track, and plenty of LSRC track right outside the gates, most cars were held for the duration of the exercise.
Last mile’s always the longest
With 197th FAB’s Northern Strike leadership mission successfully concluded, the NH Guard crews loaded their equipment back up, and clattered back home. The soldiers were looking forward to getting home just ahead of the Labor Day weekend. But the NHARNG Extra would have to overcome steep resistance before the 197th could retire for a well-deserved long weekend.
After losing two days in Selkirk awaiting clearance at Barbers, the train headed north late evening on Monday, 27 August. In the ~80 miles between Worcester MA and Concord, the train lost six hours. It drew up near Merrimack NH for a tree blockage that wasn’t cleared until ~01h30 by a patrol crew. At ~02h40, the train struck a trespasser near Manchester (the trespasser received wounds to his ear and shoulder, but survived).
The Military Extra arrived in Concord behind CSX 5339, 427, and 3223 after 12h00 on Tuesday, 28 August, during one of the hottest days on record. Half of the loads were pulled to Canterbury, to be unloaded in an approximately inverse method to the loading operation. Through 28 and 29 August, a crew of 30 – 40 military personnel unloaded the military vehicles in near-record 94° (8/28) and 95° F (8/29) heat. Other personnel shuttled the unloaded vehicles to their various NHARNG garage locations, returning by van for numerous rounds. The empty flats were quickly sent south off NEGS property, and tucked into every open corner in Concord Yard, including a retired tail behind the President Franklin
“We got the whole thing in, unloaded, and out within 48 hours,” said NEGS President Pete Dearness, adding that, apart from the in-transit delays, the operation schedule was compressed by the upcoming Labor Day weekend. “It was pretty impressive,” he said of the unloading operation.