posted on Jul, 19 2006 @ 10:21 AM
This article does not fall neatly into any of the ATS subform’s, I eventually chose this one as it is linked to the cold war.
So what is the Strategic Steam Reserve?
The Strategic Steam Reserve (from here on referred to as SSR) is supposedly a pool of steam locomotives kept in reserve in the event of a nuclear
attack on Great Britain. It was theorised in the late 60’s that a nuclear attack could damage all or most electrical circuits in the country due to
the immense electromagnetic radiation given off by a nuclear blast. Obviously this would render the new diesel locomotives being introduced useless,
along with a large proportion of motor vehicles and probably most aircraft – steam trains however would remain unaffected due to their total
non-reliance on electronic circuitry.
The theory goes that as steam loco’s began to be replaced by diesel units in the late 1960’s a number of the more modern steam loco’s were
surreptitiously hidden away (the usual suspect is the Stanier 8 and 9F models most of which were around 10 years old and with a design life of between
50 and 100 years!) *somewhere* to be brought into use in the event of a nuclear attack.
What evidence is there that a Strategic Steam Reserve existed?
In short preciously little hard facts, but plenty of unconfirmed eyewitness statements and some jiggery pokery when it came to record keeping of
loco’s being scrapping.
Perhaps the most provable is the selective record keeping of loco’s going to scrap. At the end of the 1960’s the mass scrapping of Britain’s
steam trains began, loco’s were withdrawn from service and sold to scrap men. Notable by their absence in the records are around 60 loco’s of the
Stanier 8 and 9F class. Although this in itself is not really proof that these loco’s were spirited away it could be classed as circumstantial
evidence. Worth mentioning are the stories from engine drivers/firemen being sent home early from work only to return to find ‘their’ engine had
There are literally legions of unconfirmed eyewitness stories of steam engines being in sidings long after there were withdrawn, people stumbling into
secret holding areas filled with loco’s along with the usual ‘a friend of a friend worked on the SSR’ type stories. The only consistency with
all of these stories is a complete lack of corroboration. However following the old adage ‘no smoke without fire’ it would be foolish to dismiss
all these stories simply due to the sheer number of them. However it is important to realise that the SSR is perceived as a cross between a joke and
a steam enthusiasts dream and has evolved into an urban myth – it is entirely possible that some of these stories may either be false, and created
to simply perpetuate an in-joke in the steam community, or may have been exaggerated due to an over willingness to believe by certain members of the
steam preservation community, presumably complete with 10 cm thick rose tinted spectacles.
Prior to the scrapping of steam a slightly bizarre experiment was conducted by the Royal Engineers in which a steam engine was jacked up with its
wheels clear of the ground and connected to a large electrical generator. Could this have been a trial run for utilising stored steam engines post
nuclear war. (I don’t have a source to hand for this but if there is interest I can try and find it)
An investigation by a steam enthusiast in the 1990’s discovered training on the operation of steam trains was given to a small number of Royal
Engineers yearly by a steam engine preservation society. When the society was queried about this training they claimed they had signed the Official
Secrets Act regarding this and could not comment. The number of steam trains still in regular use in the world today is very small but they do exist,
the training could have been simply been in case the RE had to deploy to one of these areas. However the likelihood of this is so small it is almost
(Again, I don’t have a source to hand for these statements but if there is interest I can find one)
How would locomotives of the Strategic Steam Reserve be stored?
A steam locomotive if simply left to its own devices and with no maintenance would seize solid in a relatively short period of time. Especially so if
stored in potentially damp underground conditions. It has been suggested that if the boilers were filled with de-oxygenated water this would prevent
the boilers rusting out from the inside.
To prevent moving parts from seizing regular applications of grease would be required – which in turn would require a team of maintenance engineers.
This should be bore in mind when considering where the SSR could be stored (discussed in the next section) as regular visits of engineers to a remote
area would eventually raise suspicion.
Could steam locos be maintained in underground conditions? I think the answer is yes with the proviso that it would require regular and though
maintenance by skilled steam engineers.
If the Strategic Steam Reserve existed, at what location(s) was it stored?
The SSR for some reason seems to have been inextricable linked to Box Hill Tunnel, Wiltshire. A relatively short rail tunnel built by Brunel Box Hill
also had a much smaller tunnel running in parallel to it with a narrow gauge railway leading to mineral workings. These workings were taken over by
the military and used as an ammunition store until after the Second World Ward. Rumours of secret additional tunnels branching off from the main Box
Hill tunnel leading to huge underground facilities are largely baseless. The tunnel has been examined several times for evidence of this, and along
with rail workers who claiming nothing out of the ordinary. Box Hill can be discounted as a possible location for the SSR, as well as anything other
than a relatively small ammunition store.
Another commonly quoted location is the Woodhead Tunnel, or more precisely one of the 2 closed tunnels as 3 rail tunnels have been dug, with only 1
remaining operational as a rail tunnel. At present 1 of the disused tunnels has a heavy voltage electricity cable running through it along with a
narrow gauge rail line for maintenance purposes so this particular tunnel can be discounted. The other tunnel is at present sealed so it remains a
possibility, albeit a remote one due to regular activity of rail maintenance gangs and power line maintenance.
If not in Box Hill or Woodhead tunnel’s where could it be. Prior and during WW2 a large number of covered or underground munitions and bomb stores
were created, all of these having rail access. Many were decommissioned post WW2 but some stayed open serving their original purpose or operated by
defence contractors as secure storage/testing area’s. It is possible that a large underground store could be used to store the SSR, and it is the
author’s opinion that if the SSR exists it would be stored in a military storage area rather than a decommissioned rail tunnel where risk of
accidental discovery would be much greater.
Some of these surviving WW2 bomb stores are not widely known despite the attempts of Subterranea Britannica (link) to document them. An example of a
store used post war and now decommissioned that has not been documented by Subterranea Britannica is the former RAF bomb store at Sudbury Yard,
Nottinghamshire which was active until at least the 1970’s and is situated a short distance from a main line and was connected by a rail link
capable of taking the heavy main line trains.
So the 64 million dollar question, did the SSR ever exist and does it survive to this day. I would say there is insufficient evidence to say the SSR
did exist, but enough circumstantial evidence to say it could possibly have existed. If it did exist at one point does it still exist today, I
suspect not. As the cold war came to a close huge defence cuts were initiated in the UK and a prime contender would be the SSR. This in itself leads
on to the next question of what happed to the locos?
To cut up a steam locomotive into parts that are unrecognisable would be a major task, not impossible but far from simple quick job. The UK has a
very large community of steam enthusiasts who would almost certainly get wind of parts of locos being transported round the country. In the authors
opinion a far more likely explanation would be simply to seal them in to their storage area.
The idea of a SSR has been an urban myth for some time, and with urban myths come the Chinese whispers effect where stores of exaggerated and only
partially told until they become unrecognisable – this needs to borne in mind whenever a stories are told regarding the SSR.
The idea of a reserve of steam engines is not without precedent – I know of 2 countries that have maintained a steam reserve for use in time of
emergency. Sweden maintained a reserve from around 1959 until the early 70’s (albeit for different reasons that the quoted for the British SSR) and
Russia still maintains a small steam reserve.