Troop Trains in American History

Although I write many articles on scheduled train travel, I’m really much more interested in special movements (Presidential specials, circus trains and the like). One type of special movement important throughout American rail history has been troop trains. The first war in which trains were used to carry Americans to battle was the Mexican War in 1846. Trains were first used on a large scale to transport armies in the Civil War. Extensive use of trains to carry troops occurred in both World Wars. These trains were referred to by railroad personnel as “mains”. Between 1941 and 1945 almost all American soldiers rode a train at some point (over 40 million military personnel). In addition, military personnel on leave as well as POW’s rode the rails. During this period, railroads committed on average a quarter of their coaches and half their Pullmans to running troop trains ,of which there were about 2500 a month. Some months they carried over a million riders and on some days as many as 100,000 traveled. Many of these trains ran over normally freight-only lines, especially if accessing a military base.

Railroads such as the Pennsylvania and the New Haven committed even more of their equipment because of their strategic locations. Filling an ocean liner in New York or Boston harbor with 13,000 troops involved as many as 21 trains. These might require over 200 coaches, 40+ baggage cars and over 30 kitchen cars.

Troop movements of over 12 hours were assigned Pullman space, if available. Pullmans sometimes slept 30,000 members of the armed services a night. This effort was helped by the fact that Pullman had about 2,000 surplus cars, mostly tourist sleepers, which had been stored instead of scrapped. When extra equipment was required for larger-than-normal troop movements, the government would request removal of sleeping cars from all passenger runs less than 450 miles. This resulted in extra standard sleepers for those times when, for instance, many troops from Europe were being transferred to the Pacific.

In 1943 and again in 1945, the government ordered 1200 troop sleepers from Pullman-Standard and 440 troop kitchen cars from ACF. These designs were based on a 50-foot box car equipped with “full-cushion” trucks capable of 100 mph. The center-door sleepers slept 30 in three-tiered, crosswise bunks. While not up to the same standards as the rest of its equipment, Pullman treated these cars service-wise as if they were the same – linen and bedding changed daily, etc. The Korean War again saw troop trains, but by Vietnam the numbers were down. This was due to availability of more large airplanes and also to the reduced capacity of the railroads. After the Korean War, some use of rail was made for reservists going to summer camp. I remember Lackawanna trains in the summer going to Camp Drum near Watertown from New Jersey.

My one and only involvement with troop trains was to go from Junction City, Kansas to Oakland, California in September, 1965. I never made a written record of this trip (who expected to be writing about it 25 years later and besides I had other things on my mind). I was part of a large movement of several trains but not in a position to know how many trains were required, what type of equipment was required, or the routes. Both men and equipment went West and not all trains took the same route.

The 1st Infantry Division consisted of 15,000 men and tons upon tons of equipment. As much as possible, our equipment was packed in containers which we trucked to rail sidings. Vehicles were driven on flat cars and then tied down. Fortunately, Fort Riley, Kansas had ample sidings at several spots. It was on the Union Pacific. Junction City was not a big rail center; it was named for the junction of two rivers, not the junction of two railroads (although a Katy branch once ran there and a Union Pacific branch to Concordia was intact but out of service). The Rock Island ran on the other side of the fort (a 104-mile branch between Belleville on the Colorado line and McFarland on the Tucumcari line), but was not used at all for this troop movement.

The trip began early in the morning (doesn’t everything in the Army?). I rode in a Union Pacific sleeper consisting of 4 double bedrooms, 4 compartments and 2 drawing rooms. I was approximately fifteen cars back but every once in a while I could spot at least three cab units pulling us. Our diner was also Union Pacific and had real china, glasses and tablecloths. While I was an officer, I understand that everybody in the division had comparable transportation. A 1940-era draftee would have felt out of place.

1965 was near the end of good intercity rail transportation. My understanding was that Pullman was contractor to the military to assemble the equipment. They pulled equipment from railroads all over the country. The resulting trains looked like the “rainbow trains” in the first years of Amtrak.

We ran day and night, but held up several times for as long as two hours. We went west to Denver, then through Wyoming to Utah. At Ogden, we ended up on the Southern Pacific “Overland Route” through Reno and Sacramento to Oakland. The trip was almost 1900 miles and not as interesting as trains in the East. Remember Reno in the middle of the night: not very sophisticated looking place! The only real excitement was as we neared Oakland and each grade crossing was protected by National Guardsmen (the first train had delays because of war protestors). At Oakland, we pulled onto a siding that ran right on to the dock. This gave us only a short walk to the transport that sailed us across the Pacific.

Returning home a year later, I flew all the way to New York and then took a dilapidated New York Central train out of Grand Central. 1966 was about the low point of New York Central service (Penn Central only got worse), but I didn’t mind.

Find more great stories on troop trains


2 thoughts on “Troop Trains in American History”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s