Strategic Steam Reserve – Fact or Fiction?

Box Tunnel Branch Line
Box Tunnel Branch Line

For years now a conspiracy theory has been growing in popularity, it’s the theory that the UK created a reserve of Steam Engines during the Cold War known as the Strategic Steam Reserve. But is it just a conspiracy theory?

The story goes that as the UK transitioned from older Steam Trains to modern Diesel and Electric Locomotives some bright spark realised that in the event of a Nuclear Attack, these trains with their modern electric controls and power units would be useless. So the idea was to store a reserve of these old steam trains just in case.

Many places have been mentioned as the location of the Strategic Steam Reserve and IF it is a reality then in all likely hood there would in fact be more than one.

Some of the most common locations mentioned are Heapey Depot Near Chorley and Tunnel Quarry in Corsham. Evidence put forward for both is largely based on their having railway infrastructure in place from their shared history of World War II ammunition storage and by virtue of their previous uses, an ability to hide things underground.

Another element that theorists put forward is that when steam engines were scrapped, the records didn’t quite match up and a few engines seem to have gone missing.

The Possible Locations

Heapey Depot started life as a storage depot for the nearby Royal Ordinance Factory at Chorley. Its storage bunkers are built into the hillside with rail tracks leading into each one. ROF Chorley was one of the two main munitions filling stations in the UK, the other being Brackla in Wales. As most of the munitions left by train, it had a good infrastructure for getting weapons distributed by train and as such, it had a large shunting yard next to the main line. A fact that lends weight to the theory.

Tunnel Quarry, Corsham is located on the main line between Bristol and London and is adjacent to Box Tunnel. Like Heapey Depot it served as a wartime ammunition factory with weapons being loaded and unloaded inside the underground complex. It consisted of a single branch line which lead into an opening just to the north of the eastern portal of Box Tunnel.

Inside the Box tunnel was a 500-metre-long platform that could unload/load two trains at once. There is also a Y branch leading off to a siding where, from personal experience, perhaps 2 or 3 engines could be stored end to end or a train of wagons.

Tunnel Quarry connected to Spring Quarry which famously became the Government’s Central War Headquarters or “The Burlington Bunker”. The northern section of Tunnel Quarry is still in use forming part of Corsham Computer Centre or “CCC”.

Inside the entrance to the Tunnel Quarry Branch

Infrastructure, But not the right kind.

As you can see, both main possibilities have excellent railway infrastructure but that’s actually where you start hitting problems. We have discussed this at length with people that are involved with steam train preservation and they all said the same thing, a track does not a railway make.

Put more simply, steam trains are living breathing pieces of machinery. Basically, leave a steam engine laid up doing nothing for more than 6 months and you have a heap of scrap. So if you are storing steam engines away for future use then you would need to maintain them and more importantly RUN them regularly. That involves bringing them up to full steam, a process that is not done in 5 minutes. Running steam trains up is something that would be very hard to hide given the sheer amount of smoke and steam churned out by them.

It all falls down.

But here is where it really all falls down. What would be the point? Ok, let’s look back at the original point: Diesel and Electric trains would be useless post-nuclear attack. Whilst this may largely be true if you were going to store locomotives out of sight then you would store diesel trains underground as they would be largely unaffected and storing diesel reserves is something that was routinely done for the generators of the bunkers anyway.

Furthermore, when steam trains went out of service, so did their support infrastructure i.e. coal depots, water towers and ash bins. So if you stored a steam train then it would be largely useless. A diesel train, however, only needs fuel.

Then we come to the real clincher. The missing trains. Well, in reality, there aren’t any. Whilst individual records do have discrepancies, overall all British Railways steam trains were accounted for and either scrapped, sold to private owners or shipped overseas.

Rose Tinted Glasses

So why all the rumours? The age of steam is a passion, it’s often referred to as the golden age of the railway and the thought that one day it could make a comeback courtesy of secret underground trains preserved by the government is enough to set a fire in the hearts of many an enthusiast. Steam trains are popular, probably as popular as conspiracy theories in fact and many will simply refuse to accept that it can be anything other than fact despite no actual evidence ever being found that the Strategic Steam Reserve does, or ever has existed.

So whilst it’s not a wild idea we do see that it is both impractical and pointless to have a strategic steam reserve and unfortunately, the golden age of steam is dead, gone and most definitely not lurking in a hill in Wiltshire.

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