Wednesday, 9 September 2015

King Arthur's Reserve


The question of whether or not they've found a hidden Nazi Gold train in the Polish mountains remains unanswered, and the latest news is that digging on the site will not commence until Spring 2016. So, keeping rail mysteries in locomotion, let's ponder over the persistent rumours that Britain has plenty of steam locomotives hidden away in them thar hills, a great organic mode of transport if we're ever 'nuked' by some unfriendly nation. Collect your flashlights, bring a flask of coffee, let's get subterranean.

Hidden Steam Locomotives, mothballed in polythene.

In 2002 I interviewed the late author Barry Herbert, who had been enjoying some success with his books on railway ghosts[1]. During the conversation he told me a peculiar story of his meeting with a retired Sheffield engine driver, who, like him, was a dedicated railway buff.

Warning; FOAF imminent - (a ‘friend of a friend’) yarn!

Other than the location, Sheffield, Mr. Herbert refused to give me details of his footplate friend’s identity, claiming that the retired driver had signed the Official Secrets Act.
The aftermath of the 1963 Beeching Report, which decimated Britain’s rail network, coincided with the dark days of the Cold War and the growing paranoia around the possibility of nuclear Armageddon. As a long-serving steam locomotive driver, the hapless Sheffield railwayman was among many who were designated the sad task of seeing their faithful engines, which were to be replaced by diesel units,  off onto their final trip to the breaker’s yards at Barry Island in South Wales. He’d already heard strange stories of footplate crews being sent home early from work only to return to find ‘their’ engine had vanished during the night. Then, one night in 1967, he’d been approached by ‘a man from the MoD’ and was asked, along with a selected few other drivers, to become part of a special crew taking selected locomotives on a journey not to the scrap yard, but to a secret location, where they would be mothballed for future use.  However, every driver, fireman or Fat Controller employed in this scheme was required to sign the Official Secrets Act and never reveal the whereabouts of their slumbering Thomas Tank Engines.
Urban Myth  - or Conspiracy nuttery?

Where do you hide a train?  There are plenty of old tunnels - do they contain secrets?

    The facts are thin on the ground, but there were selective records kept of all locomotives decommissioned and scrapped. Members of the train spotting fraternity are noted for their meticulous thoroughness, and those with a keen eye soon spotted the absence in the records of approximately 70 engines. It is known that at one time the Royal Engineers ran courses for the Sappers in steam loco driving[2]. With the closure of the Longmoor Military Railway in 1969, which ran 70 miles between Liss and Bordon in Hampshire, the MoD lost its own in-house training facility. All this could be cited as circumstantial evidence, although it doesn’t prove locos were ‘spirited away’. However, if they have been hidden, then their location remains the Holy Grail for romantically-minded rail fans.

This secret fleet of locos, claimed by train aficionados to be Stanier 8 and 9F models, most of which were only 10 years old, with an expected service life of between 50 and 100 years were to be kept in reserve in the event of a nuclear attack. The USSR had already done this, as had Sweden and some other Eastern European countries. It became known as the SSR (Strategic Steam Reserve). Railway fans of a more quixotic bent saw these fine machines in the role of a mechanical King Arthur, ready and waiting to answer the call in the hour of Britain’s need. Being organically propelled vehicles, and, at the time, the UK having huge coal stocks, they offered the prospect of some kind of transportation in an apocalyptic Mad Max landscape where everything electrical had been trashed due to the immense electromagnetic radiation given off by a nuclear blast.
          The majority of serious railway observers regard the SSR as nothing more than a fanciful legend. But this is the age of conspiracies, and there’s no shortage of determined choo-choo theorists out there who remain determined to follow the rusty rails which they hope will lead to Arthur’s mothballed leviathans. So - if there’s any veracity in all this - where are the missing locos? Time to go underground.

It’s well known that had the Soviets threw a few megatons at us, then whilst we, Joe Public, would end up as crispy bacon, our noble leaders would have survived at the British government's alternative seat of power in the underground ‘city’ known as Burlington[3], 100 feet below ground at Corsham in Wiltshire. Covering 35 acres, 1km long and 200 meters across, its ten miles of tunnelling was built between 1956 - 61 to safely house 4000 ‘worthies’ -   the Prime Minister, Cabinet Office, local and national government agencies, intelligence and security advisors and domestic support staff. After Burlington was decommissioned in 1991, it still remained secret until it was declassified in 2004. You’ll find no railway lines down there, because our rulers had their own fleet of battery powered buggies to get around on. However, some SSR hunters cite Burlington’s close northern neighbour, - Tunnel Quarry Central Ammunition Depot as a potential loco store. It has underground railway platforms and a siding which many ‘hunters’ claimed as the final wartime destination for the Royal Train, transporting the Windsors to Burlington bunker; and that the 4,000 Whitehall staff’s requisitioned trains would disembark there ready for them to take up their Burlington residence. Tunnel Quarry remained in MoD hands, to house the Corsham Computer Centre, and its rail link[4] to the ex GWR main line could have been used to house the SSR[5].
Shunting at the Portal end of Box Tunnel in 1979

Another favourite potential locomotive hidey-hole is Brunel’s 1836 Box Tunnel[6] between Bath and Chippenham. Rail travellers would be familiar with the Western portal to the tunnel, but there’s also an elusive Eastern portal. This is a small side tunnel to the north leading to an underground quarry which supplied the fine Bath stone used for many buildings along the line. Some claim that the locos are hidden away there behind large steel doors.

Then, in 2000, I came across an intriguing web site run by one of the SSR’s leading enthusiasts, Rory Lushman[7]. Headed ‘Heapey, There’s Trains in Them Thar Hills’, this is a solid testament to the boundless investigative determination of an enthusiastic urban (or in this case, rural) explorer. After dismissing the idea of the Box Tunnel as the SSR’s hiding place, Lushman tells us “I was put in contact with a man called Paul Screeton who told me about another possible site. Paul has been investigating for many years unusual stories across the country, especially those concerning rail myths. He came across a railway worker who claimed to have seen lines of locomotives at an old former Ordnance factory in Heapey, Chorley.” The ensuing ten pages offer all manner of tantalising hints - elderly locals who used to call this place ‘the steam train graveyard’, and mysterious reports of nocturnal comings and goings. After his lengthy exploration of the site (albeit from a restrictive distance) Lushman sums up:

“The locals recount the tales of the steam trains being kept in the hillside. We know for definite that the site is still visited by lorries and the police. What is going on in this small village of Heapey? Do the locals care? Is there something more than old ammunition, or maybe even new ammunition kept in the hillsides. Could old steam trains be kept there?”

Of course, this was all pre-Google Earth. So using this I took a look at the site and indeed there are four roads which end in tunnel entrances, and the site is still secured by serious fencing and walls, and patrolled by security guards. Could there be trains in there? Not according to secret bases expert Alan Turnbull[8]. Turnbull admits that Heapey is still secret and still active, but has doubts about King Arthur’s locos.
Other possibilities include one of the three Woodhead tunnels in Yorkshire (although the favoured Tunnel 3 now carries National Grid cables), locations in Wales, and Scotland has its own clan of SSR hunters. This, for example, is from a forum discussion on the subject at[9] :

SSR is a possible explanation for the long tunnel in Greenock from the top of the town (where the Kilmacolm line and the link to  the Paisley line join) to Princes Pier.  This remained double tracked and the rails were still there the last time I looked …Why would you leave the rails in a disused tunnel?  The rails also continued through the Paisley link tunnel joining the Wemyss Bay line at Inchgreen … and I am talking recently.”

Ultimately, the Strategic Steam Reserve wears the same mythical cloak of Joseph of Arimathea visiting Glastonbury, or Adolf Hitler staying at a B&B in Liverpool on the late 1920s. Anti-SSR adherents (and they’re legion) have some strong counter arguments. Locos stored in damp tunnels would need regular attention to stop them seizing up or rusting away. And here’s another thought - perhaps we already have the SSR in the many preserved steam lines throughout the country. But these mighty iron beasts, waiting there in the subterranean darkness … it should be a notion to keep any fortean in motion.


[1] Sadly, W.B. Herbert passed away in 2008, but his entertaining books are still available: See Railway Ghosts & Phantoms, David & Charles, 1989, The Phantom Goods Train, Silverlink Publishing, 1998, and A Stranger in The Fog, Silver Link, 2001.
[2] According to the latest REME recruitment video becoming a ‘train operator’ is still part of the overall transport training course.
[3] See the comprehensive website
[4] There’s a video of how they built the bunker that backs onto the platforms...
And in this video (at 2min 13sec) it shows the trains and bomb unloading in use in the tunnel...
[5] See Who Killed The Strategic Steam Reserve at http://englishrail.wordpress
[6] Some claim Brunel deliberately aligned the tunnel so that the rising sun is visible through it on his birthday,   9 April each year,. True or not, in Angus Buchanan’s book Brunel: The Life and Times of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Hambledon and London (2002), on page 269 Buchanan writes:
‘The alignment of the Box Tunnel has been the subject of serious discussion in the New Civil Engineer and elsewhere. I am grateful to my friend James Richard for making calculations which convinced me that the alignment on 9 April would permit the sun to be visible through the tunnel soon after dawn on a fine day.’
[7] Lushman, Rory: Heapey - There’s Trains in Them Thar Hills!
[8] Alan Turnbull BAe Systems Heapey Depot Conspiracy

In addition to the sites mentioned in the above,

Locomotive pictures: Stanier 9f:

No comments: