Military Rail Transport

Military Rail Transport
by Guy Farrish
An assessment of the capability of Military Rail Transport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
¨The time required to move masses of troops by rail depends on many conditions¨ [note 1].
Gen. Sir Edward Bruce Hamley
To assess the capacity of rail transport we need to consider, load, speed and line capacity.
Hamley lists the following factors; troop type, horses, carts, wagons and guns amongst the considerations affecting entrainment, but considers that as a general rule, per train to entrain:
• Infantry take 40 minutes
• Cavalry take between 45 and 60 minutes
Unfortunately he does not say what a ‘train’ actually comprises. He does later say in reference to the Russo Japanese War in Manchuria of 1904-5 that the German General Staff history of the conflict calculates the average Russian troop train carried 500 men. [note 2].
Hamley goes on to say this is not helpful as much depended on the type of unit and its equipment and animals. I believe from this and other works that circa 500 infantry is the normal average for a train to carry at one go. I have read of a WWI train in France carrying 1,000, but the brakes failed and the train crashed – obviously not a good idea! I am happy to concur with no less an authority that Dr P. Griffith who says of the American Civil War that ‘A train normally carried 500 to 1,000 men or 100 tons of supplies’ [note 3].
Orange and Alexandria Railroad at Alexandria at the time of the American Civil War
The speed the train travels will also vary according to several factors of which Hamley lists in addition to load; gauge, gradient and engine power.
He gives the average speed of a train in England as; 25mph allowing for short halts, but emphasises that this could not be maintained for long journeys where stops for food and rest may be required [note 4].
Dr. Griffith comes to a similar conclusion; ‘although it might reach a speed of 25mph or more, an overall average of 150 miles in 24 hours was considered fast for large scale movements’ [note 5].
Hamley maintains that Continental trains, being larger, tended to move more slowly and he refers again to the Russian experience in 1904, giving an average speed of train as 15mph, but on the long journey involving negotiating Lake Baikal as slow as 6mph overall [note 6].
Line Capacity
The line capacity, i.e. the number of trains a line can handle is obviously relevant when considering large scale troop moves. Hamley quotes the following figures for continental lines:
• Good single line: 30 trains per day
• Good double line: 60-68 trains per day
He estimates an average of 2 trains per hour for continuous working, given suitable stations at each end and a double line. This allows essential civil traffic and a safety margin. He warns that on less well constructed and maintained lines with poor signalling and staff nothing like this could be achieved [note 7].
The Russians were limited to 3 trains per day in 1904 but raised this to a maximum of 18 with practice [note 8].
Hamley points out that locomotives are normally only expected to run for 18 out of 24 hours. They can run beyond this but the likelihood of breakdown and crashes increases greatly if this is continued for long. He also points out that the bigger the force to be moved the longer the distance has to be for rail movement to pay off. So a battalion can move 50 miles in 3-4 hours by rail or march the same distance in 3 days, however an army corps would take 5 days to move the 50 miles by rail, and require 200 train movements, but be able to march it in 3-4 days. If the distance is trebeled it could move 150 miles by rail taking only 5 hours more than to move it 50 miles.
In conclusion some suitable rules of thumb for governing rail movement in a kriegsspiel of the period might be:
Action Capacity
Entrain 500 Infantry Circa 40 minutes
Entrain 500 Cavalry or Artillery Circa 60 minutes
Travel short time, i.e. less than 12 hours 20 trains per day
(allowing for maintenance and civil traffic)
Travel longer time, i.e. over 24 hours 40 trains per day
(allowing for maintenance and civil traffic)
Move battalion 60 miles 4 hours
Move army corps 180 miles 10 hours
Halve the line capacities for poor lines and halve again for incompetent staffing.
1. HAMLEY General Sir Edward Bruce, The Operations of War; Explained and Illustrated, ed. by Maj. Gen. Sir GEORGE Aston, new edition (London: Blasckwood & Sons, 1923), p.24
2. Hamley, p. 362
3. GRIFFITH P, Battle in the Civil War, (Mansfield, England: Fieldbooks), 1986, p. 5
4. Hamley, p. 25
5. Griffith, p. 5
6. Hamley, p. 362
7. Hamley, p. 24
8. Hamley, p. 362

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