Macarthur and LMS Jubilee

The Strategic Steam Reserve

The Strategic Steam Reserve - Myth or Reality?

SSR loco

Lines of dusty steam engines stored and ready for use after the apocalypse! Find out about the hundreds of UK steam locomotives kept in storage since the sixties in case the Nuclear balloon went up.

After the Soviet ICBM's had finished dropping their estimated total of 2000 Megatons TNT equivalent, a battered but uncowed Britain could emerge victorious from the fallout in the shape of Thomas the tank engine pulling a trainload of ministry of supply corned beef...

strategic steam reserve

Atomic Threat

The Strategic Steam Reserve has its origins at the start of the cold war.

An atomic attack had the potential to wreck much of the UK's infrastructure - power stations and transmission lines, oil refineries, harbours and ports would all be put out of action - rendering electric and diesel locomotives useless.

Additionally, the electro-magnetic pulse that's generated when a nuclear weapon is detonated would fry the electrical and electronic control circuits of a diesel or electric loco.

With its absence of anything electrical, its widely available fuel and ease of maintenance, the steam engine was the obvious choice to power the UK rail network in a post-apocalypse scenario.


Underground Storage

Long viewed as a kind of British 'Area 51' , the vast underground complex at Corsham, Rudloe Manor, Box near Bath, England was the wartime home of a joint War Office / Admiralty ammunitions store. It also housed an production plant where crated versions of the famous US Army 'Jeep' were assembled.

Less well known however is its cold war function as home of a vast collection of retired steam locomotives - the legendary strategic steam reserve.

As well as acres of secure storage space, the underground galleries were fitted out with machinery and workshops. Workers at the reserve were mostly ex - R.E.M.E or Royal Engineers and these former services employees who were fitters, metalworkers, machinists etc. formed the skilled pool of local labour, necessary to keep the stock of over 160 locomotives in working order. It wasn't too far to Swindon if any parts were required!

As late as 1982, long after the demise of steam on Britains railways, a small staff of dedicated personnel were still carrying out care and maintenance on the stock of slumbering giants and awaiting 'Attack Warning Red' - the code from the Royal Observer Corps which would activate the reserve contingency plan.

Ex GWR Locos in the Strategic Steam Reserve

A run out for an ex GWR 'Hall' class 4-6-0 (below) at an undisclosed SSR sub-depot in March 1975. The Loco Nameplates and Numbers were always removed as part of the mothballing process although the 'cats whiskers' indication that this is condemned rolling stock are still visible through a thick layer of dust on the cabside and outside cylinders.

secret steam reserve

Shunting at the eastern portal of Box tunnel (above)

The SSR in action - An unidentified loco shunts outside Corsham in October 1979. For ease of maintenance, the SSR consisted almost entirely of freight and mixed traffic ex GWR and BR standard classes with a sprinkling of Riddles 'Austerity' designs.

Ex LMS Diesel shunter at a Midlands SSR sub depot in early 1970's (below)

GWR Hall class
lms shunter diesel

Although the main part of the strategic steam reserve was stored in the Corsham quarries there were sub depots at varies locations throughout the UK which could hold up to a couple of dozen locomotives.

Conspiracy theory buffs have suggested the original Woodhead tunnels on the former trans-penine Sheffield-Manchester route as the possible location of a northern strategic reserve. Craven Arms was also considered as another location for the SSR and the secret government command train.

After WW2 hostilities ceased, Corsham was 'mothballed' for several years untill increasing cold war tensions required the creation of a 'strategic steam reserve' for use in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

British Railways Standard Class and ex Great Western Railway steam locomotives were withdrawn from time to time and kept in storage ready for use after 'the balloon had gone up'.

The balloon that never went up - how a nuclear attack on Britain's railways might have looked (right)

Atomic attack on railway

Where are they?

The locomotives were generally taken over at the end of their alloted span on B.R by crews from the Royal Engineers, who had been trained on the relevant class on the Longmoor Military Railway.

The engines would be run light to a number of depots around the UK. They were then prepared for storage and diesel hauled to the SSR in Corsham or Woodhead 1. They would also be removed from the B.R. records and listed as scrapped.




The Strategic Reserve had several sub depots in various parts of the UK. These were in isolated parts of the country such as East Anglia (right) and held a store of anything up to 20 locomotives.

Sub Depot for strategic reserve  1978

Steam engine cab

The SSR's senior fitter Bob Watson (above) on the footplate of an unidentified locomotive in June 1979.

It was government policy for the numbers on all strategic steam reserve locomotives to be removed or painted out to prevent enthusiasts recognising 'withdrawn' engines.

Test runs such as this one were a regular occurence and usually took place on M.O.D. property well out of view (and earshot!) of the public.

The end of the Strategic Steam Reserve

The last word on the B.R. steam reserve is perhaps best left to Bob Watson who tended the strategic steam reserve through out its existence:

'They were in good nick as we'd kept the boilers filled with distilled water and although none of them had official boiler tickets, we were exempt and could fire them up for test runs. I never worried as we had a retired boiler inspector of 35 years experience on the staff and if he'd fire it I'd drive it!

We had a regular greasing and maintenance schedule and we'd take one every two or three months and fire it up for a day to make sure it was o.k.

I was sad, we all were, when the engines were scrapped. I'd expected them to go over to Dai Woodham ( A scrapyard in Barry, South Wales. ) where I reckon most of them would have ended up being preserved but the government at the time was very sensitive about anything to do with nuclear war after the Greenham Common women and all the protests.

It was budget cuts that led eventually to the decision to decomission the steam reserve.That and the fact that the preserved railway movement was growing and there were locomotives and staff that could be requesitioned in an emergency and cost the government nothing to maintain!

We cut them up on site, no contractors because of security, and the metal was taken in lorries direct to the British Steel plant at Llanwern, it kept me busy more or less up untill I retired.'

What about the jeeps?

During WW2, there was an underground asembly area where crated jeeps which had been imported from the USA were brought in by train for assembly.

'There were half a dozen Jeeps in various areas of the factory that had failed QC [quality control] for various reasons. When the last batch of production vehicles was assembled and despatched, they were left and remained at Corsham untill it was re-opened in the mid fifties. A few of us decided they would be a bit better than the ministry issue bike for getting around the site [over 100 acres on several levels] so we rebuilt them from the stocks of parts that were left - I kept mine running for years and, as they were never on inventory, when I retired in March 1988, I just got in one and drove it home...'

Box  Tunnel sign

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