By Airman 1st Class Daniel Blackwell, 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 14, 2012
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- Currently, the U.S. Air Force has few bases that still transport fuel via railroad lines, one of which is here at Shaw.
The railroad, built in 1941, predates Shaw and was essential in its construction. It was used to bring in raw materials to the base. After Shaw was erected, the railroad adopted a new role of providing fuel for the base.
Although the railroad was built in 1941 it still retains practical application in today's Air Force.
"Transporting fuel by truck has its advantages," said Michelle Hill, 20th Logistics Readiness Squadron D-Flight conductor/engineer. "But transporting by train is still more cost effective on many levels."
Tank cars, which are used to transport fuel and are attached to the lead car(s), or locomotive(s), are capable of storing 20,000 gallons of fuel each; multiple tank cars may be transported at once. On the other hand, commercial trucks used to transport fuel may hold approximately 7,800 to 8,500 gallons of fuel per trip.
It would take roughly two or three trucks to equal one full tank car in fuel capacity. Not only is delivery by train more effective in quantity, it also saves money to ship by train.
It requires less gas to fuel the train for one delivery than it would to fuel multiple trucks to deliver the same amount of fuel. The wear and tear and regular maintenance of multiple trucks as opposed to one train also presents an advantage in delivery by train.
Lastly, it takes two people to man and operate a train properly while it takes one person to drive a truck. While transport of 120,000 gallons (six tank cars) of fuel by train would require payment of two individuals (the conductor and engineer), transport of the same load, via truck, would require 14 or 15 trucks, with payments to each driver.
Fuel shipments, delivered by train, require two or three days for delivery due to the time needed to receive and prepare the order for pickup; where as fuel shipments, via truck, can mobilize within the day if needed, explained Adam McDowell, 20th LRS D-Flight engineer/conductor.
"They each have their strengths," McDowell continued. "Having both gives Shaw options and flexibility."
McDowell and Hill work together throughout the week delivering large amounts of fuel to base. Each trip to the Defense Fuel Support Point in Charleston, S.C., is different McDowell explained.
CSX Corp., a rail-based transportation company, retrieves orders from Charleston's DFSP and prepares the fuel for shipment; McDowell and Hill then pick up the shipment and deliver it to Shaw.
Delivering the fuel can sometimes prove challenging depending on the number of cars and the order they are arranged McDowell said.
"You have to be good at solving puzzles to make a good conductor," he added.
According to Federal Railroad Administration regulations, when delivering hazardous materials by train, at least one "spacer" car (an empty or otherwise unused car) is required as a buffer between the locomotive and the materials it is transporting. The spacer car(s) must then be moved out of the way prior to docking the tank cars for fueling, which is no easy feat, Hill explained.
Because Shaw has a small fueling station with only two tracks to maneuver the locomotive, it requires precise calculated movements to properly prepare and dock the tank cars for fueling, McDowell explained.
Not only must Hill and McDowell be alert and attentive to properly navigate and dock fuel shipments, they are also responsible for avoiding collisions at railroad crossings.
"All too often we see people on base and off, try to race across the tracks to save time," Hill explained. "Trains are designed to transport heavy loads, not for quick stops."
According to Operation Lifesaver, a non-profit national organization founded in 1972 due to the number of railroad related fatalities and injuries, about every three hours a person or vehicle is hit by a train.
Operation Lifesaver's mission is to reduce preventable railroad related deaths and injuries by educating the general public with information regarding railroad and train safety. For more information regarding railroad safety, visit (http://oli.org/).
"When you approach railroad tracks we advise people to slow down and think," McDowell said. "Is 30 seconds really worth your life?"
McDowell received his engineering license in 2006 and has been working at Shaw since 2009. Hill received her first engineering license in 1989 and has been working at Shaw since 1995.
Aside from occasional collisions and accidents, we truly enjoy what we do, McDowell stated.
"I'm former Navy," he continued. "I still get to do what I love while serving my country."
"I love working outside and I like my job," Hill concluded. "That's why I keep coming back."