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A case against the Strategic Steam Reserve

A cherished urban myth deconstructed: why the UK government probably hasn't got a load of steam locomotives hidden away.

The Strategic Steam Reserve, also referred to as the SSR, is an urban myth much loved by rail enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists and urban explorers alike. The story goes that as British Railways moved from steam to diesel and electric traction in the 1960s a number of steam locomotives were spirited away by the Government to a secret underground depot. There, they have been kept in running order ever since, ready to steam out and provide transport after a nuclear attack in which all diesel and electric locomotives have been destroyed. 

    Evidence presented for the SSR usually starts with anecdotes purporting to come from railwaymen. They either involve drivers and firemen being told to go home from work early and finding that locomotives have disappeared overnight on their return to work, or permanent way staff being asked to work on secret tunnels which were subsequently blocked. Other government or MoD activity involving railways is then presented as supplementary evidence: stories of soldiers from the Royal Engineers receiving training on steam locomotives, coal trains being despatched to military ordnance depots and even mysterious trains in the middle of the night. 

    The most obvious flaw in the SSR story is this: If it exists, why is it kept secret? Other countries had strategic steam reserves and were quite open about them. The Swedes sold theirs in the 1970s but the Soviet Union kept its steam locomotives for decades and they have featured in more than one exploration report on http://englishrussia.com/ . There is no technology in a steam locomotive that has not been in the public domain for over a century and there is no obvious reason why the SSR could be politically sensitive or embarrassing to the government so the two usual reasons why governments keep things secret simply do not apply. The strategic food reserves, Green Goddess fire engines or even Army Land Rovers were all held without any secrecy required. An argument could be made that the SSR needed to be kept secret because if an enemy knew where it was kept then they could destroy it. However, the reported effectiveness of the Cold War Soviet intelligence network leads one to believe that wherever the UK government could have hidden the SSR the Soviets would have known about it anyway. Wilder conspiracy theorists will tell you that the SSR exists in plain view in the form of  preserved steam railways run by enthusiasts, however one would hope that a government seeking to populate an SSR would choose the locomotives based on post-apocalyptic effectiveness rather than historical interest. It's difficult to imagine how the fine collection of the Tywyn Narrow Gauge Railway Museum would be of use after a nuclear attack, for instance.

    The next question about the SSR is this: Why have one in the first place? The usual line is that a nuclear blast would destroy all 20th century technology and only the simplest of machines would be capable of operating in the aftermath. This sounds plausible but is directly contradicted by a train that you can travel on today if you have the cash for a flight to Japan. The Hiroshima Electric Railway has several electric tram cars that were caught in the 1945 nuclear attack but remained intact enough to be repaired and put back into service. They're still running today with not a steam locomotive in sight! A more plausible justification of an SSR is that used by Sweden. Their steam locomotives were capable of running on timber, a resource that Sweden has no shortage of, thus the locomotives were kept in case of a wartime fuel blockade. This might make sense in a British Cold War context because back then we had plenty of coal mines but if the only function of an SSR was to provide fuel-secure transport why would it need to be kept any more secret than our other non-secret strategic reserves? 

    Having addressed the abstract justifications for the SSR, what of the anecdotal evidence? Unfortunately here we hit a problem. The stories are always reported secondhand, as told by a now-deceased relative, a friend of a friend, or even a man in the pub. Nowhere can you find a verifiable first-person account from a named individual so there is no anecdotal source that can be taken seriously. The stories of Royal Engineers training on steam engines, coal trains at military depots and midnight trains though have more substance to them. Could these be the proof for the SSR? The answer to that question is only if you are prepared to ignore all of the far more plausible explanations. It is not surprising that the Royal Engineers learn how to operate steam locomotives, their job is to be able to operate any machinery that the Army requires them to and since there are still parts of the world where steam engines are in daily use they have to learn how to use them. The Royal Signals will almost certainly still train their soldiers on the operation of mechanical telephone exchanges for the same reasons. Similarly the coal trains for military depots need not necessarily be destined for steam engines. One such reported story relates to Bicester Ordnance Depot, a site well known to the owner of this website who grew up in a nearby village. The idea that the coal might be destined for one of COD Bicester's several large and clearly visible solid fuel central heating plants seemed to have passed by the originator of the coal train story. As an aside, COD Bicester has been used for secure storage of railway locomotives in the past; in the 1990s it stored a fleet of passenger trains originally destined for a Channel Tunnel service that never got off the ground.

    The SSR is a seductive idea - after all everybody interested in urban exploration or railways, the author included, would like to discover a cache of hidden steam locomotives. Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined in the paragraphs above, it's an idea that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. One definite thing can be said though. There's a pint of Old Hooky in an Oxfordshire pub courtesy of Dereliction in the Shires waiting for the first person to provide irrefutable proof of the existence of a British Strategic Steam Reserve. Somehow we don't expect to be ordering it any time soon.