UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Railroad Troops / Railway Forces (Zheleznodorozhniki)

Engels, appreciating the appearance of the railways as an important means of increasing the mobility of troops, wrote that the railways and the electric telegraph now gave talented general or Minister of War for a reason entirely new combinations in the European war. This assessment was fully confirmed in the following years.

As to why Russian forces were bogged down or forced to retreat in some parts of Ukraine in early 2022, former CIA director and commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Petraeus said that Russia's "Achilles' heel" was "their lack of what might be termed expeditionary logistics. In other words, once they are away from a rail system or a port, their logistics are very, very modest." He said that the Russian armed forces are tied to their railway system in Russia. "Once they leave it, as we saw, they are wholly inadequate in the provisions that they provided for their forces when it comes to food, fuel, and ammunition, medical evacuation, and all the rest of it," he said.

An explosive device derailed a Russian freight train in a region bordering Ukraine for a second straight day 02 May 2023 ahead of an expected counteroffensive by Kyiv. Russian Railways said in a statement around 20 wagons had come off the track, adding the derailment had been caused by "unauthorised interference," without providing further details. A train derailed in the same region on 01 May 2023 after an explosion, the local governor said. Bryansk region governor Alexander Bogomaz said the derailment was caused by an "explosive device" on the tracks. There had been many reports of sabotage on railways in Russia since Moscow launched its Ukraine offensive, but this week was the first time officials confirmed attacks on this scale.

Railway troops are special troops intended for restoration, barrage, demining, technical cover, construction of railways, increasing their survivability and throughput, bypassing railway bridges, knots, guidance and operation of floating railway bridges in order to ensure the activities of the Armed Forces of the country. As is known, the Railway Troops are an integral part of the system of material and technical support of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. All recent years, the construction and development of troops is carried out in accordance with the general concept of building a modern army and navy of Russia.

Ground Forces require three standard military trains per battalion for rail transport. A standard military train consists of 57 rail cars. Each rail car can hold up to two pieces of armored rolling stock, or one passenger/cargo car. Thus, a motorized rifle battalion with 550 personnel and 120 assorted vehicles requires 78 rail cars for transport. A tank battalion requires up to 110 rail cards. Additionally, the combat service support requirements to sustain one battalion also requires one train.

The Railroad Troops were first formed in 1851. The Russian military used railroads to deploy heavy weapons and armor to the battlefield. The acute military, strategic and tactical importance of the railroad system in Russia explains the existence of special Railroad Troops whose task is to keep the tracks in order during and in preparation for war and to organize makeshift armor battlefield disembarkment points.

The Russian railways are one of the economic wonders of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century world. In length of track they are second globally to the railways of the United States (though China is trying to catch them from below). In volume of freight hauled, they are third behind the United States and China, using the standard measure of ton-kilometers. And in overall density of operations – here the standard measure is (freight ton-kilometers + passenger-kilometers)/length of track – Russia is second only to China.

Russia is a much larger country than either the United States or China, so its rail density (rail track/country area) is lower than that of these other two – much lower in the case of the United States. Since Russia's population density is also much lower than that of these other two (excluding Alaska from the U.S. measure in this case), the Russian railways carry their freight and passengers over very long distances, often through vast, nearly empty spaces; their average length of haul is second in the world, behind only the United States and essentially tied with Canada.

Coal and coke make up almost one-third of the freight traffic and have average hauls of around 1500 kilometers, while ferrous metals make up another 10 percent of freight traffic and travel an average of over 1900 kilometers. Many remote shippers and customers have access either to only very poor alternative shipping options by road or water, and/or access to those alternative options for less than the entire year.

Though like most railways RZhD carries both freight and passengers, it is one of the most freight-dominant railways in the world, behind only Canada, the United States, and Estonia in the ratio of freight ton-kilometers to passenger-kilometers. Measured by the share of freight carried, RZhD is second to none among the world's largest railways in its importance to its country's economy.

The Russian railways were divided into seventeen regional railways as of 2011, from the October Railway serving the St. Petersburg region to the Far Eastern Railway serving Vladivostok, with the free-standing Kaliningrad and Sakhalin Railways on either end. However, the regional railways are closely coordinated by the central authority – the Ministry of the Means of Communication, MPS, until 2003, and the Joint Stock Company Russian Railways, Rossiiskie Zheleznyie Dorogi or RZhD, since then – including the pooling and redistribution of revenues. This has been crucial to two long-standing policies of cross-subsidization: to passenger operations from freight revenues, and to coal shipments from other freight. These cross subsidies have important implications for reform proposals, as will be discussed below.

The Russian railways were a collection of mostly privately owned and operated companies during most of the 19th century, though many had been constructed with heavy government involvement and financing. The tsarist government began mobilizing and nationalizing the rail system as World War I approached, and the new communist government finished the nationalization process. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the Russian Federation was left with three-fifths of the railway track of the Union as well as nine-tenths of the highway mileage – though only two-fifths of the port capacity.

In the 21st century, substantial changes in the Russian railways have been discussed and implemented in the context of two government reform documents: Decree No. 384 of 18 May 2001 of the Government of the Russian Federation, "A Program for Structural Reform of Railway Transport", and Order No. 877 of 17 June 2008 of the Government of the Russian Federation, "The Strategy for Railway Development in the Russian Federation to 2030". The former focused on restructuring the railways from government-owned monopoly to competitive sector; the latter focused on ambitious plans for equipment modernization and network expansion.

Railroad troops were included in the same category as the border troops of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and the internal troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). With other more pressing military demands, Boris Yeltsin had not substantially changed this designation. In fact, in 1991 the railroad troops had only been redesignated and attached to the Ministry of Railways. The Rail Road Troops were officially subordinated to the Ministry of Architecture, Construction and Housing and Utilities by Decree of the Russian President of 18 April 1992.

However, on 30 November 1994 Krasnaya Zvezda reported that the Railroad Troops were "operating as an independent institution under the Ministry of Railways of Russia." The article stated that "The troops' mission has been broadened somewhat. Under the laws, they are henceforth to be used not only to provide technical cover, rebuild and secure railroads in order to support combat and mobilization operations, build new railroads in peacetime and wartime, and enhance the survivability and carrying capacity of existing railways, but also rebuild railroads destroyed as a result of natural disasters and accidents. Another new element is to perform missions under international treaties."

The Rail Road Troops were established as a separate Federal Service by Presidential Decree during 1995. Krasnaya Zvezda reported on 05 October 1995 that "Units and formations of the Railroad Troops now have the status of legal entities, which enables them to independently enter into contracts and agreements, thereby participating, in effect, in the Russian market for railroad construction and modernization alongside the Russian Federation Ministry of Railroads, the Transport Construction Corporation, and other construction companies. For the Railroad Troops, however, participation in the construction of facilities on a commercial basis allows them not only to use such activities to provide specialized training to their personnel, but also to build and modernize railways in strategically and operationally important sectors at their customers' expense."

The Rail Road Troops structure derived from RF Presidential Edict No. 821 of 1 August 1997. ITAR-TASS reported on 02 May 1999 that "the Railroad Troops include four railway corps, 28 separate railway brigades as well as several military units, scientific and research entities."

On 20 November 2003 President Putin publicly agreed to Sergei Ivanov's proposal to resubordinate the Rail Road Troops to RF Ministry of Defense. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov stated 05 February 2004 that the RR Troops would be organized as an independent type of troops. On March 9, 2004 President Vladimir Putin signed the decree "On the System and Structure of Federal Executive Bodies". The document highlights the main principles of the current administrative reform and defines the structure and functions of federal executive bodies (ministries, federal services and federal agencies). At the same time, President Putin signed decrees appointing members of the Government of the Russian Federation. Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov succeeded in the consolidation of numerous functions under the direction of the Defense Ministry, including the Railroad Troops. In his decree "On Matters of the Federal Executive Bodies" as of May 20, 2004, RF President divided the Ministry of Transport and Communications into the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of IT and Communications, with Federal Communications Supervision Service under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of IT and Communications. The Russian Federal Railroad Troops Service, disbanded by presidential edict, passed to the Defense Ministry. These moves added 100,000 railroad troops to the MOD's rolls.

American Railroad Troops

From its beginning, rail transportation was a field in which United States Army Engineers excelled. Not till World War I, however, did they get a chance to display their railroading ability on a grand scale. Shortly after the U. S. entered the war in April 1917, the War Department organized nine new Engineer regiments for railway work. In an eight-month period, the Engineers had 25,000 men working on 450 standard-gauge projects-tracks, terminals, machine shops, car-repair and coal-storage facilities, regulating stations, cut-offs, and freight yards. During the war, the Corps sent 60,000 railway troops to France. On Armistice Day, 900 officers and 32,000 enlisted men were still working on various railroads.

On 12 August 1944 Engineer of the Advanced Section (ADSEC) was notified that General Patton had broken through and was striking rapidly for Paris. He said his men can get along without food, but his tanks and trucks won't run without gas. Therefore, the railroad must be constructed into Le Mans. This called for reconstructing a railroad 135 miles long, with seven bridges down, three rail yards badly bombed, track damaged in many places, and few watering and coaling facilities. There were 75 hours to do a job normally requiring several months. The 10,500 ADSEC engineer troops then available were scattered throughout Normandy. The first trainload of gasoline left Folligny at 1900, 15 August and reached Le Mans on 17 August. Thirty trains carrying gasoline for Patton's Third Army followed at 30-minute intervals.

The United States Army inactivated its last active rail component in 1974. In June 1972, the last active-duty railway battalion, the 714th Transportation Battalion (Railway), was inactivated at Fort Eustis, Virginia, and a small TDA [table of distribution and allowances] unit, the 1st Railway Detachment, was formed from its remnants. Without a clear mission, the days of active railway troops were numbered; in 1976, the Army eliminated railway MOS's [military occupational specialties] from the active component, and the detachment was inactivated in September 1978.

The conscript-based Russian Army that entered the break-away Republic of Chechnya in December 1994 was not prepared for the fight. Primary heavy-lift long-haul into the theater was on rail. Railroad troops had to restore 260 kilometers of track, clear mines from another 70 kilometers, repair switches and restore electric power to electric rail lines. Trains had to be protected as they came under mortar, artillery and sniper fire.

In the period of combat operations in Chechnya (1995-1996), military trains traveled from the Far East at the rate of 1,200 kilometers a day (the same speed as passenger trains), but had to mark time for hours expecting debarkation on account of limited capacities at some stations. The same situation was taking shape as military transport movements were performed for the Joint Force in the territory of the North Caucasian region (1999-2000). As many as 100 railcars would build up at certain stations in expectation of debarkation because of the insufficient number of loading and off-loading points.

In 1999 a specialized train of the Russian railroad troops was deployed in Chechnya. These units were assigned dangerous and important tasks of protecting strategic railroad lines delivering weapons and supplies. Russian cargo trains in Chechnya were preferred targets for the Chechen terrorists. Mines and bombs left by the rebels on railroad tracks and trains were found almost every day.

On 31 May 2008 units of Russia's Railroad Troops started rebuilding railroad infrastructure on the territory of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia under a presidential decree on humanitarian aid to the self-proclaimed republic, the Defense Ministry said on Saturday. "In accordance with the Russian president's decree on humanitarian aid to Abkhazia and a request by the Abkhazian authorities, units from the Russian Railroad Troops and special non-military equipment have been dispatched to rebuild railroads and infrastructure [in Abkhazia]," the ministry said in a statement.

On 30 July 2008, it was announced that Russian Railroad Troops had completed their mission in breakaway Abkhazia and are withdrawing. A battalion of some 400 men of reportedly unarmed Railroad Troops was sent to Abkhazia to repair the railroad on May 31 without warning or the consent of the Georgian government. Despite strong protests from Tbilisi and Western capitals, the Railroad Troops continued their work in Abkhazia for two months. The troops repaired 54 km of Soviet-built tracks with 20 tunnels and bridges south of the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi to the coastal town of Ochamchire. The railroad was out of use since the early 1990s, a period which witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Georgia-Abkhaz war. The commander of the Railroad Troops General Sergei Klimets told journalists that the railroad operation was "purely humanitarian" to help the people of Abkhazia.

The United States government had been cautioning both the Russians and the Georgians ever since the Russians began to take some more aggressive steps such as sending 500 railway troops to Abkhazia, to improve the supply lines there, and some of the other measures that they had taken.

Emphasis has been placed on improving the Railway Troops, which are fundamental to Russia’s ability to support transportation both within Russia, and across the Soviet legacy rail networks in the former Soviet Union and in Finland.270 The Zapad 2009 JSE emphasized to Russian planners that rail transport was imperative for intratheater transport, while also foreshadowing the need for prepositioning and centralized maintenance facilities at the MD level. It took five days for the 4th Tank Bde to move 400km from its Moscow garrison to Belarus during the exercise. Motorized rifle brigades took even longer due to a lack of An-124 transport and Mi-26 assault support aircraft.

The Russian railway force group in the Southern Military District has two special armored trains, The Baikal and The Amur, and not four, a source at the Defense Ministry told TASS in August 2015. Earlier, a number of mass media said that currently the group has at its disposal four armored trains, which had reportedly been withdrawn from operation back in 2009 only to be overhauled a while later.

"The railway forces in the Southern Military District have two repair and engineering battalions. Each has one special armored train. Their names are the Baikal and the Amur," the source said.

According to the official, the trains’ main mission is not participation in combat operations, but the escorting of military trains carrying cargoes, vehicles and personnel, and also prompt repairs of damaged rail track. Each train carries a kit of materials and components for repairing and restoring 150 meters of rail track, the source said. Each train consists of two diesel-electric locomotives (one is a stand-by engine) and a dozen cars, including flatcars and armored cars carrying weapons.

"The trains are armed with air defense weapons capable of hitting low-flying air targets," the source said. "The personnel of each train are armed with standard automatic rifles, machine-guns and grenade launchers. If need be, the trains may be reinforced with other weapons, including artillery pieces."

All of the trains’ crews are military servicemen. There is no civilian personnel on board. "The crews are permanently ready for coping with a variety of tasks to eliminate the effects of emergencies, such as acts of sabotage," he said.

The official recalled that the special trains were used during both Chechen wars and in the August 2008 conflict in South Ossetia. They are capable of coping with set tasks not only in the Southern Military District, but at any other spot on the map of Russia.

In recent years, the railway troops participated in all large-scale exercises, without exception. During these maneuvers issues of building approaches to floating railway bridges, erecting military overpasses through small watercourses and guidance of floating railway bridges NZhM-56 and MLZh-VF-VT through large water barriers - Yenisei, Volga, Amur, Zeya and Bureya.

As an example: in 2017, during the strategic exercise "West-2017", as well as a special exercise with the military command and control bodies, formations, units and logistics organizations of the Western Military District, the forces of the Railway Troops in the Yaroslavl region were directed by a combined railroad bridge across the Volga River, consisting of two bridges of fundamentally different designs - a floating bridge on separate floating supports, which has been in supply since the late 1950s, and a floating unified railroad The length of the navigated bridge was more than 800 m.

During the exercise, the newest means of motorization and transportation of elements of a floating bridge on water was widely used: the self-propelled pontoon (pusher) PST-1. Its development and delivery to the troops made it possible to remove the main problematic issue facing the troops in recent years. Earlier, the troops in total used self-propelled pontoon sections of four projects. The development of the earliest project dates back to the late 1950s. The issue of unification, according to our instructions, was resolved in an initiative order by the joint stock company "41st Central Plant of Railway Engineering" in conjunction with research organizations subordinate to us. The order of the Russian Defense Minister PST-1 was passed to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Until 2020, the Railway Troops planned the delivery of more than 300 pusher units.

JSC "Russian Railways" was widely involved in the exercise. During the SCSE, control over the railroad on the directions of the redeployment of troops will be transferred to the Military Services Division of the Transport Department of the MoD of the Russian Federation. Moreover, military rail transportation is of primary importance and do not take into account trade and economic activity. The total number of railroad cars for the redeployment of equipment and personnel only in the interests of the Ministry of Defense will exceed 7 thousand units. The peculiarity is the use of solely diesel locomotive traction for military transportation (including on electrified sections of the railway) as a preventive measure in order to prevent the breakdown of military transportation in the case of targeted cyberattacks or other unauthorized influences on the power supply network.

In pursuance of the decrees of the President of the Russian Federation, which determine the main directions for the development of the state (including the development of the Armed Forces of the country), the Railway Troops have developed and successfully implemented a plan of activities for the period until 2020. The purpose of the plan is to give the troops an innovative image that meets the needs, goals and objectives in the field of ensuring the national interests of the state, its armed protection, as well as the country's economic and mobilization capabilities.

When solving a strategically important state task (during the construction of a double-track electrified railway, bypassing the territory of Ukraine), the railway troops carried out a huge amount of work: dozens of culverts were built, more than 9 million cubic metres of soil, laid more than 100 km of rail-bars. It should be noted that the work was carried out not only in strictly scheduled terms, but also with significant advance from the original schedule (the initial completion date of construction is 2018).

An important fact was the completion of construction on the next anniversary of the formation of the Railway Troops on August 6, 2017. Thus, the best labor traditions of the Railway Troops were continued - the timely performance of the assigned tasks with the proper quality. The leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry highly appreciated the achieved results. On August 7, 2017, the Russian Defense Minister, Army General Sergei Shoigu presented the 39th separate railway brigade with a high state award - the Order of Zhukov.

This is only one of the most striking examples of the current activities of the Railway Troops. The troops are coping with all the assigned tasks without failures, according to plans. No interruptions occur. This is facilitated by a sufficiently high level of professionalism of specialists, good technical equipment and, of course, optimal organization of works, as well as timely delivery of all necessary materials.

The units and subdivisions of the Railway Troops, in the framework of improving the practical preparation for the fulfillment of the assigned tasks, are involved in the repair of unauthorized railway tracks at the facilities of the Ministry of Defense of Russia. The applied special equipment and means of engineering armament allow to minimize the use of manual labor and increase productivity. Personnel in the course of accomplishing tasks master practical skills in working on complex weapons, military and special equipment, as well as mechanized tools.

As for the purchase and supply of modern types of weapons, military and special equipment to the troops within the framework of the state defense order, this is one of the priorities for improving and developing the troops. It should be noted that in recent years the Railway Troops have been intensively rearming, as mentioned above, with the prospect of entering a new innovative look by 2020.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list