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NEWS | Jan. 7, 2016

Army graduates first ‘Rail Ranger’ class

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

In September 2015, the U.S. Army's 757th Transportation Rail Battalion took to the tracks for the last time as it was realigned as the U.S. Army Reserve Expeditionary Rail Center.

According to Richard Killblane, a historian for the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, the changes came from rail capability modifications based on host nation resources and needs. Throughout the years, those needs have changed from requiring military railroad battalions that operated trains, maintained tracks, and serviced locomotives from the Civil War through the Korean War, to requesting detachments that supervise rail operations in current contingencies.

The transfer from operating battalions to advisory detachments consolidated three rail specialties into one that can provide what current global operations demand, said Killblane.

To facilitate functions for joint, coalition and allied partners, the rail training consolidated the three rail classes of operations crew member, railway section repairer, and railway equipment repairer into a single class of railway advisors, which launched for the Advanced Individual Training Soldiers in October 2015.

William Armstrong, a rail instructor with the Military Intermodal Training Department, led the first six-student class through the AIT course. During the four-week training, the Army's newest advisors learned aspects of rail ranging from maintaining railways to operating and repairing locomotive components such as electrical and mechanical parts.

According to Killblane, the range in skills is meant to mirror how Special Forces units operate in support of combatant commands in foreign and domestic missions.

"Ideally the way these guys should be trained is they go out and they work with rail. The class is an overview; the training really begins when they graduate from class, and it's the same in [U.S. Army] Special Forces," said Killblane, who is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer. "The saying in SF was the Q course just qualifies you to get on a team - that's when your training begins because you have to gain cultural experience and expertise in various specialties."

While the students' first couple of years will be learning the skill sets they need to zone in on a specialty within the field, the 88U class gives them an overview of how all rail aspects ranging from welding to switching box cars, fit together, said Killblane.

But for Armstrong, the biggest lesson his students can learn from the class is to be creative in their methods as their missions could vary in complexity, need and resources.

"They have to think out of the box because with Expeditionary Rail Centers every mission is going to be different," said Armstrong. "They might be called to a country to do a rail assessment on the condition of the tracks, or if there is a national emergency how long it would take to load and move flatcars, or serve overseas teaching railroading 101 to another country, or supporting civil affairs teams with humanitarian relief efforts via rail."

After graduating the from the course, one of the six students U.S. Army Pvt. Hunter Ballew, said he felt prepared to return to his unit to fulfill any mission set.

"The instructor really breaks it down, so that you understand everything, and learning every aspect makes us more competent rail roaders," added Ballew.

Armstrong said he saw that competence grew throughout the course as the students not only accomplished tasks, but identified items that needed to be fixed, which is what he said rail is about - identifying ways to utilize rail either on its own or in conjunction with other forms of transportation.

"I believe that rail can be a game changer for anyone who looks at using it versus other traditional methods, and that's one of the things that I stress to the students," said Armstrong. "There is so much potential with this entity, but the key is educating people and making them aware of rail as an option."

According to Armstrong, while the ERC is just three months old and the students are new to the rail field, the capabilities are promising as future missions have the potential to include advising military units on transporting equipment for the U.S. Air Force, humanitarian supplies for the Army, fuel for the U.S.  Marines and a variety of other supplies or equipment for any interested military party.

"Most people don't know this, but the United States military has never lost a war when using operational rail in combat with U.S. military personnel behind the controls," said Armstrong. "Imagine if someone could advise you on how to save your unit thousands of dollars in transportation costs, deliver your product faster, and with only a handful of people. For example, one train can haul what traditionally takes 800 vehicles, 1,600 troops, and thousands of gallons of fuel to move. "