All Aboard a Military Special Train

The military special train journey is undoubtedly one of the most sought after journeys amongst officers and men in a unit.

A ‘military special’ train is very special to the military person. The experience of a military man on such a special train has all the trappings of the romance of a train journey which most of us fondly recall. The composition of a military rake with assorted ‘rolling stock’ (wagons in railways parlance) is a strange yet exciting sight which doesn’t fail to turn heads as the train snakes its way through the countryside. The defence forces – especially the army – have regular use for these military specials when transporting men, equipment and stores. A battalion or any unit moving from one place of station to a new location in most cases necessitates a train. There is a constant move of units to the firing ranges from their present stations and with the unit goes its heavy equipment – tanks, guns and tons of ammunition – all aboard a military special.

The move of a unit from one location to a new station is a major logistic exercise as everything from men, equipment and stores including the unit’s property and heavy baggage is loaded and stacked methodically on the wagons. Vehicles are loaded onto special open wagons meant to carry them. Heavy vehicles such as battle tanks, dozers and cranes are loaded onto special flatbed wagons (fondly called ‘Flats’) and then lashed by strong chains so that the heavy load does not shift or move during train movement. Special trains ferrying troops and equipment from cantonments to and back from the firing ranges are a regular feature all year round.

The entire process of requisitioning a special train starts from placing an indent for allotment of a rake. Next is the planning of the loads and sequencing of parties of men and equipment for the move as more than one train is allotted for these moves. Getting equipment and men loaded at entraining stations is a logistic exercise which sees many organisations such as the Railways, police and the Army getting together to ensure a smooth transition and the diligent loading of equipment and sensitive stores such as ammunition onto the rake.

The military special train journey is undoubtedly one of the most sought after journeys amongst officers and men in a unit. The whole journey is unique and an adventure which everyone keenly looks forward to irrespective of its duration or the prevailing weather conditions. The journey begins with the loading process at the entraining station where the trickiest and dangerous event – the loading of battle tanks, dozers and heavy guns onto flats – is the signature event. Once these big boys get loaded and lashed by chains to the flat, the unit heaves a sigh of relief and go about literally assembling the rest of the train.

Each special train is a small self-contained city with a unique life and character. The train has assorted rolling stock – two/three tier wagons for men to travel in, flats to carry tanks and guns, covered wagons to house the stores and open wagons to carry vehicles such as trucks and jeeps. One cookhouse wagon (pantry car) caters for food-on-the-move for all the personnel on the train. A small compartment or coupe is transformed into the unit Dharmsthal (mandir/masjid/gurudwara) as the gods also travel with the men and protect them during the move. The pride of place, however, is the flats atop which the heavy weapons such as battle tanks and guns travel. The weapons crew pitches a sturdy bivouac and travels on the flat with the tank or gun. These are the envied lot as they brave the elements in the hot summer or the chilly harsh winter – they are the gladiators – the ones who carry a chip on their shoulders.

A first class wagon is occupied by the officers and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs). Each coupe houses Majors, Captains, Lieutenants and JCOs as per pecking order. The Officers’ Mess coupe is the most sought after place of visit during the journey – after all the comforting tinkle of assorted beverages does have an unmistakable pull. The train is commanded by an Officer in-charge Train (OC Train) who is assisted by a Train Adjutant and duty officers/JCOs as per roster. Maintaining discipline and ensuring security of the men and equipment on the train is a collective responsibility led by the OC Train. He orders the halts for meals, daily ablutions and security checks by staying in direct communication with the trains engine driver and guard at all times.

The military special train is accorded the lowest priority by the Railways as it follows an almost human-like routine. There are ablution breaks taken at dawn and dusk, there are meal halts that are taken for distribution of meals to the entire personnel on the train and, of course, there are the tea and roll call breaks when the train duty officer and JCO check the security setup and conduct a headcount of the personnel. The close coordination between the OC Train and the train guard is a lesson in inter-agency seamless functioning as the military special train halts and moves amidst the regular railways traffic being overtaken intermittently by passenger trains and freight trains. However, the ‘Red Hot’ priority given by the Indian Railways to military special trains during times of imminent conflict is a tribute to their efficiency and professionalism as they ensure that the Army reaches its deployment areas ‘fastest with the mostest’.

A train journey lasts for as long as five to seven days (if all goes as per plan). Then there are those journeys when transshipment from one train to another takes place due to change in the railway track gauge (from Meter to Broad gauge and vice versa). Transshipment involves unloading all equipment and stores and reloading it on a separate rake. The most exciting loading and unloading process is when battle tanks and heavy guns offload from the flats and line up at the railway ramps to get driven on to a flat on a new rake. However, with the Railways now on a single gauge across the country, this exercise is becoming rare.

Stories abound in the folklore of a military unit on the various incidents and activities that have taken place on the trains during the various moves of the unit. Some are tales of grit and guts in harsh conditions and some tales of amusement at the halts and all become part of soldier-lore as one generation of senior soldiers pass on the baton and share institutional knowledge with the new recruits. Yet, ask any officer or JCO of his most memorable journey and they promptly launch into a tale of the military special train journey of their time. Stuff for a movie maybe?

Major General Amrit Pal Singh (Retd) was Divisional Commander of an Army division in Northern command and Chief of operational logistics in Ladakh (2011 to 2013). He has experience in counter insurgency operations in J&K and conventional operations in Ladakh and is co-author of a book ‘Maoist Insurgency and India’s Internal Security Architecture’.