Reserved, preserved

One of my favourite railway urban legends is that of the Strategic Steam Reserve. This, in a nutshell, is the idea that a number of steam locomotives were secretly saved from scrap and hidden away in by the Ministry of Defence, kept in working order for use in the event of nuclear war.

The theory was simple. If an atom bomb hit, the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) would fry electrical circuits for miles around. Diesel and electric locomotives would instantly be rendered useless, but steam engines would be just fine. The other possibility was that, in the event of oil supplies being cut off due to the conflict, the railways could be kept running using domestic coal.

This wasn’t just some random theory, those who believed it did have their reasoning and their evidence.


  • Several European countries had strategic steam reserves. Indeed, the one in Sweden was a handy source of spares for the Nene Valley Railway when it was decommissioned.
  • Britain denied having steam engines in reserve, but they had also denied having Green Goddess fire engines in reserve.
  • There were plenty of rail-served military bases, and what went on there was classified.


  • There are certain gaps in the official scrap lists. Locomotives unaccounted for (including 9Fs, 8Fs and 94xx pannier tanks) are all either heavy freight or mixed traffic.
  • Certain locomotives being given a full overhaul, despite being only months away from withdrawal.
  • Drivers on scrap runs being relieved of their locomotives before their destination and sworn to secrecy (so nice job keeping that secret, guys)
  • Army personnel allegedly being trained to drive steam locomotives on preserved railways. When asked about this, said railways have refused to comment for reasons of secrecy.
  • Eyewitness accounts of late-night locomotive convoys.

It’s worth noting that none of this is conclusive and most of it is unreliable. The fact that preserved railways refuse to comment and that nobody knows what goes on on rail-served bases doesn’t provide any evidence for the strategic reserve, for the simple reason that most military operations are a secret. The official reason for alleged driver training is that, in the 1970s and 80s, plenty of countries still used steam trains. Of course, this does rather raise the question of why, if there is a pool of locomotives, they don’t just train the drivers on those.

Gaps in the scrap list? Well, plenty of people have pointed out that many locomotives were cut up at smaller scrapyards, and this accounts for most of the gaps.

The rest could be accounted for by mistakes, wishful thinking and outright lies. The fact that this store is so secret provides a convenient reason for lack of evidence to back these stories up.

Some versions of the legend include the preservation of Class 29s, Class 17s, GWR Granges and at least one Blue Pullman (rebuilt as a Mobile Command Centre). This, I think, reveals the true motivation for the theory – the simple fact that it would be quite nice if a few examples of these classes survived. However, given that the preservation of diesels would defeat the entire point of the theory behind the Strategic Reserve, and the fact that there are pretty good reasons why these engines were scrapped in the first place (I know one class 17 survives, don’t be pedantic), I think we can dismiss these latter rumours outright.

Then there are the holes in the theory itself. First of all, if you’ve seen the deeply harrowing docu-drama Threads, you’ll know that full-scale atomic war would likely cause so much damage to infrastructure and just the country in general that getting goods from A to B would be the least of your worries. Secondly, we wouldn’t be able to provide the necessary coal any more (thanks a bundle, Thatcher) or transport it to where it was needed. Thirdly, we just don’t have the facilities for steam any more. There are no water towers and standpipes would be useless if the water was cut off.

All in all, I think this is a legend that we can safely describe as “debunked”. Of course, you’ll no doubt think I’m a bit of a spoilsport (I also don’t believe there’s a Lynton and Barnstaple locomotive working in South America), so I should get on to the point of this little entry, which is the idea of a layout based on the Strategic Reserve. It would be an unusual subject, and fairly easy to do in OO.

I suspect such a reserve would look much like your standard steam depot, albeit probably cleaner. To establish that this is more than just a regular depot, I’d suggest the addition of some military buildings and vehicles. Hornby make a Nissen hut and pillbox in their Skaledale range, and Wills do a neat little pillbox of their own (cheaper than Hornby’s, and easy to assembly and paint). The Airfix range includes several vehicles that might be used. Oxford Diecast make a Series 1 landrover and a Green Goddess fire engine – a neat reference to the “other” strategic reserve. You could have the fire engine acting as a water pump. Monty’s Models, Langley and Merit all make military personnel.

As for the locomotives themselves, there are several choices available. 8Fs and Granges are (or have been) in the Hornby range. 9Fs and WD 2-8-0s are made by Bachmann. The 94xx was in the Lima range and can be found second-hand. If you want to include diesels, the Blue Pullman was made by Triang and Kitmaster. Class 47s appear in some rumours; these are in the Hornby, Heljan and ViTrains ranges. Class 31s have also been mentioned, try Hornby. The Class 17 is made by Heljan and the Class 29 has been announced by Dapol. The 9F and Class 47 are both available in the Railroad range if you want to go cheaper, and Dapol make a kit of the 9F that could be used as a static locomotive to bulk out the numbers.

Given that some rumours darkly suggest that scrapping records were faked, you could get away with running more-or-less anything. I’d also suggest that you could have some former industrial engines like the Austerity tank. Might be an idea to include a military diesel shunter as well – Lima made a Class 09 in military colours and Hornby made War Department 08s as part of their “Task Force Action Set” and earlier Battle Space ranges. You could simply repaint a Hornby/Bachmann/Lima 08, a Bachmann 04 or a Bachmann/Mainline 03 – all of these engines are highly suitable. At the cheaper end of the market, you could perhaps use the Bachmann Junior diesel shunter or the Hornby Railroad Class 06.

Anecdotal accounts of strategic reserve sightings usually give the locomotive livery as plain black, perhaps relieved by a white number. Class 47 “sightings” suggest they would have been painted in all-over green without a warning panel. An easy repainting job, in any case. You might prefer to devise your own livery – the wonderful thing about a freelance layout based on an urban legend is that you can’t be wrong.

Operations would likely primarily consist of driver training and locomotive shunting. You could also include internal rolling stock – perhaps military wagons such as the Rectank or Warwell, or perhaps stock sold out of service from BR in dilapidated or repainted condition. If there’s a strategic reserve, there’s probably stock to practise operations on. I’d also suggest rolling stock being brought in from outside, e.g. coal hoppers and vans. This would be an easy way of instantly identifying that in the outside world it’s no longer the steam era.

So there you have it – something different, something unusual, maybe even something controversial. There are still those who believe the Reserve still exists, just waiting to be uncovered. The evidence says no, but then, maybe that’s what They want you to think…

A plain black steam engine hidden in the Dean Forest. On the Dean Forest Railway.

A plain black steam engine hidden in the Dean Forest. On the Dean Forest Railway.


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