23 January 2006

The Strategic Steam Reserve

Heard the one about the Strategic Reserve? A cosy little cold-war conspiracy to go with the notion that conspiracy theories just ain't what they used to be, and one to warm the cockles of every steam lover's heart.

The pitch: A transport infrastructure would need to be rebuilt following any nuclear winter eventuality and the fortunate survivors wouldn't be able to procure sufficient stocks of diesel fuel with which to run modern rail traction. Furthermore, the blast would probably knock out their solid-state electrical systems. Steam traction requires no such delicate technology to function, managing to do the business by dint of just water, homegrown coal and a match. Hence the persistent whispers pertaining to a government store of late-era B.R. steam locomotives supposedly mothballed for use in a post nuclear-holocaust scenariariario and stored in a secret cavern accessed from Box Tunnel.

It's a good story: the idea of these slumbering leviathans, long presumed scrapped but really living on in a secret subterranian existence; de-numbered, painted black and tended by fitters who have signed the Official Secrets Act. Sleeping sentinals resting in their dark cavern; greased, oiled and waiting for the day when they will stride out unchallenged into the desertified plains of what had once been Wiltshire. Rumours fed by old engineman stories from the 50's and 60's, often based around mysterious and unaccountable stock movements, with locomotives going missing from sheds and disappearing from records. Footplate crews relieved of their loco just a few minutes into their shift, sent home with a full day's pay and handing over to an unknown crew, never to see that crew nor that particular engine again.

Unfortunately, several people have noticed that there's no points inside Box tunnel and that there appears to be no connecting tunnel running off inside. And, apparently, First Great Western drivers haven't signed the Official Secrets Act. Aww, man...

Interest then focusses on another tunnel aperture alongside the eastern portal, a remnant from an old quarrying operation and used at some point as an ammunition store. Here, we are entering what has, indeed, just been revealed as an entrance to a massive secret underground government bunker. Well, it was declassified in December 2005, so it's not so secret any more, but the Burlington complex at Corsham really is impressive, not least by it's scale. The underground city was designed to form the seat of government after the bang and had facilities to house 4,000 civil-servants in it's air-conditioned and filtrated chambers. The site covers an area of over two-thirds of a mile and boasts a grid network of streets totalling an unbelievable sixty miles. The BBC Wiltshire pages even feature a video of a drive around on one of their electric buggies. It's sorta like James Bond, only a 1950's British Austerity version. Even the PM's Office has little in the way of fripperies. The MOD have a fine page of photo's here.

But what of the Strategic Steam Reserve? Could the machines from an older and, arguably, better age have been hiding here? If not now, then at any time in the past? Cynics will point to the dimensions just inside the old quarrying tunnel being too tight for large express engines. Okay for small tank engines hauling low two-axle wagons filled with ammo, but doubters have said that there's no way you could get a Bulleid Pacific around those sharp turns. Some of that rock could be polystyrene of course...

Well, for those who really want to believe, I found this. According to Russ' very credibly named witness, the SSR duly existed and was indeed stashed away here at Corsham, Wilts up until the mid 80's, when it fell victim to spending cuts under the evil Cruella de Thatcher and the decision was made to cut up all the remaining locomotion on-site then burn the steel away with strong acid, the steely-acidy solution being subsequently imbibed by Cruella as she danced a curious ritualistic pattern around the smouldering cauldron whilst chanting something about Ken Barlow.

Russ' persuasive photographic evidence notwithstanding, I am happy to make my own revelation. We do still have a strategic steam reserve. The bad news is that instead of the black shadow fleet of legend, it's blue with red stripes and someone's bolted a somewhat unconvincing cheeky face to the smokebox door. The good news is that Pete Waterman says it's Tony's on the nod.

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