Memories of a Military Special Train

This article is based on inputs gathered recently from my father - Retired Indian Air Force Officer - Bhaskar, and my mother Prabha Paranjape.

Indian Railways and military have an inseparable relationship. This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the key reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an efficient and dependable method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the land it governed.

Indian Railways operate Military Special trains all the time. These trains move in peace time and in times of conflict. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some of these specials carry men from the armed forces for non-military activities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special "Military" coaches in their own distinctive green livery (pun unintentional), while others have rakes formed by 'normal' IR coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (for example 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.

I describe one such experience of travel by a Military Special, way back in 1974.

Our Signal Unit ("SU" in Indian Air Force parlance) - which was then at Bihta (near Arrah and Danapur in Bihar) was to be relocated hundreds of miles away - at Gandhinagar, the newly formed capital of Gujarat state. One single Military Special train was to undertake the task of moving staff, equipment, families and their belongings from Bihta to Gandhinagar.

The rake, comprising of First Class and III class Military coaches as well as different types of freight cars was made available well in advance at a siding near Air Force Station, Bihta.

In the week leading to the departure, all families were asked to hand-over their "checked-in" luggage, and only keep the minimum "carry-on luggage" with them. 2 closed freight cars were allocated exclusively for carrying the personal belongings ("checked-in luggage") of airmen and their families.

Simultaneously, the flat-bed freight cars were gradually being loaded with all the technical and support equipment. The technical equipment included the radar sets (in partially dismantled form), generator vans (to power the radars, not the train) and so on. The support equipment included tools and tackles, and vehicles such as 3-ton TATA trucks, 1-Ton trucks, Jeeps etc.

Everything was going to plan with the usual military precision. All the staff and families were excited about the departure, and were doing everything they could to assist one another.

In spite of all the advance planning and preparations, the Military Special did not depart on time!

Just before the planned departure of the special, the workers of Indian Railways called a nation-wide strike, which was led by All India Railwaymen's Federation (George Fernandes).

The departure of the special was rescheduled by 4 days. This caused a problem. All the families had packed their belongings (and deposited them in the freight cars) and finished off the essential consumables (such as cooking oil). This meant that about 300 people had to be fed till the train departed a few days later.

To overcome this problem, IAF authorities decided to cook for everyone in the Unit's "mess". Airmen and families could either eat their meals at the "mess" or carry them home in a "Tiffin box". The cooking was, of course, done by IAF cooks who are attached to the "mess". At IAF stations, there are usually 3 "messes" - one for Commissioned Officers, the second for Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) and the third for Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs). But right now, only one common "mess" was run - for everyone.

In these 4 days, IR authorities somehow made the arrangements to run the special as per the revised schedule (which itself is quite creditable, considering that IR was facing the biggest strike in its history).

Finally, the day of departure arrived.

The rake formation included:

  • Loco (steam)
  • Open flat cars with technical equipment
  • Closed freight cars with technical equipment
  • Closed freight cars for cooking and ration supplies. Let's call these "kitchen cars".
  • Passenger accommodation coaches
  • Closed freight cars carrying the private belongings of staff and families (checked-in luggage)
  • IR Guard's carriage (SLR)

Remember that, in those days, the closed freight cars (C-type?) were half the length/size of the current BCNA cars. These cars had 2 axles. These cars are not found on broad gauge any more.

The "kitchen cars" too were standard closed freight cars, as described above. Yes, the same ones which are also used for transporting banana, or cattle!

The accommodation provided on the military special train was as per the normal travel entitlements, corresponding to each rank.

The total train composition was as follows.

  • First, the passenger coaches. These were to carry 250 airmen & families, plus 50 DSC & families; a total of about 300 persons.
  • 1 x FC, corridor-type coach, for Officers and/or their families, plus MI room plus IAF administrative office (more on this later). MI room = Medical Inspection room = Unit Dispensary.
  • 1 x FC, corridor-type coach, for JCOs and/or their families
  • 3 x III class, 2-tier/3-tier sleeper coaches. Two of these were for airmen with families and one for bachelors/ airmen living single (called "Living-in" in IAF parlance. "Living-out" is with families. Another way to look at this is "people who normally eat at the mess = Living-in", while "people who normally eat at home = Living out").
  • 2 x III class, 2-tier/3-tier sleeper coaches for DSC staff and their families. DSC = Defence Security Corps. DSC unit is in-charge of the security at any IAF station. These coaches also carried DSC' apparatus, such as rifles, torches, tents.

Next, the freight cars.

  • 3 or 4 x open flat bed cars, for IAF signalling equipment, associated generator van and vehicles
  • 7 x closed C-type(?) cars for other IAF equipment
  • 2 x closed cars for "checked-in" luggage
  • 2 x closed cars as kitchen cars, for cooking and storage of ration and food supplies
  • 1 x SLR

As you can see, it was a fairly long rake formation.

A Military Special is an Operational Unit - on wheels. All 'ground rules' remain unchanged, with adjustments to suit the needs.

The Unit Adjutant, who is the administrative head of a Unit, had his office in the one of the coupes of the 1st FC coach. The MI room (Medical room) was in another coupe of the same coach. This was manned during the day-hours by the Medical personnel of the Unit. All the IAF staff (officers and airmen) continued to be on regular duty.

Two airmen were stationed in every passenger coach for basic security/ watch & ward. These were unarmed airmen, working in 4 shifts of 6 hours each, to provide round-the-clock security. The formal/visible security was provided by DSC personnel, equipped with rifles. DSC personnel also manned each open flat bed cars. The rest of the DSC staff travelled in one of the two cars allocated to them, one at each end of the train.

Some airmen were assigned to the "mess on wheels", to help with purchasing food items as needed en-route, and to give a hand with preparation etc. There was only one "mess" for the whole train, not 3 as is the case in a regular unit - a great equalizer!

NCEs (Non-combatant enrolled staff) did the job of cooking, helping with the food-service (at each berth/ location), cleaning up etc. These were about 15 in number.

My dad, who was a Warrant Officer at that time, was made in-charge of the "mess" for the entire duration of travel. He spent most of his day-time travelling in the kitchen cars, with a handkerchief to cover his head. His job included supervision as well as the first tasting. As per IAF rule, the food prepared in any "mess" is always tasted by the "Orderly Officer" on duty, before it can be served in the "mess" to everyone. In a normal unit, this "Orderly Officer" duty changes daily by rotation, between officers. The "mess-on-wheels" served 4 meals a day - breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Each passenger coach had one IAF staff in-charge of the coach, assisted by 2 airmen. These three managed the collection (from the kitchen car) and distribution of meals in their respective coach. These duties changed by rotation.

The actual cooking (using wood or coal fire) was done only when the train had stopped. Preparatory work would continue while the train was in motion. At some stations, even ladies would go out to the local market, outside the station, to get fresh items like cucumber, tomato etc.

The route assigned to the special Bihta > Mughalserai > Allahabad > Katni > Bina > Bhopal > Ratlam > Godhra > Dakor > Anand > Ahmedabad > Kalol. Gandhinagar Capital railway station did not exist then.

This journey from Bihta to Gandhinagar took 5 days. There were no inordinately long halts, and the Railways handled the Special very efficiently. At all stops, the train got admitted to regular platforms. All the stops for lunch and dinner preparation were at relatively major stations, where water filling was also done. After dinner halts, the train had long overnight runs.

The actual movement between stations, as well as the halts, was well planned and coordinated. At each major halt, IR staff (guard) would communicate the departure time to the Unit Adjutant. The information would get passed down to every passenger via the staff in-charge for the coach. This information helped people to plan their activities, including bathing, washing clothes, grocery shopping etc. At each and every stop, IR did maintain the schedule which was announced. There were no significant delays.

On arrival at Kalol, the Military Special was received by an IAF "advance party" who had already reached Gandhinagar ahead of the special train. Staff and families were transported directly to their allocated quarters with their "carry-on luggage". The "checked-in luggage" was ferried later.

This was a most enjoyable and memorable travel experience, as narrated by my parents - who are both 80 now. There was no boring moment, in spite of the long travel. As for me, I missed it totally because I was sent to my grandparents place at Itarsi for the summer holidays!

Nevertheless, it has given me immense pleasure to seek the details of this journey from my parents, and to narrate them to you. I too learnt a lot through the process. I can only thank Shanx for bringing up this topic when I met him at Delhi the other day.

Material provided by Shirish Paranjape, Copyright © 2010
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