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The Strategic Reserve:

A Practical Consideration

 by Robert Moore

 (originally written for Labyrinth" magazine, circa 1999).

updated 2007

Britain after "the Bomb":

A new "Age Of The (Steam) Train"?

Throughout most of the so-called "Cold War" (1946-1989), the world was haunted by the perennial fear of a nuclear exchange between America & the USSR. One particularly common nuclear war scenario postulated an attack on West Germany, usually involving the "Warsaw Pact" sending massed formations of tanks into Europe via East Germany. Equally dreaded was the possibility that Russia might utilise any of the other communist states then dotted around the world as a "forward base" for it's - supposed - world domination plans (i.e.. Korea in the 1950's, Vietnam during the 1960's and Cuba throughout most of the "Cold War"). In 1980 these fears seemed horrifically vindicated when the USSR entered Afghanistan as "military advisors" to the communist regime then in power in that country. Many at this time believed that a nuclear conflict - sparked by the U.S.S.R invading Pakistan - was almost an inevitability.

As a result of these diverse and protracted global political tensions, a considerable degree of civil defense planning was implemented throughout the world. In the United Kingdom (and other first and second world nation-states) this resulted in the construction of numerous underground bunkers, where - it was anticipated - national and regional governmental officials would coordinate their region's civil defense plans following a nuclear engagement.

Even today - with the Cold War having ended almost two decades ago - much secrecy still surrounds the British Governments' nuclear civil defence arrangements. As with the 18th century - when heavy import duty on foreign goods gave rise to a whole mythology of excise men, smugglers and secret tunnels (some of which became the backdrop for many  ghost legends) - similar folktales have come to envelop the U.K's anticipated responses to an atomic war. Some of these stories concern hidden caches of food, equipment and even gold! For example, it was rumored that a strong room located within the (former) governmental bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex, once held a store of gold bullion, in order to acquire goods in a post-holocaust world where paper money and "coin of the realm" no longer had any value....[1].

Other tales relate to Britain's railway network (or fancied extensions of the same). One citeable example are the protracted rumors of an extensive underground connection between London and Rudloe Manor (in Wiltshire)! Less fancifully, locals residing in Keveldon Hatch ruefully noted that a nearby raillink was kept open while the civil defense bunker located there was in use - but was closed down soon after it was decommissioned [1]!

Then there is - of course - the myth of the Strategic Reserve (hereafter S.R). This relates to the claim that the British government secretly retained a number of steam trains, and then subsequently "mothballed" them for use in times of dire emergency (upto and including a nuclear conflict). This is often stated to have occurred when the U.K rail network switched to diesel locomotives during the late 1960's-early 1970's; this opportunity allowing them to be (falsely) donated as "scrapped". The supposed location of these mothballed steam trains differ from source to source. Sometimes they are reputedly stored in rail tunnels, other times in military storage depots. Prior issues of this publication have detailed investigation of two suspected storage sites of the S.R (Box Hill [2] and Heapey [3] respectively).

While there are some vague indications that one (or more) governmental administrations at least considered retaining stream locomotives for emergency utilisation (a decision possibly as much related to the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s as it was to civil defense planning), little firm evidence has yet been uncovered to prove the actuality of any S.R. One can only hope that a future search of declassified governmental documents will eventually help answer this question, one way or the other.

However, while this deadlock of evidence continues, another approach is to determine the practical viability of the S.R; which this article attempts to do.

The Final Conflict?

For the S.R to be of any value whatsoever some British citizens would have to survive a nuclear conflict. While the U.K's island-status is a deterrent for "conventional" invasions, it's small size and densely-populated aspect would markedly increase the mortality rate in any nuclear conflict in which Britain was directly targeted by nuclear missiles. For example, some projections generated by the NUKEFIX [4] computer program suggest massive "overkill" figures - i.e. a mortality-rate exceeding of the U.K's population (!) - for any "major" nuclear war involving this country. The USA, (on the other hand) has a larger surface area and a more dispersed population and - as a consequence - would fare "better" in any atomic war. Even through the average yield of modern nuclear warheads now tends to be in the range of 200-400Kts - 1+ Mt 'nukes being mainly a product of the 1950's and 60's - a number of modern nuclear missiles are equipped with multiple warheads. Although each of these are (to modern standards) in the "very low" yield - or "tac-nuke" range - of around 20kt, each, nonetheless, is equal to the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, it has been calculated that a circular deployment pattern of the warheads within such a multiple warhead nuke would inflict (due to overlapping zones of effect [5] ) as much damage as an "olde-time" 1Mt yield missile!

So, it is quite feasible that, following any serious nuclear exchange, considerable tracts of the U.K would be rendered into a contaminated, bone-littered wasteland for centuries [6]. It is difficult to imagine the scenario beloved of many "survivalists" ever occurring in reality; i.e. nukes being used only to destroy "key locations" (cities and military bases), leaving the rest of the U.K virtually untouched. If you are using nuclear weapons you earnestly intend to wipe out your enemy, as totally as possible - an element of Soviet-era military doctrine.

However, an accidental - or politically unsanctioned - exchange of nuclear missiles could well result in a destructive but transient exchange; one which left Britain seriously ravaged but nonetheless alive. Despite everything we know both of military thinking and human nature, maybe - just maybe - restraint would be used in a nuclear conflict (although the tit-for-tat nature of such an engagement could all too easily run out of anyone's control, especially if a country's communications infrastructure was severely mauled in the conflict).

So, let us then suppose - despite everything - that a "mild" nuclear conflict occurred. As a result, most of Britain's cities, powerplants, oil refineries and military bases have been destroyed. Additionally, most of the U.K's indigenous electronic hardware has been fried by EMP pulses, incidentally (and/or deliberately [7]) generated by repeat nuclear detonations. Nonetheless, a fair percentage of the British population manages to survive. With the war concluded, the British Government sit in their command centre, with the onerous task of getting the U.K out of this awful mess...



What role, then, would any "Strategic Reserve" have in this afterwar planning? Indirectly related to this whole issue is one very interesting fact. Nearly all the suspected major Governmental nuclear shelters (such as Kelvedon Hatch & Rudloe Manor) are situated very close to the British railway network. This alone implies some very interesting points, and suggests that some elements of civil defense planning did involve the rail network. However, this in itself tells us nothing of the S.R's reality-status. 

At this point it should be noted that steam trains posses a number of attributes, which make them a good choice for use in the aftermath of an atomic war. To begin with, a stream engine - being totally mechanical - would be immune to the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) effect generated by all nuclear warhead detonations. EMP is (very) capable of erasing/scrambling any modern electronic component. Fortunately, this effect can be shielded against in a number of ways. One approach is to incorporate a "Faraday cage" within a building's structure and then bury it deep underground, as in the case with Kelvedon Hatch and other governmental/military nuclear bunkers. Another way is to build a device using fibre-optic based circuitry or incorporating "tempest" hardening. However, most electrical items in use today have no form of EMP protection and would therefore, very likely, be rendered useless in a nuclear exchange.

Furthermore, a steam-train can be - and indeed were, quite successfully - built with an early 19th century (i.e.. a pre-electronic) level of technology, and can be excellently maintained with the same "low" degree of technical sophistication. Steam engines also require no rare metals, special alloys or plastics; replacement parts being easily fashioned from commonplace native British materials. Finally, knowledge of maintaining  a steam engine would be - due to their relative simplicity - be more easily passed down to the next generation (certainly more easily than, say, a jet engine or a computer). This would provide be a useful insurance against the prospect of Europe falling into a protracted "Dark Age" as a result of a nuclear conflict. While on that point, it is interesting to note that one of the afterwar recovery "stills" from the BBC TV docu-drama "Threads" (1985) depicted a war-survivor working a (late 19th/early 20th century) agricultural steam-tractor.

Steam engines also run on coal; an obvious fact, but an important one. It is common knowledge that Britain has extensive native coal reserves (sufficient for 300 years or so!). While we have a native oil supply - the North Sea oil platforms - these would probably, due to their strategic importance, be quickly "taken out" during any nuclear war. Additionally, oil refining depends on a complex infrastructure; one very likely to be (even deliberately) swept away in an exchange of atomic weapons. Coal, on the other hand, merely needs to be removed from the ground, and can be directly turned into energy via a steam engine in its raw state.

Thus, it would make some strategic sense to retain this (albeit quaint, antiquated and romanticized) mode of transport for use in a "dire emergency".

There are, however, also some notable drawbacks in relying on the rail network as a means of transportation following a nuclear war. To begin with, we can suppose that most of Britain’s population-centers would have been hit during an nuclear exchange. Also gone - of course - would be the tracks leading to them; tracks that were specifically built to connect these settlements to other parts of Britain. Additionally, much of the "surviving" track could be very seriously heat-damaged, either warped by heat directly radiated from (probably) multiple nuclear explosions, or by the firestorms which followed afterwards. The latter are likely to ravage large tracts of the U.K following a nuclear strike, and would inflict almost as much damage as the warhead detonations themselves! Furthermore, shock-blasts generated by nuclear detonations are likely to radiate for miles from the explosion's "ground zero" point. A force capable of smashing houses to rubble and matchwood is surely more than capable of dislodging exposed railway tracks! Therefore, it is probable that the British railway network would require extensive repairs before it could ever be seriously used again...

Another problem is the one that has dogged railroads since their inception; namely that a train can only go where there are (functioning) tracks to take them! The train network of 20th century England is much less extensive than that of the 19th century (due to the Beeching cuts of the 1960's). As a result there are many places in the U.K without a rail-link; many more so than when our country's railway reached the peak of it's development and coverage decades ago. Thus, the question must be asked; if the rail network was -is? - deemed such an important element of British civil defense planning, why were the Beeching cuts implemented in the first place?

So, what is the point of the S.R? If it was/is merely a means to go somewhere, it is basically a waste of effort as it would be very limited in scope. After all, the railroads are a product of a Victorian pre-car world, as the steam engine itself is the product of a pre-petroleum engine world. Such a dependence on steam would suggest there are no other alternatives to petrol (or steam-power) to drive a vehicle. However, such an assumption is demonstrably incorrect, as there actually happens to be some very obvious (and long-standing) options viable even in a post-holocaust Britain!

Since the 1950's roads and motor vehicles have eclipsed the railroads and trains, and are deemed the most important and preeminent mode of transport in the U.K today. Cars do not need rails to move on and (albeit crude) roads can be laid (or relaid) far easier than a railroad system! There would also be ample scrap parts to keep these vehicles going indefinitely, and - hopefully - plenty of people still alive who both know how to both use them and fix them! As a technology they only predate steamtrains by about 80 years, so are hardly "high tech". Until recently, the basic layout of a car-engine differed very little from those of the first late 19th century motorcars. At this point, however, it should be noted that electronic components have been making great inroads into car design within the past 10 years or so (a consequence of the 80's microchip revolution).

This may be all well and good, but what fuel could the post-atomic war car run on...?

To begin with, it is possible to make existing cars run on coal-gas (a synthetic fuel manufactured from coal). In the U.K, vehicles converted to use this fuel were in common use during WW2. This fuel-source would take advantage of the U.K's extensive coal reserves and be fairly easy to implement; requiring only - at most -1920's-1930's engineering technology, along with some 1880's era chemistry. This option would be especially practical for the government to utilise, with them doubtless having access to an extensive pool of scientists and engineers, along with an extensive stockpile of spare parts. The greater expense of manufacturing this fuel would be offset by the scarcity of petroleum and the fact it would (doubtless) be reserved for "official use only".

Motor vehicles can also - quite happily - run on alcohol. To cite a recent example; during the 1970's oil crisis cars in Brazil (a country then with few native oil reserves) were converted to run on ethanol; a 200% proof spirit derived from sugar cane (which it happened to possess in abundance).

Ethanol is a renewable resource, which can be easily manufactured, only requiring a technological sophistication equal to that of 18th century Europe. It can be distilled from any crop rich in sugar, starch or cellulose (ie corn, potatoes, and - of course - sugar cane!) As early as the 1880's Henry Ford built the "Quadricycle", a vehicle capable of running on ethanol. Furthermore, some early Model "T" Fords were designed to utilise both gasoline and Ethanol (the latter, at this time, being a common agricultural waste by-product). It has been estimated that in the US 20% of WW1 motor vehicles ran on ethanol; however, pressure from oil companies resulted in this fuel becoming highly taxed and gradually discarded in favor of gasoline. But ethanol seems posed for a comeback. Since 1992 in the U.S, a new fuel called "E85" (a blend of 85% Ethanol & 15% gasoline) has been used on a limited basis and is gaining popularity due to environmental considerations, although these have been questioned in recent years [8].

Thus, if it is possible for a late 19th century technology to build cars capable of running both on petroleum and ethanol (or coal-gas), it is also possible to convert modern motor-vehicles to run on it as well.  Although the energy potential of ethanol is much less than that of gasoline, it would at least be available, whereas petrol would not; although performance would probably be of secondary concern in a post nuclear-holocaust world. Even in situations where it was impossible to build (or rebuild) roads, tracked APCs/ATVs could be used; vehicles capable of going anywhere with a solid surface.  While using ethanol (and coal-gas) vehicles would require some engineering - and supply - considerations, but no more (and probably much less) than would be needed to rebuild and sustain Britain's rail network following a nuclear war!

Here, the post-nuclear steam train network hits the buffers, once again. This system would require a fairly strong national government to maintain it. In the political fragmentation likely to result from any "atomic Armageddon", it is probable that some areas would become politically independent of the British government; perhaps even in conflict with it! Even worse, local "warlords" could easily arise, determined to hold onto their newly-acquired power at any cost. A functioning rail network would obviously be a threat to that power, therefore making it vulnerable to attack. Less severely, these trains would probably also be subject to banditry. This happened in the American "wild west" (a region with a low degree of civic order), so it seems highly probable this situation would also commonly arise following even a "mild" nuclear war. At best, there would be a poor political and supply infrastructure to guard, maintain and/or repair the rail network. At worse the system would crumble, paralysed by constant attacks, defeating the whole purpose of a S.R in the first place! While it is possible to build "armoured" trains, it would both be easier and more efficient to use the government's existing pool of MBT's/APCs to protect truck-convoys; all capable of transporting goods to any part of the U.K imaginable.


Conclusions (and some thoughts on the S.R).

While the concept of a "Strategic Reserve" does make a degree of practical sense, it also suffers from some notable disadvantages. While there are indications that it was quite possibly an element of 1960's-1970's civil defense planning, the actual extent of the "S.R” is currently unknown. Ascertaining the actual extent of this - suspected - element of Britain's (post) nuclear warplans will obviously require further research.

One possibility, which does present itself, is that the S.R may well have been envisioned predominantly as a means of coping with the OPEC oil embargoes of the early 1970's (as opposed to an atomic war). At this time fears were rampant that OPEC would totally block the world's oil supply; a situation posing as much a threat to the U.K as nuclear weapons did back then (and sadly still do today). However, although this could -and to an extent did - cause severe disruption to Britain, this problem would cause no direct harm to the British rail network. In the instance of this worse case scenario, steam trains would be brought out of retirement and used for "vital transportation" tasks, while alternatives to oil - i.e ethanol or Coal-Gas - were found and made more widely available.

However, by the late 1970's, North Sea oil became available, making Britain a notable petroleum producer in it's own right. This meant that the U.K was no longer quite so dependent on the goodwill of OPEC as it had been. and no longer faced the prospect of returning to steam power as a consequence of losing its goodwill! This - coupled with the end of the Cold War 10 years later - may have struck the death knell for any "S.R" that might have once existed.

Looking at this problem from another angle, it is evident that a "mild" nuclear war would not spell the end of the motor vehicle. With cars capable of running on either coal-gas or ethanol - a readily-available or renewable resource respectively - this option would probably answer the needs of a fuel source in a oil-barren world lacking a cutting-edge technical sophistication.

All these factors combined brings up another question; does the "S.R" (regardless of it's actual extent) still exist? Sadly, the practical considerations involved suggests that it does not; no more than there are old carts hidden away in tunnels, ready for use "just in case..." motor cars became nonviable in the future. This, coupled with a lack of tangible physical evidence, suggests that the S.R was - at most - a product of past governmental contingency planning.

It may well also be that these stories were generated by the wishful-thinking of train enthusiasts, who felt "let down" by the rejection of steam trains in favour of the  "soulless" diesel powered engines. Surely, despite this heartless "betrayal", the steam engine - like King Arthur and Sir Francis Drake before them - would return again to save England in it's time of greatest peril. The psychological element of the S.R myth(?) is a rich - and largely unexplored - area of study. Even in contemporary culture there remains a tendency to "romanticize" them; even today, most representations of "cuddly" trains in children's books depict steam engines! This representation has survived - and remains popular - despite the fact that steam trains are much less environmentally sound than the diesel locomotives which replaced them.

Psycho-social factors aside, the possibly does remain that the "S.R" did exist (and still may do so, to some extent). The author remains open to the possibility that further field research could, one day, uncover a physical example of one of these postulated "reserved" steam engines.


[1] Interview with the sites owner - J.A Parrish & Sons - conducted in late September 1997.

[2] Lushman, Rory. The Box Hill Tunnel, An Anorak's Paradise, Or A Passage To Narnia.

[3] Lushman, Rory. Heapey, There's Train In them thar Hills.

(Items "2" & "3" both available on the Labyrinth Website;  (accessed 2nd September 2007).

[4] This Freeware can be obtained at:  (accessed 2nd September 2007).

[5] Ibid; Nukefix provides  graphic depictions of this effect.

[6] The general area of effect for nuclear weapons are: "Ground Zero" (everything destroyed), the "Inner Zone" (most people and buildings destroyed) and the "Outer Zone" (some deaths and "minor" building damage). The area covered by these regions depend on the warhead used. Further deaths would - of course - be generated by radioactive fallout and the firestorms following warhead detonation. Additionally, increased instances of cancer deaths (and "lethal" mutations) would continue to occur decades, (possibly even centuries) afterwards.

For more detailed & specific data on nuclear warheads, log ontot  (accessed 2nd September 2007).

[7] It is even possible to specifically design a bomb which exclusively produces an EMP pulse(see the "High Energy Weapons" site citied in "6" above).

[8] A discussion on  Ethanol  and other  alternative fuel vehicles can be found on

(accessed 2nd September, 2007).




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