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Heating up with Eielson’s locomotives

One of Eielson Air Force Base's locomotives pulls out of the power plant Jan. 19, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Every day the locomotives can transport up to 1,000 tons of coal to the power plant that solely provides the base with heat and power. In the frigid Alaskan winters, the base could not support itself without the locomotives' payload. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Willard E. Grande II/Released)

One of Eielson Air Force Base's locomotives pulls out of the power plant Jan. 19, 2012, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Every day the locomotives can transport up to 1,000 tons of coal to the power plant that solely provides the base with heat and power. In the frigid Alaskan winters, the base could not support itself without the locomotives' payload. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Willard E. Grande II/Released)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- As it inches forward on the railroad, the locomotive hisses as if protesting against the cold of Alaska. The engineer presses the train on, pulling and pushing a lever to control its speed.

Today's mission: move rail cars of coal, each car carrying roughly 90 tons, to the central heat and power plant. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, the locomotive maintains this mission.

"Both of our locomotives ... move up to 1,000 tons of coal per day during the coldest months of the year," said Jason Wilson, coal rail foreman at the central heat and power plant at Eielson.

Eielson is one of only five bases in the Air Force that utilizes locomotives. Of all the bases, Eielson houses two 135 ton behemoths - the largest in the Department of Defense under the Air Force's inventory - compared to the 80 ton locomotives on other installations.

The primary mission for these trains is to transport all the coal necessary to operate the power plant, Wilson said. In addition, they assist in the transport of jet fuel, de-icing fluid and general freight.

Although they were brought to Eielson in 1993, the locomotives have served their purpose well and will continue to be used, said Wilson.

"Technology is changing just as fast in the railroad industry as it is in all other sectors of industry," Wilson said. "But the locomotives are the most economical way to move the amount of coal and freight that we move in a year."

Just last year, Eielson's locomotives moved over 1,900 rail cars, bringing a total of 352 million pounds of coal to the base, said Wilson.

For the Iceman Team, the services provided by these trains are critical to the success of the base, keeping facilities warm and Airmen ready to go at 50 below.