The Strategic Steam Reserve — myth or legend?

It’s November 10, 1983. The Soviet leadership has completely misinterpreted the NATO exercise Able Archer as preparations for a sneak nuclear attack and preemptively launched a first strike the day before, hitting targets in Western Europe and Britain, but not yet in continental America. Completely nuclear armageddon is narrowly avoided, but if you’re living in Europe, you’re out of luck. Britain has been hit less but the attacks still have left millions dead and the national infrastructure devastated, not in the least because the electromagnetic pulses of all these nuclear weapons going off have fried everything electronic in the country: planes can’t fly anymore, cars and trucks don’t have petrol to run on anymore, while diesel and electric powered trains have also been fried or no longer have power to run. There’s only one transport system that has escaped the war unscathed: the steam locomotive.

Steam locomotives are after all 19th century technology, completely mechanical, without electronics to fry. So it’d make sense that in a rail dense country like the UK, they could be used after a nuclear war to help rebuild the country. Moreover, Britain has huge coal reserves, so no problems with powering them. Finally, Britain was late in switching from steam to diesel and electric powered trains, the switchover only completed in the sixties and seventies. There were quite a lot of modern, new steam locomotives that could be mothballed and kept in reserve.

On the face of it therefore, especially knowing that the UK had made extensive preparations for rebuilding a post-nuclear war Britain, the idea that, like Sweden or the USSR, that somewhere in Britain there were stockpiles of steam locomotives waiting patiently for the day after.

But did Britain really have a strategic steam reserve, or was it just an urban myth? On an Ukranian expat forum, they think it did. At a more conspiracy minded website they’re undecided, but one Robert Moore pours cold water on the whole idea:

However, there are 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 follow 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! In regards to this, it should be remembered that most trackways have interconnected wooden components, which would both fuel and channel the direction of a fire along them (especially if they were exposed to a nuclear-generated “heat-blast”). 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 even be seriously used again…

There are other reasons why, if such a steam reserve existed it would be not as useful than you might think and it can best be summed up by the below map, which shows the absorption of black carbon in the atmosphere (PDF) (and subsequent dropping of global temperatures) after a limited nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.

absorbtion of black carbon after a nuclear war


  • guthrie

    November 9, 2012 at 11:35 am

    A better reason is that steam powered trains need water and coal, the storage for and infrastructure for transport of, had been removed by that time. Thus a steam train might get out of the depot but have no way of topping up it’s water or anything else.

    By the way the absorption of black carbon in the atmosphere link leads back to the post.

    See page 272 of “War plan UK” by Duncan Campbell, which shows in detail how, after the 1950’s, governments of all political stripe decided it was easier to lie to the British population about civil defence in a nuclear war, than tell them the truth that it would be an unmitigated disaster.

  • Martin Wisse

    November 9, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    Updated the link; thanks for the warning.

  • Alex

    November 12, 2012 at 5:01 am

    Peter Hennessy’s “The Secret State” and the nuke chapter of “The Prime Minister” are state-of-the-art, btw. We certainly studied an H-bomb era civil defence program, and realised it would cost far more than maintaining the deterrent, plus with the end of national service it would involve quite a lot of the kind of regimentation of the public that we were meant to be getting out of after the 1916-1918 and 1939-62 experiments with conscription.

  • Alex

    November 12, 2012 at 5:03 am

    Also, recently someone got a major history prize for their paper on the history of the revival of civil defence in the 80s.

    During the preparation of Protect & Survive there was a huge internal debate about whether or not to publish a detailed back-up report showing the working out and providing the data to support its conclusions – they decided not to, partly because the data were surprisingly optimistic and they were worried about undermining deterrence!

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