Military service may use Bomarc rail line

Published in the Asbury Park Press 8/25/04

LAKEHURST -- A 900-foot rail spur and siding rebuilt as part of the Bomarc missile site cleanup could get a second career as a military rail terminal, and perhaps even a staging area for civilian commuter trains if daily train service comes to central Ocean and Monmouth counties.

Navy, Army and NJ Transit officials are all discussing future uses for the rail siding at Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station, base commander Capt. Mark Bathrick said yesterday. With its connection to the Conrail line in nearby Lakehurst, the Navy spur has a connection to the Navy's seaport at Earle Naval Weapons Station and, potentially, with NJ Transit's passenger network.

"Fort Dix has mobilized over 30,000 reservists" for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bathrick said. "The equipment to support those folks actually heads west to a commercial rail yard, then west again to the port of Philadelphia."
With their common boundaries, Lakehurst, Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base are effectively a 42,000-acre military reservation in the Pine Barrens, and Army deployment planners now "are talking to us about the possibility of using the Bomarc railhead," Bathrick said.

Two years ago, the Air Force paid $3 million to renovate the rail spur. Trains were used to carry away some 22,000 cubic yards of plutonium-contaminated rubble and soil from the long-delayed final cleanup of a June 1960 fire at the Bomarc air defense missile site on the Fort Dix reservation in Plumsted. Those soil shipments were finished this spring.

Rather than taking the longer route to Philadelphia docks, Army planners are thinking about driving vehicles and equipment from Fort Dix to Lakehurst, loading trains there, and sending them directly to the port at Earle, at Leonardo in Middletown, Bathrick said.

"That rail line has connections to the rail line going into Earle," Bathrick said. "They have a several-mile long pier, and that pier has rail capability."

"I'm not an expert, but some of the Army folks tell us it could reduce their deployment time by as much as a week."
The harbor of New York and New Jersey was a major Army embarking point for forces that went to Europe during the first and second world wars. The Military Ocean Terminal at Bayonne shipped trucks and tanks to Europe during the Cold War and the first Persian Gulf war in 1990 and 1991, but it was shut by the Army during domestic base closings and downsizings of the 1990s.

That left the Earle pier as the last deepwater military cargo facility in the harbor. Earle has its own railway system, built during World War II to carry munitions, with connections to the Conrail line near Farmingdale.
From Lakehurst, "the rail line is pretty much a straight shot to Earle," Bathrick said.

"The other aspect of us having this secure rail line is New Jersey Transit has come to talk to us," he said.

NJ Transit became interested in future possibilities almost as soon as Air Force officials proposed renovating the rail line, a move they undertook to mollify Ocean County municipal officials who didn't like the original plan to truck tainted soil out of the Bomarc site on public highways.

The Monmouth-Ocean-Middlesex, or MOM, proposal would bring daily NJ Transit commuter train service south to Lakewood and Lakehurst, and transit planners have asked the Navy to consider allowing use of the spur as a switching area and storage yard where commuter trains could be set up for the morning runs northward, Bathrick said.

"We believe there's enough available land in that area of the base," he said.

"We are looking at the Lakehurst Navy base as one of several possible storage sites for our trains," said Ken Hitchner, a spokesman for NJ Transit, who described the talks with Navy officials as "exploratory."

Those various storage sites, along with possible alignments for the MOM line, are being covered in an environmental impact statement that should be ready by the end of the year for public discussion in 2005, Hitchner said.

"We looked at this first as how it might enhance the Navy mission," which at Lakehurst revolves around the building and repair of heavy aircraft launch and recovery equipment for aircraft carriers, Bathrick said.

By taking over the rail siding and making it a permanent facility, the Navy is saving the Air Force the expense of removing the railway equipment, while working with the Army on future freight uses, "so it's truly a joint project," he said.

The original rail spur route dates to the 1920s, when the Navy chose Lakehurst as its first lighter-than-air aviation base. Trains carried components and tanks of pressurized helium to inflate airship gas cells. At that time, tracks ran directly into the massive Hangar One where dirigibles docked.

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