The story of my romance with the Indian Railways is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’. The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.
This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large number of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.
Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.
I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan. We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km. Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge. Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge. The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks. For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.
A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake. Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.
The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU. I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun. He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU. The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU. A slight wavering or error in judgement could have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.
Tank drivers of Armoured Regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.
By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores. Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train. They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’. By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train. There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.
The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002. Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve. The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan. The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days. The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.
After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war had no priorities in anyone’s mind. Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment. I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion. I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer. I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.
On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train. A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew. As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium. We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains. Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways. The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.
After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.