Sunday, 8 July 2012

Strategic Fantasy

Is Murray winning? Is Elvis still alive? Is there anyone out there?...

In a time when so much is done to quench the human thirst for knowledge, it’s easy to forget that human beings love not knowing. That’s why we still watch Midsomer Murders when the news is on the other side. (Plus, John Nettles’ successor is mildly less irritating than Robert Peston.)

For decades I’ve followed a rumour to which many, better informed brains than mine have given serious credence. Search the great web of knowledge, and you’ll find it’s still being debated today.
*Whispers behind hand* Somewhere in this country – and many think they know where – the MoD is nursing an enormous fleet of steam locomotives, saved from scrap in the 1950s and 60s, and secretly mothballed for use in the event of a major national emergency. The collection even has a name: it’s called the “Strategic Steam Reserve” – apparently.

I say mothballed, the rumour goes that the engines – dozens of them – are regularly steamed and exercised to keep them serviceable and ready for action. You see, unlike diesel and electric trains, steam engines are simple enough in design that they could theoretically survive a nuclear attack and keep on working…

Or so the story goes. Without interrogating the science (many have), that seems a semi-credible reason as to why the Government might want them.

The rumour is born out of tales about how the MoD got hold of them, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Enginemen’s diaries report being sent home early and told to say nothing when their locomotive was prematurely taken away for ‘scrap’. Add to that several weird sightings of locomotives far from home, long after they’d been recorded as cut up, and you’ve got a pretty decent rumour…

Where did they go? This is a difficult one. There are lots of theories, which is good news for those wanting to keep the rumour alive. After all, if theorists put too many strategic eggs in one underground basket, it would be simple for the right person to disprove years of speculation in an instant.

Probably the favourite, though, is Box Tunnel in Wiltshire, where there certainly is a second tunnel running parallel to the main one. Have a look at the less-glamorous eastern portal next time you pass. Very little is documented about it; many say it opens out into a huge underground yard, and this is where the Strategic Steam Reserve fleet is kept, in darkness (which, of course, is why no conclusive photographs exist).

Credible or not, the whole prospect is completely tantalising. It suggests the history we thought we knew may never have been. For enthusiasts, it’s a chance to fantasise about one’s favourite long-lost locomotive still thriving underground, waiting in a long line of other favourites, pickled in time. It’s about the past coming back to save the future, a reminder that what’s been may, after all, be more important than what’s to come.

The more you think about it, the better it gets. It’s no wonder people work so hard to keep speculation alive. But there's a big difference between enjoying the hope that it may be true, and actually believing in it.

As time goes on, those who really believe the Reserve ever did exist have a harder job to argue that it does today. Would maintaining a secret reserve fleet of engines really have been a priority for fifty years, especially as hundreds of British steam engines survive in working order on preserved railways around the country?

Only this weekend, a new twist to the theory appeared online. According to one post on a forum discussing the rumour, the Strategic Reserve did (and still does) exist, but there were never any steam engines…

Instead, it “consists of nineteen Class 29 diesels”, very early (and thus fairly primitive) diesel hydraulics, long extinct according to the records. It speculates that “19 were ‘scrapped’ at Glasgow works; in fact they formed the strategic reserve”.

It’s a theory so bizarre that it’s hard to know if matey’s being ironic. At first I thought he was, jabbing fun at the equally wild stories of steam engines leaving Swindon and Crewe after being recorded as scrapped; but no.

"One of these was spotted passing through Stoke-on-Trent some time in the 1980s. They may be locked in sheds at MOD Long Marston or elsewhere.”

It also happens that the Class 29s are much mourned locomotives amongst enthusiasts. There were even plans to build a replica from scratch a few years ago. We’d all love to think at least one survives somewhere… let alone nineteen of them.

And so we return to the very point that it’s <i>mystery</i> we love, the ability to speculate, the fact that we don’t really know. On the one hand, the internet is a gift for rumours like this. They can thrive and grow with limitless imagination and as long as the fantasist doesn’t stray from what is genuinely unproven, his or her rumours might go on forever.
On the other hand, it can be the death of them.

Perhaps Elvis ain't dead, but we can be a bit more certain about what became of the Glasgow Class 29s...


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