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Army Corps Railhead Improvements to Facilitate Deployments at Fort Drum

US Army Corps of Engineers - New York District
Published Jan. 3, 2022

A section of track at the existing railhead facility at Fort Drum in northern New York. A $27 million Army Corps project will significantly upgrade facilities and speed deployments for the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division.


New York District Commander Col. Matthew Luzzatto speaks with officials on site at the existing railhead at Fort Drum in northern New York.


A flatcar used to haul heavy equipment at the railhead at Fort Drum in northern New York.


Part of the existing railhead at Fort Drum in northern New York.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, will soon begin work on a $27 million project to modernize and expand railway-loading facilities for the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum in northern New York. Last fall, a contract was awarded to Structural Associates, Inc., of East Syracuse, New York.

10th Mountain Division

Expected to be complete in late 2023, improvements will benefit the 10th Mountain Division ─ a joint team of specially-trained U.S. Soldiers and airmen performing operations in rugged, mountainous terrain. Re-activated in 1985 as one of the U.S. Army’s new light-infantry divisions, special capabilities enable a wide range of global missions, adding a new dimension to the strategic mobility of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Fort Drum Forces

Located near the Canadian border where harsh winters are common, Fort Drum is a sprawling facility encompassing 107,000 acres, employing 4,700 civilians, and training some 80,000 troops each year with nearly 20,000 Soldiers ─ and their families ─ stationed there.

Fort Drum’s garrison commander, Col. James Zacchino, Jr., recently commented in a U.S. Army news article: “Any time we can improve our infrastructure and provide greater support to our Soldiers, it is a good day. This project is a solid investment in Fort Drum’s reputation as a premiere power-projection platform for our Army and our nation.”

Site Inspection

During a site visit some months ago, New York District Commander Col. Matthew Luzzatto inspected the railhead while reviewing a number of Army Corps projects at the base. It was a homecoming of sorts: In 2002 Luzzatto was assigned to the 41st Engineer Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, where he served as assistant operations officer and battalion adjutant during the battalion’s deployment to Afghanistan in 2003 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom ─ the U.S. Government’s official name for the Global War on Terrorism.

Luzzatto commented: “Fort Drum is known for its ability to project power [send troops] around the world. We’re going to build them [10th Mountain Division] a whole new railhead system to move heavy equipment. This will streamline operations and increase efficiency, facilitating timely deployments.”

Railhead Improvements

Major aspects of the work include:

A mile of new track includes four parallel tracks with five new loading ramps, allowing simultaneous drive-on loading of rolling stock 

Container-side loading area allowing container boxes to be loaded at the railhead. (The current railhead lacks this capability)

A 5,000 sq. ft. Railhead Operations Building with restrooms and general space for 100 Soldiers to relax and take breaks from deployment operations during harsh conditions. It is equipped with energy-efficient foundation, roof, walls, doors, windows and ceiling. 

Scale house with weigh in motion and profiling system to expedite loading operations

Marshalling yard (an area where railway cars are separated onto different tracks)

Alert holding area (a control area for equipment and vehicles prior to loading)

Container-handling and storage/repair facility with staging area

Other improvements include overhead lighting, electric, water, sewer and gas utilities, a parking lot and concrete truck-loading ramps. New facilities will have a 40+ year design life; existing tracks will remain active during construction, except for scheduled shutdowns and infrastructure installations.

Railroad Efficiency

Rail is one of the most efficient means for transporting heavy equipment over long distances. For deployments and travel to combat-training centers this primarily consists of shipments to ports where equipment is transferred to other means of transportation. The process of preparing vehicles for loading involves several days of inspections and readiness checks to ensure equipment is in top condition. Prior to loading, all vehicles go through a series of inspections known as Movement Preparation Area Operations.

Soldiers’ Safety

Safe rail operations are crucial to a successful deployment, requiring advance planning and training. To that end, a safety officer and non-commissioned officer (an enlisted soldier with specific skills and duties) oversee operations. This is critical: A great deal of manpower is needed to lift/move heavy equipment and hazards do exist, especially during adverse weather conditions. Safeguards must be in place to reduce risk of accidents and injuries.

Prior Deployment Challenges

A January 2019 deployment clearly illustrates the need for upgraded facilities:

Soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, were launching load operations for deployment to the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, LA, when harsh weather conditions set in. Three feet of snow, blizzard conditions and wind chills -30F hampered operations and created dangerous conditions for Soldiers handling heavy equipment.

A local news story published shortly thereafter recounted the difficulties:

“On top of everything, we had a problem with guys staying warm,” said Sgt. 1st Class Charles Kohut, platoon sergeant for 3rd Platoon, D Company, 1-87 Infantry. “They’re on top of those trucks in minus-degree winds, gloves getting soaked from snow and ice. We had to rotate them out to get warm for three to five minutes before they had to come back. The closest building for them to get warm in was a little less than a mile walk.”

“Our railhead is very difficult to work on because it is very limiting compared to other railheads that I’ve worked on at other installations,” said Sgt. Maj. James Kelley, operations sergeant major for 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment. “You can only have a single train in at a time………….It’s kind of antiquated in comparison to other railhead operations.”

The limited ability for loading and unloading trains for mobilization causes missions to be staggered and sometimes delayed. Currently, loading trains often requires holding inbound trains miles away in a rail yard ─ adding to costs ─ as there’s only one main track to load cargo. The current railhead also has limited storage.

Railroads in Military History

U.S. Military history illustrates the importance of railroads. During the American Civil War (1861-65)  the north (Union) fought the south (Confederacy) looking to secede from the U.S. and form the Confederate States of America.

The first effort transporting large numbers of Soldiers by rail occurred during the war:

Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Johnston demonstrated the importance of railroads in modern warfare when he moved 12,000 troops 50 miles by rail from Piedmont Station, Virginia, to Manassas Junction to reinforce Confederate forces. The move took just one-third the time of marching. Reinforcements surprised Union forces, contributing to the victory at the First Battle of Bull Run ─ the first major battle of the American Civil War. 

In fact, railroads became so important that the then War Department organized the U.S. Military Railroads and Railroad Construction Corps to repair, operate and maintain rail lines as the Union Army moved into Confederate territory. Both organizations relied heavily on experienced railroad executives and engineers commissioned as volunteer officers.