Sunday, 26 April 2015

Thomas the Tank Engine meets Doctor Strangelove

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks. 
General "Buck" Turgidson, from Doctor Strangelove, conceding that an all-out nuclear war might involve a 'modest and acceptable' level of civilian casualties. But, hey, every dark cloud has a silver lining. The survivors might be subsisting in a scorched, radioactive wasteland, but we'd still have steam trains and who doesn't love steam trains?

Yes, steam trains. During the Cold War, several countries, including the Soviet Union and Sweden apparently kept a Strategic Steam Reserve (SSR), to be used in the event of a catastrophic war or overwhelming natural disaster disabling electrified railways and cutting off the oil supplies needed to run diesel trains.

There were even rumours that Britain kept its own secret SSR, although this seems to have been an urban legend, based on the wishful thinking of a few steam enthusiasts who wanted to believe in a secret cache of pristine steam locos just waiting to be discovered. A myth, but a strangely resonant one.

Here's Roy Bainton writing about our imaginative modern myths of what lies beneath, including those 'mighty iron beasts, waiting there in the subterranean darkness' to emerge in their country's hour of need, like King Arthur* from under his hill:
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?

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 . 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.
* Sadly, the King Arthur Class locomotives don't seem to figure in the legend of Britain's Strateigic Steam Reserve...