THE SAGA OF THE BENGAL & ASSAM RAILWAY



Ex-CBI Roundup
February 1984 Issue

By Boyd Sinclair

On Time In a Timeless Land

CBI wallahs swarmed up and down railroads in China, Burma and India, taking over and operating railroads and trains, mostly officially, but sometimes unofficially. Military railway officers and enlisted men assisted the Army's travelers. The GI railroaders sometimes used jeeps and elephants for locomotives.

The biggest and most important job they tackled was running most of the Bengal & Assam Railway in northeast India, operating generally from Parbat-ipur northeast. The meter-gauge line east from Parbatipur was mainly single-track, powered by an assortment of locomotives made in Germany, England, Belgium, France and Czechoslovakia.

The Indian method of operation was often protracted. There were schedules, of course; but the Indians observed them in the manner of a timeless land. If a train arrived hours late, and the schedule called for a 15-minute stop, the Indians observed it, even though loading and unloading took only two minutes.

The war supplies over the railroad under Indian operation totaled only 15,000 long tons in May 1943. In June the Bengal & Assam didn't move enough tonnage to fill the planes flying the Hump to China.

Maj. Gen. W. E. R. Covell, chief of CBI Services of Supply, gave orders Christmas Day 1943 establishing the Military Railway Service, with headquarters at Gauhati, Assam, halfway between Parbatipur and Tinsukia. It was to operate 752 miles of meter-gauge track, headed by Headquarters, Military Railway Service, and Headquarters, 705th Railway Grand Division. Operating under this authority would be five railway battalions, the 721st, 725th, 726th, 745th and 748th, and one shop battalion, the 758th.

This grand division of about 4,600 officers and men arrived at Gauhati in late-January 1944 and set up offices and quarters in a weaving school. It assumed operation March 1, and by that time, CBI Theater had reached agreement with India to operate 804 miles of track.


RAILROAD YARDS at the 758th RR Shop Bn. Dibrugahr.

The Army improved operation by adding a lot of sidings, so 100-car trains of low priority could wait while rush-order, high-priority freight high-balled it. The lack of sidings had limited the speed of two-way traffic, and short sidings had limited the length of trains. A year after the Army took over, the 735th Battalion, operating the division with the heaviest traffic, moved 43,000 cars east in a month, compared to 9,000 during the first 30 days. "Movement eastward" were the watchwords. That's where the freight of war was needed.

One of the principal bottlenecks was the Amingaon-Pandu ferry across the Brahmaputra River. The Indians moved no more than 200 cars a day each way across the wide stream. By January 1945, after nine months of experience, the GI ferrymen were averaging 800 cars a day each way.

The Army fired all the Indian railroaders and replaced them with GIs and officers, then hired the Indians back to learn American operating techniques.


A RAIL converted jeep.

The Railway Service took over the railroad yards at Parbatipur, where the freight came in on the broad-gauge trains from Calcutta. The railroaders put in new electric cranes, put down new tracks, and turned on flood lights for 24-hour operation. The GI yard men cleared the yards and kept the freight flowing from the wide track to the meter rails.

The GI railroaders made the Bengal & Assam click. The Indians hauled 250 net tons in a train. In nine or 10 months, the GIs were dragging more than 500. They increased the length of trains from 40 cars to an average of 80. Shop men reduced locomotive overhauls from three weeks to five days. The Americans stepped up the Indian maximum speed of 25 miles an hour to a highball of 45. One GI locomotive engineer was ahead of his time. He was court-martialed for going too fast. This increase in speed was hard on sacred cows. Fortunately for the railroad wallahs, the Indians considered departed cattle on the right of way as "death from natural causes."


STRINGING WIRE along the Burma Assam RR.

The GI stationmasters at the lonely places lived solitary lives. To get variety in their diets, if not their existence, they traded beer to their Assamese neighbors at the rate of one bottle for each egg-laying hen. The railroad had a rolling church and the Red Cross had a rolling club to visit them periodically. Elephants sometimes served them as yard switch engines when locomotives were short.

CBIers did railroading in Burma, too. The 504th Pontoon Engineers repaired and operated 31 to 80 miles of the Burma Railways' Mandalay-Myitkyina branch line in the summer of 1944.

Ordnance outfits modified jeeps to pull short trains on the Burma rails because regular locomotives, in the hands of the Japs, had been destroyed in combat. Diesel locomotives from the U.S. were later flown in and trucked over the Ledo Road.


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