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NEWS | Nov. 8, 2021

Rail operators a rarity in Army’s rank-and-file

By T. Anthony Bell U.S. Army Garrison Fort Lee Public Affairs

They represent less than 1 percent of the total Army’s 1-million-Soldier population, but don’t equate small with insignificant or unimpressive.

The advanced skillsets of the railroad operations crewmember – military occupational specialty 88U – include the ability to drive a 120-ton, 2,100-horsepower locomotive. In a pinch, they could repair a track or make minor fixes to a train engine. Their historic contributions to Army logistics date back to the Civil War, and they continue to enable a means of land transportation that is unmatched in reliability and efficiency.

There are only about 175 railway troops – military occupational specialty 88U – in the Army. They are part of the Transportation Corps, and all of them are in the reserve components.

In today’s world of civilian-military partnerships and cost effective, contracted-out services, 88-uniforms mostly operate in a strategic capacity as railway advisors. It has been that way since 2015 when an effort dubbed Army Rail Transformation consolidated three specialties in the rail arena – those repairing equipment, those repairing tracks and those operating equipment – into one. The number of required Army railroad operators also was reduced.

Staff Sgt. Brett Goertemoeller, an 88U Railway Operations Specialist Course instructor, echoed the point about the continued logistical criticality of rail operations made possible by 88U personnel.

“(Railway operations) is critical because it (contributes) to the force projection throughput and has the ability to move units from point A to point B rapidly,” said the Army Reserve Soldier assigned to the 7-80th Transportation Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 94th Training Division, based at Fort Lee.

“We can move an entire division at once,” Goertemoeller continued. “You can’t move that many Soldiers and their equipment at the same time if you’re trucking everything.”

The 6-week 88U course is under the Transportation School's Maritime and Intermodal Training Department. Although students learn hands-on tasks, their core responsibilities involve assessing various operational capabilities and helping to provide solutions to meet mission needs, according to instructor Sgt. 1st Class Felix Sininger.

“In an advisory role. We determine… whether we have the ability to transport (people or equipment),” he said. “It’s more of a logistics advisor to senior mission commanders.”

Trained 88U Soldiers are assigned to Expeditionary Rail Centers across the country. Spc. Elliott Bennett, a 26-year-old from Columbia, Missouri, said he looks forward to contributing the skills he has learned. The 88U course, he noted, was far more comprehensive than he imagined.

“I’ve enjoyed the training a lot,” he acknowledged. “I was expecting most of the training to be on the engineer side – driving the locomotive – but I learned a lot more about the railway.”

Sininger, who served on both sides of Army Rail Transformation, said railway operations are still appealing to those who are a part of it and one of the Army’s best-kept secrets.

“I love this job,” he said. “It’s an MOS that most don’t know about, but if they stop to look at it, they’ll want to do it because it’s very rewarding.”

The reward for most is controlling the whereabouts of a steel monstrosity, said Sininger.

“You get a sense of power when you’re behind all this horsepower,” he continued. “That’s what I really like – all the horsepower moving all this equipment.”

Roughly seven advanced individual training Soldiers per year are afforded opportunities to power locomotives across the tracks of Fort Eustis. That makes the task and the personnel trained to perform them rare indeed.

The railway operations crewmember is the only one of six Transportation School occupations restricted to the reserve components.