BY T. Anthony Bell, Fort Lee Public Affairs
JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – A transporter in the rather obscure corner of logistics called rail operations, Sgt. 1st Class Elrick Richburg literally has a boot on each side of progress. He has logged 17 years as a rail Soldier in the traditional sense but has spent the past two years helping to shape a future marked by dramatic change.
That change, technically termed Army Rail Transformation, includes the consolidation of all three rail military occupational specialties and a shift from an operational mission to a strategic one.
That doesn’t bode well for a former infantryman and accustomed boots-on-the-ground, all-around railroader.
“’I’m a worker,” said Richburg, a railway operations crewmember assigned to the Transportation School’s Maritime and Intermodal Training Department here. “I feel good about a good day’s work after being on the railroad because it’s a job in which you have to make it happen. I also like the teamwork and camaraderie that comes with that.”
Railway operations has been in the Army since the Civil War. Of recent, it was comprised of several Reserve units whose personnel hold MOS designations 88P, 88T and 88U – railway equipment repairer, section repairer and operations crewmember, respectively. MOS and advanced training takes place at the Fort Eustis Military Railroad under the instruction of civilians and reservists.
Prior to ART, the Reserve rail units primarily supported logistics operations at the various military terminals located throughout the country.
Under ART, the consolidation will streamline training in the new 88U Railway Specialist Course. It will be roughly six weeks long and cover everything from diesel mechanics to electronics.
Two pilot MOS-trained courses were completed early this year and an advanced individual training course is set for September, said Richburg, noting many redundancies were eliminated in the courses.
Additionally, the Army railway career field will shrink from roughly 600 troops to 150, and railway Soldiers will shed their heavy hands-on rail responsibilities for roles as rail operations advisors to combatant command host nations, said Gary Houts, a CASCOM training specialist charged with overseeing the course changes.
“We will not be operators,” he said. “Our job will be to make assessments and advise.”
Richburg, an instructor/writer, was called to active duty two years ago from his Reserve unit in Georgia. His mission was to help write lesson plans, teach two pilots of the new MOS to MOS-trained Soldiers and support general rail operations at the schoolhouse.
On one hand, the assignment allowed Richburg a hand in shaping the future of Army rail operations. On the other, it may be the last time he performs the work as a traditional railroader while in uniform. It is bittersweet, to say the least, he said.
“It’s sad because it’s a job I love and I love supporting the schoolhouse,” he said.
The “love” was evident recently during Warrior Week, schoolhouse lingo for its end-of-cycle AIT training exercise. The 48-year-old Richburg was a blur around the tracks, proudly helping out where he could.
Among the tasks he performed in roughly 90 minutes were operating the locomotive, switching the tracks and separating cars from a locomotive. It required him to kneel on the beds of cars as they moved, climb up and down metal stairways and sandwich himself between hulking monstrosities of metal.
One can’t be too passionate around the tracks, he asserted.
“One of the things about the railroad is that it’s very dangerous – probably one of the most dangerous MOSs in the Army,” he said. “Everything can kill you…we have people who get hurt all the time.”
The danger is real, and it’s not something Richburg takes for granted. “On railroads, you have to stress safety all the time,” he said.
Nearing the end of his active duty tour, Richburg said he continues to reflect on the new changes and what it means for someone prone to teaching, helping and doing to embracing a role as a “hands-off” advisor.
“It’s going to be hard,” he said. “If you know the job and you’re trying to teach someone the correct way – the U.S. standard to do a job – it’s going to be difficult because we’re not allowed to use or touch the equipment. It will not be easy for me.”
Richburg’s personal expectations of the changes might be a gauge in general for those in the career field. The familiar images of Soldiers repairing tracks, maintaining diesel engines and operating locomotives may fade as the railroaders settle into their new missions. He said he dares not fathom what the career field will look like as a result. He just knows it will be fraught with a sense of loss.
“I’m going to miss it,” said Richburg. “I’m going to hate to see operational rail go.”
The changes in Army railway operations is expected to be completed sometime next year, said Houts. Richburg is scheduled to return to his Reserve unit in two weeks. His replacement has not been named.