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Tag Archives: Strategic Reserve


Deep in some long-forgotten tunnel, or some underground repository, or in some obscure railway yard, there sits a huge number of steam locomotives, kept maintained and ready to be pressed into service in times of national emergency.  This story has surfaced time and time again in the UK, with it also being claimed that the Soviet Union and Sweden have their own strategic reserves.

The background to this story is the scrapping of steam traction in the UK in 1968.  Steam locomotives were being built in Britain right up until 9F 2-10-0, number 92220, “Evening Star” was the last steam loco built at Swindon in 1960.  Given the huge longevity of steam locomotives – anything up to 100 years – gave credence to this story.  Why, enthusiasts asked, would we be building steam locomotives up to 1960 only to scrap them eight years later (Evening Star was withdrawn in 1965), particularly when the British Railways “Modernisation Plan” of 1955 had brought in large scale introduction of diesel and electric traction?  The withdrawl of steam traction happened alongside the “Beeching cuts” of the 1960s, when British Railways Chairman Doctor Richard Beeching ordered the closure of thousands of route miles of railway across the length and breadth of the UK.  And so the story of hundreds of steam locomotives being spirited away and mothballed for use in a time of crisis was born.

In 1979 Steam Railway magazine ran the story of the strategic reserve.  The UK had just passed through the “Winter of Discontent” when the country was racked by strikes.  Among those striking were firefighters, and the army was forced to fill in their duties.  The writer of the Steam Railway article immediately pointed to the sudden appearance of British Army “Green Goddess” fire engines on British streets, claiming that they had long since thought to be scrapped to back up the strategic reserve claim.  He also procured a meeting with a spokesman from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who stated that there was no strategic reserve but perplexingly said “Yes, but those are diesels”.

Following issues of Steam Railway contained letters of lists of supposedly “missing” steam locomotives.  However, it came to light that these engines were largely down to the poor accounting system of BR in the 1960s and as issues went on, other readers were able to account for each and every steam locomotive and the details of where and when scrapped.

People however love a conspiracy theory and the Strategic Reserve refused to die.  Some pointed to the vast reserve of “Austerity” locomotives built during World War II, many of which found their way into ownership of the National Coal Board (NCB – later to become British Coal).  Designed by Robert A Riddles FRSA (who later went on to design BR steam locomotives under nationalisation of the railways), these powerful 0-4-0ST and 0-6-0ST locomotives were purposely designed for hauling freight over short to medium distances in wartime.  Around 1000 were built and apart from these the NCB purchased many more similar locomotives directly from the builders right up until the 1960s.  Some were still working at Dalmellington Colliery, Scotland, right up until the 1980s.

And that they were working so late lends more support to the believers.  Detractors point out that as every year passes, less and less steam locomotive drivers are around.  However, there are plenty of those have driven them in and around collieries and the skill itself is not that difficult to learn and pass on (I’ve driven a steam locomotive on more than one occasion myself).

The Strategic Reserve supporters missed the point; the Austerity locomotives did indeed find their way into the NCB and all can be accounted for, as can locomotives the NCB purchased elsewhere.  Today the ones which are not found on heritage railways, either wholly or in bits, are parked in children’s playgrounds, whilst others have been scrapped.  There is not one locomotive in the UK can not be accounted for.

Yet still it would not die.  Many detractors of the Strategic Reserve claims pointed out that much of the infrastructure needed for steam traction had been destroyed.  The supporters came back pointing out that much of the same infrastructure, such as coaling stages and water towers were still standing. This was true; a steam locomotive tower water tower stood in the throat of Millerhill freight marshalling yard well into the 1980s, and Edinburgh Waverley station retains its huge water tank for replenishing steam locomotives to this day.  But these things merely stood simply because nobody had got around to demolishing them.  As long as they did not interfere with railway workings, there was no point to remove them.  As it was, the water tower at Millerhill was finally demolished only when the yard was remodelled in the 1990s.

In failure of the 1984-85 UK miners strike saw a great many collieries close; not just those deemed uneconomic before the strike, but those who had fallen into disrepair during the strike.  It devastated and effectively closed down the UK mining industry.  With no coal to fuel them, that should have put paid to the Strategic Reserve stories.  The response from some believers was to damn Conservative Prime Margaret Thatcher for ordering the scrapping of the Strategic Reserve locomotives.  Maggie did a lot of terrible things in the eyes of many, the wholesale scrapping of non-existent steam locomotives was not one of them.

One would have thought that would have been an end to the Strategic Reserve myths.  But no, it just would not lie down and die.  Some believers pointed out how the government before the strike had stockpiled coal at power stations, so why not stockpile coal at the Strategic Reserves?  Others argued that coal ships, similar to those which fuelled power stations later in the strike could supply us with the coal needed.

Apart from these arguments supposed sightings of locomotives were reported.  There was a supposed eye-witness account, dated 2005, from a London Underground Line employee being asked to carry out the Health & Safety supervision for two structural engineers of “disused rail tunnels adjacent to LUL running lines”.  The story goes on entering the sealed tunnels, he found three 8F Class 2-8-0 locomotives in each tunnel with rods off and their bunkers boarded over. Engineers allegedly stood on these boards to inspect the tunnel roof. This inspection regime is said to be regular. The supposed location is the Hampstead old Northern line tunnels at the rear end of Finchley depot.

The problems with this story?  Well right away if that was a Health & Safety assessment, I don’t think much of the employees commitment to such, given he and two others apparently stood on timbers which could be up to 40 years old.  No H&S expert worth their salt would ever do anything so foolhardy.  That apart, the only London Transport depot at Finchley is from trams only. But the real clincher is the class of locomotive mentioned. Class 8F was a locomotive type built by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway between 1935-1946.  Being a heavy goods locomotive they were built to the maximum height possible to clear most UK standard gauge tunnels of 12 foot 10 inches. They simply would not fit into the Northern Lines tunnels, which are 12 foot or less diameter in places.

So with the Strategic Reserve of steam locomotives roundly destroyed, what is one to make of the MoD statement “those are diesels”?  If any reserve of locomotives existed, diesels would not make sense.  A national emergency could see supplies of diesel fuel greatly reduced.  In the event of war, refineries and fuel depots would be among the first places to be targeted.  If we are talking a nuclear conflict then the electromagnetic pulse from atomic explosions could knock out solid state components in the locomotives. These things aside, just like steam, all withdrawn diesel locomotives in the UK can be accounted for.  Railway enthusiasts are obsessive creatures and the build details, numbers, withdrawl dates and places of scrapping (or preservation) can easily be found on just a quick internet search today.  There was only ever one withdrawn diesel locomotive in the UK I can think of which would fit the bill and that was the “Warship” class B-B diesel-hydraulic locomotive, D818, “Glory”, which stood at Swindon Works for many years.  This locomotive was scrapped in 1985, apparently in a fit of pique, on the day the government announced the closure of Swindon Works.

Either the MoD spokesman was humouring the Steam Railway journalist, or he was referring to a small number of diesel shunting locomotives at various military depots around the UK at the time.  Hardly a Strategic Reserve capable of running the railways of the UK, and besides, defence cutbacks have put paid to many of these locomotives since.

So what of the claims of the Soviets and Sweden having strategic reserves of steam locomotives?  It is worth remembering that the entire myth came out of the Cold War.  Why Sweden?  Because it is roughly halfway between Russia and the UK.  Sweden has always flatly denied having a Strategic Resource (but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?).  As for the Soviets, well some Soviet states including East Germany were still relying upon steam traction right up to the late 1980s.  They had no need to hide their steam locomotives, they were using them openly.  The fall of communism has shown absolutely no evidence of any Soviet Strategic Reserve.

Yet the Strategic Reserve stories continue, which is not surprising.  Like any urban myth, it is hard to quash.  And not surprising when one considers that steam locomotives are not the only thing to be considered.  There have been similar stories about a squadron of Spitfire fighter aircraft supposedly buried in an Australian desert.  Although just how the UK government would get them from Australia to the UK at the drop of a hat is beyond me.  Another one involves a load of Sherman tanks dumped in the sea off Scotland, just waiting to be lifted off the seabed during an emergency – which of course Russian submarines and aircraft would never notice.

The Strategic Reserve is a nice myth, but that is all it is – a myth.  And one which people allow their hearts to rule their heads with.  The Steam Railway journalist did as much when he made wild comments about the British Army Green Goddess fire engines, which contrary to his claims were never a secret.  They were well known about.  Just because something is out of sight does not mean it has been mothballed in some covert way.

And yet, Steam Railway made an interesting point at the end of their article.  With the number of heritage railways and railway museums in the UK, could not their locomotives and rolling stock be commandeered in an emergency?  We may have a Strategic Reserve right under our noses and most people do not even realise it.