The Shiny Irons Go To War

The Shiny Irons Go To War

Among the many, many accolades accorded the late Sir Alec Guinness CH CBE, his performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars motion picture series would… not… earn him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This affront notwithstanding, he received a lifetime achievement award in 1980 from the Academy to go with the Best Actor statue bestowed for his performance in the 1957 drama “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Set in the steaming jungle of Burma (Myanmar) during the Second World War, the plot follows the construction of a railroad bridge by the Japanese Army, using conscripted British Army soldiers. Though not a direct plot element, the movie demonstrates the strategic importance of the railroad, through the Japanese effort to complete the bridge and the effort by the allied armies to destroy it. The ultimately successful destruction of the bridge, and of a military train caught on the bridge, allows the redemption on Guinness’ Colonel Nicholson.

From the driving of the first spikes, the railroad has played an important, many times decisive role in conflict. The Shiny Irons transport military supplies and troops to the front or to the docks, and carry raw materials from mine, field and forest to industrial centers where they can be processed into the stocks and stores of victory. One of the first conflicts in which the railroad flexed its steel was the U.S. Civil War. Before the advent of the railroad, the only way to transport soldiers and supplies overland was on foot, on horseback or by horse-drawn wagon. The iron horse was a quantum leap in load-carrying capacity and speed. Though the locomotive still had to “feed”, it could carry enough chow in it’s collier for dozens of miles before stopping for dinner. Once the problem of mis-matched rail gauges was solved, the Irons became a game-changing strategic resource. So vital was the railroad that, in 1862, President Lincoln mandated that the Irons be pushed right across the continent to connect the east to the Pacific.

When you do a word association of “army” and “railroad” it immediately brings to mind the “Troop Train.” Indeed, this was the first use of the railroad in a military sense. By the Second World War,

Over 40 million men and women served in W.W.II and almost every one of them rode a Troop Train during that war. In the latter part of the war on any given day over one million servicemen were riding a Troop Train. The US was averaging 2500 Troop Trains a month.

In the U.S., trains carried the vast majority of troops in wartime up through the Korean War. When the First Infantry Division was ordered to Vietnam in 1965, the 15,000 soldiers rode the rails from Fort Riley, Kansas to Oakland, California; the last major U.S. troop movement by rail. The foot soldier no longer rides the rails,  winged transport having taken over this task. Still, the Shiny Irons are indispensable to the military. Large numbers of vehicles, tons of supplies and massive amounts of equipment still must be moved, and the the Irons love heavy hauling. The U.S. Department of Defense even has its own fleet of flat cars for specialized transport of heavy military vehicles.

When mobilized for war, DoD has access to 5,862 flat rail cars. Of those, 4,504 are owned by commercial railroads. DoD owns the remaining 1,358, which are more robust than their commercial counterparts and carry heavy tracked vehicles, such as M1 Abrams tanks.
M1 Abrams tanks on a heavy flat car

The 65ton M1 tank gets its own 6-axle car to enable the tidy transport of two tanks. The flats are specially designed to enable the heavyweights to be driven up onto the car and chained down. A bit more elbow room will be needed, though, as the 12ft wide tanks are outside of the maximum allowable clearance envelope. As the largest single user of these heavy-duty flat cars, the D.o.D. is running into a problem. The flat car fleet, like so many other rail cars, is reaching the age of mandatory retirement. Though there are programs in place to allow cars to run past this age, the flats are also starting to show their years. Moving into the future, the military may need it’s own olive green flat fleet. According to Curt Zargan, of the Transportation Engineering Agency:

We only own what we need to own,” Zargan said. “We don’t just nonchalantly decide that we’re going to have to own a whole bunch more rail cars, but it would appear that we’re going to have to own several more because industry is not going to replace them, and they’re just not going to be out there.”

At around $150,000 per car, according to Zurgan’s department, an order for 5,000 or so of these cars would be welcome news for the flagging U.S. rail car builders! Here at Starfire Engineering, we’d be happy to make space in our schedule to design some new cars to the latest specifications… our ‘phone number is on our web site.

Extending the strategic usefulness of the Army Irons, the tactical situation has, numerous times required the building of a railroad on the spot! During the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, a railroad was built by the British Army to ferry supplies from the port of Balaklava to the outskirts of Sevastopol. Though possessed of the pretentious name “Grand Crimean Central Railway”, the railroad was but a modest 7 miles in length, purpose built to haul supplies to the besieging army. Other examples of an army laying a stretch of the Camo Irons include a 9-mile run built by the Union Army during the U.S. Civil war to carry materiel from the James River to Petersburg (now part of Hopewell), Virginia. The River Paraguay got a rail link during an 1867 multi-nation war in South America, when falling river levels left some Brazilian ironclad ships snookered between two Paraguayan forts. Supplies were carried to the ships until the river rose. This line was laid on some land nearly impassible because of continuous flooding. A bit longer stretch of the Irons, the Sudan Military Railroad left the placid Nile river base of Wadi Halfa in 1897 and spiked its way across 200 miles of sweltering Sahara to assist the British in the Mahdist War. During WW1, a network of very light 2-foot (60cm) gauge railways fed, watered and supplied the allied troops in the trenches of France. After carrying war materiel to the front lines, the train cars served as ambulance litters to carry wounded soldiers to the rear. When the war ended, most of the rolling stock was abandoned where last used, and many a train car was converted into a wagon by industrious citizens!

Perhaps the most famous and certainly one of the longest purpose-built military railroads is the Ledo Road. In 1937-38, 200,000 Burmese and Chinese workers hacked a road out of the unyielding jungle of northern Burma and southwestern China. Leaving the railhead at Lashio, Burma, the Burma Road wound through the rain forest and over the mountains to Kunming, Yunnan, China, where, a few years later the American Flying Tigers would earn their wings. The December, 1941 destruction of the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the accompanying crippling of the fleet was followed by occupation of much of Southeast Asia by Japanese military forces. Seizing the Burma Road was paramount in the Japanese strategy and success in this endeavour left the allies no way to supply China except feebly, ineffectively by air. Allied engineers planned an alternate route west of the extent of Japanese occupation, to run from Ledo, Assam, India to connect with the northern portion of the Burma Road southwest of Mandalay, Burma. As the first leg of the new supply line, a railroad from Calcutta, India was torn through 1300 uncooperative miles of forest, jungle, mountains and angry rivers to Ledo. From here, the Irons would hand the supplies to the trucks.

For well over 150 years, the Shiny Irons have served the world’s armies in dire times. The combination of speed, smoothness, heavy hauling capacity and sheer logistical might has made the railroad the path of least resistance for the movement of large amounts of goods and large numbers of soldiers. When the time to “lie easy in the shade” finally comes, the Irons are there, too, ready to move the tools of war back to storage and to move the weary troops back to their families and loved ones. The evolution of conflict has seen an increase in the size and weight of the cargoes on the rails, and the infrastructure to carry that increase has been developed. Perhaps we may someday see, as Alec Guinness’ Kenobi saw, “X-Wing fighters” and “T.I.E. Fighters”… if we do, we’ll haul ’em to the Space Port on the Shiny Irons!!

Thanks for joining us, and keep the rails shiny!!!


Tie Hacks

(No, not “tie tacks,” “Tie Hacks”) A couple of great logging songs are Ian Tyson’s 1967 “Summer Wages” and Slaid Cleaves’ 2009 “Breakfast in Hell”. Both tell the tale of logging, the work, the dangers and the men and women who caught the falling trees and tossed them in the rivers. These two bards set their tales in the storied logging camps of Vancouver, and of Georgian Bay, Canada, but there are other places. The mighty wave of advance pushed forward by the building of the U.S transcontinental railroad created a lesser-known logging empire… in Wyoming. Yes, Wyoming. As the Irons were laid across western Nebraska, southern Wyoming, northern Utah and Nevada, the builders needed railroad ties… a lot… no, A LOT of railroad ties. The terrain across which the route ran is very much open plain and while this makes for an easier road bed to clear, the lack of trees meant the railroad planners had to go elsewhere.

In this case, “elsewhere” was the upland and mountain forests of northwestern Wyoming. Enter the Tie Hack. Armed only with a saw, a hatchet and a furious work ethic, these loggers climbed the hills and,

… over the course of seven decades in Wyoming, the Tie Hack would produce an estimated 10 million railroad ties.

Tie hacks were paid ten cents a tie, and earned every… dime. A railroad tie began life as a tree a minimum of 8” in diameter. The tree was felled with a saw, then the limbs were cut off. The industry developed its own tool, a “tie hatchet”. This was a hatchet with a handle length somewhere between a hatchet and an axe, with a single cutting edge which was slightly curved. This was used to limb the felled tree, then the bark was stripped off one side and, in the same operation, the side was cut to a flat about 5” – 6” wide. The other side was stripped and flattened, the two sides parallel to within an “eyeball” measurement. The odd sides were stripped of bark but not flattened. The ties were cut to 8′ lengths and stacked in a bundle. These bundles were bound together and dragged to the nearest running water deep enough to float a log. The vagaries of hydrography meant that much of the product would be moved downriver during the spring snow-melt. Called “The Long Walk”, some of the workers walked the riverbank beside the huge log floes, guiding the logs and clearing jams. This was cold, wet, exceedingly dangerous work. A railroad tie swam down the swollen rivers to the mill in Riverton, Wyoming, where it cured and bathed in preservative, then made its way to the railroad work site and finally laid down under the Shiny Irons somewhere on the high plains.


Play a Train Song

The Irons in troubled times, train driver Virgil Cane tries one last run to Richmond, Va. during the Civil War… Robbie Robertson’s poignant “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”,

Joan Baez, from 1971’s “Blessed Are…”

Join the Conversation

  1. Greetings! if you guys end up making some new DOD cars for tanks, I would like to see drawings to make scale models of these using CAD software and 3D printing. I have a collection of Abrams and Bradleys for a military show train display, but there are no cost effective models to make up a train. I need at least 30 cars – maybe more.

    1. Tony:
      Thank you for your comment, and for your interest in “The Shiny Irons”! We have seen some interest in new Heavy Flat Cars for the DoD, but no feelers as yet. We would probably be unable to provide any documentation for the scale modeler, as our designs are usually owned either by the client or jointly by the client and Starfire. Thank you.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *