US Army Quartermaster Foundation
Fort Lee, Virginia

Rail Transportation; An Historical Military Study
Captain, Quartermaster Corps
The Quartermaster Review – March-April 1927

THE purpose of this brief sketch is to show the humble origin of rail transportation, the mistakes that have occurred in railway operation for military purposes, the present high state of its development and its effect on the strategy of warfare.

An essential feature of commerce is the distribution of commodities among persons and places, between producers and consumers. Specialized groups fulfill this function. Means of transportation have always depended upon the character of the ways of communication. When these were but steep and rugged footpaths, transportation was effected by gangs of porters. Over the sandy deserts, the burden was borne by asses, until camels were domesticated and trained as pack animals. On navigable streams commerce was freighted on rafts or boats propelled by poles or oars until the narrow seas were reached, and large craft could be wafted on by sails to their destinations.

Transportation was, for ages, effected by the expenditure of vital energy. Mechanical powers were applied to the industrial processes long before they were applied to relieving the bearers of their burdens or to reinforcing their muscular strength by artificial means. Through the ages there gradually developed and were employed rollers, drays, chariots and carts. Saddle and pack horses remained the principal means of conveyance until the end of the 17th Century, when stage wagons first came into use.

Transportation is the corner-stone upon which the whole structure of modern civilization is reared; and the corner-stone could not be laid until the railroad was produced.

Until the fourth decade of the 19th Century the inland highways of travel were wagon roads, rivers and canals. As compared with Europe, the United States was poorly equipped with these means of transportation.

Origin of the Railway

The railway (not the steam railroad) originated in obscurity in the 17th Century, when thousands of carts were employed in carrying coal from the collieries to the barge-ports of England. The surface of the roads over which this traffic was conducted was so cut up, in bad weather, that the ordinary loads were at such times greatly diminished. Wooden cart wheels were fitted to run on short timbers laid on cross-ties or sleepers. Then, where the wear was heavy, the surface of these timbers was protected by strips of wrought iron, for which cast-iron rails with an inner flange were subsequently substituted. In 1789 these were replaced by the "edge-rail" and the flanged wheel, and the modern railway was born.

The advent of the railway era really dates from the chartet of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company in 1821. It was on this railway, after twenty miles of the line had been worked by horsepower, that Stephenson operated his engine, "Locomotion No.1," in 1825. The successful locomotive, however, dates from 1829, at which time Stephenson brought out the "Rocket," with the two features essential to a workable locomotive, namely, the multitublar boiler and the exhaust draft. In the United States the beginning of the development of the locomotive dates from almost the same time as in England.

Railways Developed the United States

Railway transportation in England was introduced into populous regions with large volumes of traffic. The railroad system of the United States originated in a far different environment. As the country was virtually devoid of roads, the railroads preceded them; in fact, they preceded civilization. They were not intended to care for existing traffic, but to create it and populate vast uninhabited areas; for they were extended into regions still in a primitive state, verging on barbarism.

There has just been celebrated in England the centenary of the most important event in the economic history of the world-the real beginning of steam railroad transportation.

It would be wholly impossible to exaggerate the importance of the event which this centenary celebration was held to commemorate. The operation of the first steam-drawn train started and made possible a series of changes in communication, production and commerce which have had, in one hundred years, more important effects on the fortunes of the human race than all the changes in its economic environment and methods that occurred in the previous 10,000 years.

It is a curious and highly significant fact that when this important event occurred 100 years ago, it passed without any mention in the press.

Mileage Peak in 1916

In 1832 there were 229 miles of railroad in operation in the United States, and in 1840, 2,818 miles. The period from 1850 to 1860, is referred to as the "railroad mania decade," during which time the mileage increased to 30,914. Construction proceeded in leaps and bounds until it comprised 259,000 miles of line. During the past ten years 4,029 miles of old road have been abandoned and a lesser amount of new road authorized by the Interstate Commerce Commission. This situation suggests that our rail transportation mileage has reached its virtual peak, and that possibly there may never again be as many miles of railroad in the United States as there were in 1916, when the aggregate was 266,381. In this progressive increase, why should there be less mileage now than there was in 1916?

To the gasoline-driven vehicle on motor highways has been erroneously attributed the principal cause of this rather astonishing situation. However, the fundamental reason for the abandonment of this railroad mileage is the lack of sufficient traffic to continue making its operation profitable or even possible. The contributing causes for lack of traffic in their importance are:

1. Exhaustive of natural resources (logging and mining roads) 65%

2. Competition of other railroads 15%

3. Competition of motor vehicles 11%

4. Re-arrangement of lines of railroads 9%

One-Third World's Mileage in the United States

Notwithstanding this abandonment, more than one-third of the railway mileage of the world is in the United States, and exceeds that of all Europe by more than 15 per cent.

The pioneer era of the railroad is at an end. It is true that much of the earth's surface and a large part of its inhabitants are still to be provided with road facilities; but the process will be infinitely easier than it was in the days before excavating machinery and high explosives were invented.

Two standards by which the supply of railway facilities may be tested are:

a. Number of miles of railroad per 100 square miles of territory.

b. Number of miles per 10,000 inhabitants.

The United States being a country with a large area, would naturally have a small ratio of mileage, nevertheless, it has 8 miles of railroad per 100 square miles of territory to Europe's 5 miles. In the United States where population is relatively sparse, there are 27 miles of railroad for each 10,000 inhabitants, while in Europe there are less than 5 miles.

The 254,000 miles of railway lines in the United States are owned by about 2,800 companies, but so many corporations are merely subordinate parts of other and larger ones that there are only about 1,000 operating companies; and, as will be shown presently, most of these 1,000 organizations are federated into a small number of systems or groups of control.

The simplest grouping of railroads, for various purposes, is by districts, subdivided into regions as follows

a. The New England Region 

Eastern District

b. Great Lakes Region


c. Central Eastern Region  "
d. Pocahontas Region  Southern District
e. Southern Region  "
f. Northwestern Region  Western District
g. Central Western Region  "
h. Southwestern Region  "

Among the large groups practically under a single or unified control, the following may be mentioned as typical:

New York Central Lines

The Pennsylvania System

The so-called Nickel Plate System in process of consolidation

The Atlantic Coast Line Group

The Illinois Central Group

Great Northern - Northern Pacific (Hill Roads) Lines (controlling the Burlington System)

Atchison System

Union Pacific System

Southern Pacific System

Military Transportation

Railway efficiency for military purposes has undergone a wonderful development, and in no other country on a grander scale or under more favorable auspices than in the United States. To appreciate these facts, reference may be made to the earliest association of railway transportation with military operations.

At the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, in England, in 1830, a regiment was conveyed 34 miles in two hours, which would have required a journey of two days on foot. The following year a noted French General declared that the strategical use of railways would lead to "a revolution in military science as great as that which had been brought about by the use of gunpowder."

In the United States the Regulations for the Quartermaster's Department, issued in 1838, state that the Quartermaster’s Department must provide transportation for all military purposes, and that baggage of the Army, which is to be transported at public expense, is limited to officers' mess chests, clothing and bedding. and the camp equipage of the troops, consisting of cooking utensils and table furniture, tents and clothing not issued.

At the time these Regulations were issued in 1838 there were 2,600 miles of railroad in the United States. The major portion of this steam railway mileage was in the New England States. No data are at hand that will furnish information as to the manner in which transportation as authorized by Regulations referred to in previous paragraphs was furnished, but it is fair to assume that a very small portion of the movement of troops and supplies was by railroad, the greater portion being moved by Government-owned animal transportation, stage coaches and steamboats.

Early Military Rail Movements

No military rail movement of any extent took place in the United States prior to the Civil War. In Europe, in 1846, a Prussian Army Corps of 12,000 men, with horses, guns, road vehicles and ammunition, was moved by two lines of railway. In the winter of 1850 an Austrian Army of 75,000 men, 8,000 horses and 1,000 vehicles was transported from Hungary to the Silesian frontier by railway.

In the Italian campaign of 1859 railways were conspicuous in actual warfare, both strategically and tactically. In 86 days the French railways transported 604,000 men and 129,000 horses with a total of 2.636 trains.

Were these first military rail movements successful? Military movements by railway in Europe were unfavorably affected by the lack of sufficient double track, station accommodations and equipment. and by the want of cooperation of the military staff with the railway officials; but far more by failure to work out a detailed scheme of organization in advance of its being put into effect. From a combination of several of these causes, trains were often blocked or delayed, stations were congested with supplies that should have gone forward, and needed reinforcements were kept waiting because of the delay in the return of empty equipment. It frequently happened that the transportation of troops occupied more time than if they had marched, and that they reached the front unaccompanied by necessary supplies. As a consequence important military movements were retarded or frustrated.

These conditions with the resulting consequences were well known in 1860. Nevertheless, the United States required over 50 years and the waging of two wars (the Civil and the Spanish-American Wars) before the necessary steps were taken in 1914 to overcome the difficulties above mentioned.

Civil War Developments

The use of railroads in warfare in the United States began with the opening of the Civil War in 1861. The boundary between the North and the South groups of states was formed by the Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac and the Ohio Rivers. This frontier line of over 1,200 miles was paralleled for the whole distance on its northern side by railroads, and with the exception of about 350 miles west of Washington, it was covered by navigable waters which were dominated by the Federal forces. At this time there were 31,286 miles of railway in the United States, about 6,000 miles of this total being in the Confederate States.

As the seceding states drifted into civil war, neither of the parties to it formed an adequate conception of the magnitude of the operations that it would involve, or of the character and organization of the preparations essential to its efficient conduct. This fact was made conspicuous in the course pursued with reference to railway transportation. There was no though of the railroad as special instrumentality in warfare, beyond its use in time of peace. The Government departments utilized it separately like any other shippers, and troops were handled after the manner of holiday excursionists.

The first reference to a rail transportation division in the office of the Quartermaster General is made in his annual report for 1865, in which he states that the first action taken by the chief of this new division was to provide for a uniform mode of procuring transportation-there having been no uniformity in the forms used or in settling for the same, each Quartermaster acting independently, adopting such forms or methods as best suited his views or convenience. This resulting in irregularity, confusion and much loss to the Government.

A Notable Achievement

The most notable achievement of the rail transportation division of the Quartermaster General's office during the year 1865, was the transportation to their homes of the Armies of the West and of the Potomac after their review by the President and his Cabinet. In forty days 233,200 men. 12,838 horses and 4,300,850 pounds of baggage were moved from Washington. The general instructions of the Quartermaster General, preparing for this movement designated the routes and prescribed certain precautions and preparations for the comfort and safety of the troops moving by rail. These movements were accomplished without a single accident or loss of life.

With the close of the Civil War, our military strategists apparently gave no further thought to the application of railway operation in warfare.

Our 1898 Experience

The War Department, on July 18, 1898, created a division of transportation in the Quartermaster Department which was charged with the supervision and control of all rail and water transportation. This division was not created until more than three months after war had been declared with Spain. In the concentration of the force for the invasion of Cuba military transportation was conducted as in time of peace. Troops were moved without system, and the arrangements of trains, the routing and the organization for entraining and detraining were left to the discretion of railroad employees with little previous training for such operations. Past experience as to the congestion of traffic due to the indiscriminate and premature forwarding of supplies by separate departments was again repeated. The only concentration point for the campaign in Cuba was at Tampa, Fla., where two rival lines converged. Trains were there made over, and the contents of many cars were transferred for forwarding nine miles farther over a single track to the port of embarkation at Port Tampa, Fla. The station facilities were altogether insufficient, but no provision had been made for their enlargement in anticipation of such an accumulation of traffic. The sidings at both places, and further back on the lines of communication were blocked with cars whose contents could only be ascertained by a search through huge piles of waybills. Troop trains arrived unheralded and unmet; supplies arrived in freight cars in advance of the bills of lading, so that it was impossible to tell which car contained any desired freight. During this period there seems to have been very little real cooperation between the railroads and the Government.

Can anyone conceive of a greater lack of plans than this portrays?

Mutual Co-operation Developed

Experiences in 1898 demonstrated the necessity for reform in the War Department's method of dealing with the important problem of military transportation.

A few years after the Spanish-American War, the Quartermaster General's Office and the transportation companies began to coordinate their efforts and to work together more cordially and more effectively. In May, 1914, when the Vera Cruz incident seemed to be the prelude to war with Mexico, the Quartermaster General's Office approached the American Railway Association on the subject of the coordination of the railways and the Government for transportation of troops and supplies in emergency. In 1915, while the danger of war on our southern frontier continued, the officer in charge of the Transportation Division appeared before several transportation associations and outlined the plan of mutual co-operation which was practically the one later put into effect. A "Special Committee on Co-operation with the Military Authorities was appointed by the American Railway Association, and during the winter of 1915-16 this committee was in frequent session with the officers of the Transportation Division of the Quartermaster General's Office, and a general plan of co-operation was agreed upon.

The trouble with Mexico became more acute, and on June 18, 1916, there was called into the Federal service the greater part of the organized National Guard. The plans formulated during the previous winter were immediately placed in effect. By the adoption of these plans the War Department and the railroads alike, hoped to prevent a repetition during the operations in Mexico of the congestion which occurred during the War with Spain. That they succeeded is generally agreed. To this little incident or experience during which the proposed plans were tried out, may be attributed the success of our rail movements during the World War.

On March 1, 1917, at a conference with the Secretary of war, at which were the Special Committee and representatives of the General Staff and from the Quartermaster General's Office, it was decided that in case of any large troop movements the transportation should be handled under the same plan as in 1916. Consequently the railroads were the first great industry of

the United States to perfect an organization to cooperated with the military authorities and offer their services to the Secretary of War.

World War Railroads' War Board

The emergency for which the railways had been preparing came on April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war against Germany. The following day the Council of National Defense directed the railroads to organize for the utmost dispatch in the movement of freight. To accomplish this object, the railway executives empowered the American Railway Association's Special Committee on National Defense to formulate and to direct the carrying out of a policy of operation for all the railroads, and formed an executive committee of five members, known as the Railroads' War Board, which directed the operation of virtually all the railroads in the United States.

The creation of the Railroads' War Board was probably the most important and revolutionary step taken in the history of American railways up to that time.

The American Railway Association is an organization financially supported by the railroads of the United States and other countries, and which have given the Association plenary power to move and assign its rolling stock in an emergency where needed in the public interest. This plenary power is not enforceable, but it is now supported by the Transportation Act of 1920, using the Interstate Commerce Commission as its agent. It may be stated that this plenary power given the Association has never been questioned.

To handle the problems of troop transportation, there was built up at Washington, in the Railroads' War Board Office, an organization known as the Troop Movement Force. The functions of this bureau were to gather all necessary information regarding equipment needed and available; to arrange for the transfer of equipment from one road or section of the country to another; to expedite the return of empty cars; to keep informed as to threatened conditions of congestion and to make provisions for avoiding it.

Competent Rail Representatives Assigned

In addition, competent representatives from the American Railway Association (or railway officials) were assigned to each departmental headquarters, cantonment, port of embarkation, and any special place where considerable numbers of men were to be moved by rail. These agents acted as advisors to Quartermaster Corps Officers on all questions affecting railroads. They also carried out the orders from their central office and saw that sufficient railroad equipment arrived on time, was in good order, and that trains were promptly dispatched.

After orders for a movement of troops and their equipment had been issued the duty of providing the means of transportation devolved upon the Quartermaster Corps. The Land Transportation Branch. Transportation Division, Office of the Quartermaster General, supervised all movements of troops and supplies. During the early months of the war this branch, when advised of a projected troop movement, at once advised the department and the Camp Quartermasters concerned as to the route to be used; it also informed the Troop Movement Force of the National Defense Committee who then issued instructions to its Department and General Agents regarding the date of the movement, assembling of railroad equipment, etc. The Quartermaster involved in the movement needed only to inform the local Railway Association's representative as to what was wanted. The question of how many cars in a train, or the position of the cars in a train, was left to the railway authorities, after consultation with the commanding officer concerned in the movement. The representative at the station from which troops were to be moved then reported the requirements to the central office, if necessary, or directed the railroads to place the equipment.

These representatives provided their own offices and the necessary force of clerks. Each railroad designated one of its general officers, usually a vice-president, to direct the movement of the troop trains on its lines and to co-operate with the representatives of the American Railway Association.

Railroads Taken Over by the Government

Upon the taking over of the railroads by the Government in December, 1917, jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to the routing and transportation inland, by whatever means of transport, of all troops and property, was assigned to the Inland Transportation Division (later the Inland Traffic Service) Storage and Traffic Division of the General Staff.

The War Department, in March, 1919, authorized the organization of the Transportation Service as a Separate service, which took over the Inland Traffic Service as part of its organization under the name of Rail Transportation Division. When the Transportation Service, in August, 1920, was returned to the Quartermaster Corps, this division became the Rail Transportation Division, Transportation Service, Office of the Quartermaster General, and as such exists today.

Statistics – From May 1917 (when the Troop Movement Force began its work) until November 11, 1918, the railroads of the country transported 8,714,582 men, an average of 502,764 per month. The maximum was reached in July, 1918, when 1,147,013 men were moved. It would be difficult to overestimate the amount of detail in routing, scheduling, moving and feeding these men. This is undoubtedly the greatest long distance troop movement by land in history. The railroads carried 2,174,455 men into the crowded port terminals for embarkation overseas without interfering with the heavy traffic already being handled through these ports, and in the adjacent territory. The average number of men carried in each special troop train was 421, the number of cars per train was 12.6 and an average rate of 19.8 miles per hour was maintained. It was not found necessary, as in Europe to utilize freight cars for the transportation of troops, and in fact, it was customary to furnish sleeping cars in all journeys which extended over 24 hours.

Quartermaster Corps in Close Harmony with American Railway Associations

The Quartermaster Corps at the present time continues to work in close harmony with the American Railway Association, the latter maintaining an organization known as the Troop Movement Section, in the Munitions Building, Washington, for the purpose of

assisting and co-operating with the War Department in peace troop movements, and also assisting in the preparation of war plans. It is by this system that cooperation is effected between the Transportation Service and the railroads for rail movements of troops and military supplies. This results in centralized control and direction, and decentralized operation.

In the event of another major emergency, the same system, no doubt, will be followed, and the rail transportation activities of the War Department, based on proposed legislation, will be controlled and directed by the Chief of the Transportation Corps, as Traffic Manager for the War Department, subject to general executive control of the Federal Traffic Board or a similar Federal super-agency created by the Federal Government for the purpose of controlling and coordinating all commercial and military traffic during the period of the emergency.


From experience in the use of railways in wartime, certain conclusions may be drawn. The more general one, is that railway transportation has enabled warfare to be conducted on a more extensive scale than would otherwise be possible. Caesar's largest army in the Gallic Wars consisted of 80,000 foot and 25,000 horse. Napoleon mustered 450,000 men for his Russian campaign, yet, with but one important battle, in which he lost 25,000 men, he recrossed the frontier with but 8,800. Compare these examples with the invasion of Belgium in 1914, when 58 Army Corps (about 1,700,00 men) were concentrate on the western border of the German Empire in less than 36 hours.

During the greater part of the World War the strategic railway system of Germany permitted its Armies to be concentrated alternately on its French and on the Russian frontiers, which are nearly a thousand miles apart. For this purpose there were available six double track lines, over which military trains were moved at the rate of 250 miles in twenty-four hours. For six army corps of 40,000 men each, a week was allowed, with two or three days for preparation.

Great, indeed. is the revolution in the strategy of warfare that has resulted from the use of the railway in military operations. It has rendered possible the concentration of men in overwhelming numbers and supplies in enormous quantities, and to maintain such armies by replacing the wastage of both. One can complacently agree with Marshall Joifre when he says "The battle of the Marne (if not the World War) was won by the railroads."

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