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N.H. Army National Guard heads west for a military exercise using railroad

  • Greg Heilshorn, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire National Guard, talks with Peter Dearness, president of the New England Southern, as he watches a line of massive trucks drive up an earthen ramp and maneuver onto rail cars at the siding on Hoit Road in Canterbury on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • U.S. Army National Guard loaded more than 160 large vehicles, including dozens of mobile rocket launchers, onto flatbed rail cars near exit 18 off of I-93 on Tuesday, July 17, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Army personnel strap down millitary vehicles on Tuesday, July 17, 2108. The equipment, about 70 rail cars worth, is going to Camp Grayling in northern Michigan, the largest National Guard training facility in the country. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • U.S. Army National Guard loaded more than 160 large vehicles, including dozens of mobile rocket launchers, onto flatbed rail cars near Exit 18 off Interstate 93 on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Tuesday, July 17, 2018

There isn’t a lot of train traffic north of Concord anymore, but you wouldn’t have known it this week at the rail sidings in Canterbury, where the U.S. Army National Guard loaded more than 160 large vehicles, including dozens of mobile rocket launchers, onto flatbed rail cars.

“If there’s a rail line, we’ll use it. Flatbedding is by far the easiest way to move and the most cost-effective for the taxpayer,” said Maj. Chris Thompson, brigade operations officer for the 179th Field Artillery, based in Manchester.

The equipment, about 70 rail cars’ worth, is going to Camp Grayling in northern Michigan, the largest National Guard training facility in the country. There the equipment will be part of an August live-fire exercise involving the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps national guards, with the New Hampshire guard having a major role in managing the event.

This is a big deal for the New Hampshire guard but it’s also a big deal for the state’s oldest short-line railroad, the New England Southern. The line, which despite its name only runs from Lincoln to Concord, is down to two regular customers: A specialty paper mill in Tilton and the National Guard. But the Guard isn’t all that regular: The last time it did a rail shipment like this was three years ago.

“We were anxious to get this traffic,” said Peter Dearness, president of the New England Southern, as he watched a line of massive trucks drive up an earthen ramp and maneuver onto rail cars at the siding on Hoit Road. His only disappointment: Original plans called for even more equipment to be shipped, and at the last minute he had to turn back another 20 rail cars because they weren’t needed.

Thompson said it would take about three days to load up all the equipment on rail cars, although Tuesday’s storms disrupted operations when thunder and lightning hit the area.

New England Southern Railroad is hauling the equipment to Manchester, where engines from regional Pan Am railways will take the cars to Worcester, Mass. At that point, national railroad company CSX will drag them to Michigan, leaving regional Lake State Railroad to unload them at Camp Grayling.

“We do the hard part, all the loading, switching – they just grab the train and go with it,” Dearness joked.

The military exercise, known as Northern Strike, is slated to run from Aug. 4-24, after which the equipment will be loaded on rail cars and brought back to New Hampshire.

Northern Strike has gone on for a number of years at Camp Grayling, drawing thousands of National Guard troops from more than a dozen states and the three land branches of the armed services.

Thompson said it’s a compliment for the New Hampshire Army National Guard to have the job of managing this live-fire exercise, which will involve some two dozen 155 mm cannons, 48 rocket launchers, and more than 40 fixed-wing aircraft and 55 helicopters. Thompson described the New Hampshire unit’s role as “synchronizing” these disparate units in a “process that engages all the weapons on the battlefield.”

The New Hampshire Army National Guard also plans a “boss lift” in which it flies civilian employers from New Hampshire and the area to see the exercise. The National Guard depends on private companies ensuring their employees have the time to serve without harming their civilian careers.

Among the equipment loaded this week were massive HEMTT trucks, eight-wheel-drive diesel-powered tactical trucks that carry 10 tons at a time, and HIMARS launchers, which can fire up to six rockets from a launch that pivots 360 degrees, each of which can travel as far as 180 miles, often GPS-guided.

New England Southern Railroad, which turns 36 this year, has been losing customers for years mostly because the North Country has lost the sort of major manufacturing firms that ship big, heavy items on trains, most notably paper mills. It suffered a major blow in 2008 when, following a long court fight, regional rail line Pan Am took back control of lines between Concord and Manchester that Southern New Hampshire had been operating since 1982, after Boston & Maine railroad went bankrupt.

The firm has pared back to the point that it has no permanent office and just one engine that is parked on the open siding near Exit 18 of Interstate 93 in Canterbury. It hasn’t run any passenger service since the 1980s, and its freight service almost never blocks traffic on the nine road crossings that it oversees.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)