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The Strategic Reserve Refuses To Die. By Rory Lushman

Who cares if there are any locomotives missing, the man in the street certainly does not. Why should we chase tales of missing locomotives? The dinner will still be put on the table, traffic jams will still occur; potential candidates for Lord Mayor will still tell lies. So in the broad scheme of life, a few locomotives are certainly not high priority to most people.

What are the implications though if locomotives are actually missing or tucked away in some cold, dark storage site? An actual cache of locomotives amounts to a hill of beans and means nothing. The very existence of them could not be conceived as sinister but more the reason for keeping them may be construed as such.

The popular theory but not necessarily the correct one, is that steam locomotives would be unaffected by a nuclear blast. By that, it is assumed that because a steam locomotive has very little in the way of electrical components, they would virtually survive intact from the ensuing Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) in a nuclear blast.

Could this be the only reason for keeping steam locomotives intact? So we have a few steam locomotives left, unscathed in secret hidey-holes. They are wheeled out to run on what? Won't most of the track system be destroyed or even blocked by debris. Overhead-electrified wires and their supporting masts would surely come tumbling down. Bridges would be flattened, stations would have collapsed, signalling systems control of track points and signalling would all surely be lost.

There may remain isolated sections unaffected by a nuclear blast but the chances of the restored locomotive and the track being in the same place and at the same time are surely lottery statistics.

Maybe futures Governments do not want a full rail system but small isolated essential areas. This however seems so over the top. Moving and restoring services would be far easier to do by all terrain vehicles. These vehicles could be stored away in locations protected from the EMP effect. So why the need for steam locomotives?

Are there any other practical reasons steam locomotives could be retained for? Maybe the retention of locomotives was not so they could run them on rails. What about using them as static power plants for generating electric. The likes of you and me would not benefit from this but small areas of essential Government could be powered.

Remember many of the alleged locations for the strategic reserve are no longer rail served. Why hide a locomotive in a location that is not rail served. If the area was not rail served and there were locomotives there, maybe the plan was always to move them by road. Not for transportation to the nearest intact railway line but destined to serve as a mobile generator.

Is this feasible? A similar thing was carried out with a class 47 diesel locomotive, number 47 155, when it became a stationary exciter for the 300 mw turbo-alternator at West Thurrock Power Station in 1976. [1]

Could a steam locomotive, or the driving wheels or shafts be used to turn a generator? This brings us to the argument that any generator would be wiped out by the EMP. Would this affect all generators, probably not and maybe a generator is easier to hide than lots of diesel locomotives.

If it was so easy to hide or protect electrical circuits from the EMP effect then the generator theory is invalid. Maybe it's all a case of money. Steam locomotives and generators could be quite easily moved to any needed location. Maybe the intention was never to run the steam locomotives on any main line but to use them as static power generators.

If locomotives were to be used as static generators, is there any significance in the locomotives that were presumed missing. A number of 8f's and 9f's are allegedly still unaccounted for as are a number of various other steam locomotives. A number of the locomotives had only seen a few years service, making them ideal candidates for preservation in service of the country.

The power to revolution ratio would be a factor in generating any electricity and any locomotive deemed fit for this use would need to be reliable.

What other use could a steam locomotive be retained for? The second most popular theory is that steam locomotives could be resuscitated during an oil embargo/crisis. This would assume that any such embargo/crisis would last a good while, enough for stocks to run dangerously low. Could we then really rely on steam locomotives to be our saviours? This seems so impractical as the number of alleged engines stored could not move enough freight/people as required. Many routes are already congested in the 90's and many complain there are not enough trains in service. What chance, have a handful of locomotives got in restoring order and balance to the transportation of materials.

The strategic reserve certainly jolts people into outright condemnation of its existence. There are those however, who still believe that there is such a thing as the strategic reserve. Mention the strategic reserve on any Internet chat room and instantly there are those that respond that its all fantasy. A fewer, quieter people emerge with their own accounts from a friend of friends friend. These alleged stories are virtually impossible to trace back to their source. I have seen so many accounts on various web sites, from the locations of the strategic reserve to accounts of locomotives being taken from right under people's noses. [2] As with all of these cases, they are just second-hand testimony.

Some would argue that in any rumour there are some truths. This is total nonsense however. There are many rumours that aliens are visiting the earth but as of yet, no one can prove they are. To say something is happening without any proof is pure fantasy material. So are there any accounts that have been reported in possible connection with the strategic reserve.

There was one such account in "Steam World" back in April 1981. [3] Stephen Burgess recalls the following happened on October 2, 1975:

"Exactly what occurred, I cannot completely recall and certain details I'm afraid, escape me completely. However the bulk of the story I can substantiate by diary entries made by my self during the autumn of 1975.

I was returning to Aberystwyth, to begin the winter term at my college and I caught an early morning train at Birmingham New Street, at approximately eight o'clock.

The train then made its way to Shrewsbury, where I had to change trains. I'm not sure what time the train arrived, as I had fallen asleep during the journey. When I awoke, the train had stopped but we had not, it seemed arrived anywhere, as the train was not standing at a platform. Instead I was in some sidings.

The train a DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit, RL) I think was segregated into compartments and I was alone. I ventured to look out of the window to see where I was, as I was feeling completely disorientated.

In the sidings where we had stopped there was the fuel oil tanks and the general bits and pieces one often sees in railway sidings.

But in addition to this, there were two or three lines of locomotives. I am completely ignorant of steam locomotives, so I cannot describe their type except that they were large and in good condition. They were painted in dull black and bore large white painted numbers on their boilers. [4]

The cabins were boarded over, as were the tops of the tenders, as I could see the boards, which overlapped the sides a little. The connecting rods were also removed but I cannot remember if they were lying in the cabins-I think they were.

As to how many engines there were, I cannot remember but there were many of them. Further details than this escape me, as the more I think about the experience, the more the facts become blurred.

I got out of the train and began to walk along the sidings, where I was discovered by a railway worker, who led me back to the station, which was nearby. It was Shrewsbury. I then continued my journey to Aberystwyth, arriving there late afternoon.

I'm sorry I can't identify the types of engine but my knowledge of steam locomotives is minimal."

So what are we to make of Stephen Burgess's account? In 1975 steam had long since died and most remaining engines were held at Barry scrap yard, South Wales. Could he have been dreaming, he did recall being disorientated. In another part of the article he mentions seeing an oblique line next to the number. An oblique yellow line meant that the locomotive was not to travel under electrified lines for safety reasons. A number of steam locomotives had high tenders and the fireman risked being electrocuted by climbing onto the coal. However Stephen insists the numbers were painted on the boilers and not the cab sides.

One point I think was overlooked was that Stephen thought the connecting rods were in the cabins of the locomotives. How could he have known this if the cabins were boarded up as he claimed?

The problem with this case is that no one else can recall the lines of locomotives at Shrewsbury in 1975. It would need to be established as to whether the DMU's at the time were stabled in the yard between shifts. Stephen seems quite sceptical about the strategic reserve and makes one good point. If locomotives could be stored away, why not just store as much oil away as possible.

So where are these elusive locomotives kept? Most of the sites put forward as potential contenders for guardians of the locomotives tend to have a connection to military/government locations. A number of sites I have investigated have come via Paul Screeton from people he has spoken to.

The site at Heapey is an old Royal Ordnance Factory; Rhydymwyn was used for the storage of chemical weapons and is still guarded to this day. The Box Hill Tunnel connected to former government tunnels. Bicester is a MoD location and Shoeburyness is a Defence Evaluation Centre. Is it purely coincidence that these locations are connected to the strategic reserve myth or is it rumourmongers who put these locations forward knowing that it would be so hard to check any evidence of locomotives present there.

So what do the MoD say about the strategic reserve. Not a lot actually. I have sent two letters to the MoD and both of them have gone unanswered. It seems strange that the MoD will write to you when you report a UFO, although their reply is always in the negative, at least they write.

Now why would they not bother to write back when asked about the strategic reserve? Is it a cover up or merely that they know nothing about the strategic reserve and do not have anyone capable of stringing a few words together in a reply. I have since sent another letter to the MoD.

Would anyone notice locomotives going missing? The disposal of locomotives involves a good number of people. We have to remember that in the steam days there were no computers to keep a track of the locomotives, unlike today and even this is not always reliable as embarrassingly a class 66 diesel went missing for a few days recently.

David Shorrock a fireman at the Accrington Locomotive Shed recalls how the shed manager would often ring around trying to locate the whereabouts of a locomotive that had not returned to its home depot. Many a time another depot had borrowed it to haul one of their own trains when they were short. Although not as expensive, there are a number of railway sidings that seem to contain rolling stock that seems to have been forgotten about.

The process of in deciding to withdraw an engine from service can involve quite a few people. Usually a mechanical failure is the cause of a withdrawal from service. However this is not always the case and many locomotives are simply switched off, as the regular mechanical service that may be due is not cost effective to keep the old beast in service. As newer machines come on line, older ones are withdrawn.

A locomotive will be sent to a maintenance depot for either a regular service or evaluation. A decision may be made to condemn the locomotive or withdraw it from service. Many locomotives then spend years sat in sidings awaiting the acetylene torch. Many locomotives that have others of its class in service will be robbed of parts to keep the others going. Obviously "robbed" locomotives are of no value to a strategic reserve.

The locomotives that remain intact and sit amongst other condemned machines could be potential candidates for preservation. Some will make it to private railways but most will not. Some depots have had locomotives sat in their sidings for over 15 years. Many of the withdrawn locomotives are moved to other locations to join a long line of condemned engines. There are a few locomotives, which reside on their own at various depots but this tends not to be the norm. This is the state of Britain's railways at the moment; many condemned locomotives sit awaiting their fate.

Now put the same scenario into play in the steam days. There are no computers to log the transfers of withdrawn locomotives to various holding points. The persons who's decision to move a locomotive to scrap line, may never have any involvement with that engine again. The engine may be moved over periods of months to different locations. Each move dictated by an individual. So therefore would it be so hard to imagine a few locomotives going missing as a less than perfect paper trail is left. As each locomotive is moved onto to someone else's patch, so goes that responsibility with it. If we can lose a locomotive today with computer technology, would it be so hard to "lose" one in the less than perfect bureaucratic and dated rail system of the late 50's and early 60's.

It may be that errors in tracking scrapped engines have fed the strategic reserve myth. The locomotive may well have been cut up but the paper trail does not show it. Of course some would argue the opposite, that the paper trail was deliberately falsified to cover up the kidnapping of large locomotives.

The thought that once majestic steam locomotives maybe beneath our very feet or tucked away in some mountain or hillside to burst back on the scene in a time of crisis is a romantic one. Many would rather live with that thought than believe that the strategic reserve is a myth.

Many would rather believe that the locomotives unaccounted for were scrapped but due to inadequate record keeping, the engines slipped into the twilight zone.

Is the strategic reserve real or not, the choice is yours. For me, I would like it to be real but so far the evidence does not show it. Until I have investigated all leads and locations, maybe, just maybe there is a spark left in the strategic reserve and just like a dying ember, may come bursting back into life when more fuel feeds the story. The strategic reserve certainly refuses to die.

Acknowledgements. Thanks to Paul Screeton for his inspiration and forwarding various articles from older magazines in relation to the strategic reserve.


[1] Diesels Nationwide, Keith Montague, Oxford Publishing Company.

[2] Steam Railway Magazine, Nov/Dec 1979, article called Strategic Reserve.

[3] Steam World Magazine, April 1981, article called Strategic Coincidence.

[4] The Labyrinth, Issue One. Article called, On The Trail Of The Strategic Reserve. A similar account of matt black locomotives.

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