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The Great Model Train Robbery

How (and why) did thieves steal a valuable collection of scaled-down locomotives?

Bloomberg Businessweek

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Photographs by Nick Ballon for Bloomberg Businessweek.

In the heart of Gravesend, in Kent, England, a hedged lane runs alongside a retired Royal Air Force field, now occupied by the Cascades Leisure Centre, a recreation facility with a gym and a pool. Under a cloudy moon on Valentine’s Day 2019, a van rolled into a mini-roundabout near the Leisure Centre, stopping opposite a row of brick homes.

The van doors opened, and several shadows crept out, moving toward a high-tensile wire fence. Loosening one post and pressing the long strands down, they slipped over the fence into an expansive plowed field behind the recreation center. They walked past tree branches and dead shrubs, their boots sinking into the damp soil.

After a few hundred meters, they turned right, where two parallel chain-link fences separated the farm from the center’s grounds. They clipped both, climbed over a waist-high wood railing, and landed at their destination: a high-security shipping container. They carved a small rectangle into the back of the container and peeked through, looking for the bounty hidden inside. They used angle grinders to slice the container’s hinges, until its door swung backward, hanging only by the anvil-size lock that had been designed to resist this very kind of robbery. Then they got into a second shipping container the same way.

Inside one of the containers, they cut the padlock off a cupboard door, and there she was: an exquisite steam-powered model locomotive named Mayflower, her green boiler and brass engine bands glistening under the bandits’ flashlights. They chopped into another cupboard housing a second locomotive. Discovering a key for a third shipping container, they popped its doors open and spotted two more choo-choos for the taking. These model trains often require decades to build and are considered priceless by their owners. At market, they can fetch tens of thousands of pounds. And though they’re small, one-twelfth the scale of a normal train, they’re not that small. The locomotives—which burn model-train-size bricks of coal, carried in model-train-scale tenders and fed with tiny shovels—weigh hundreds of pounds each. They’re powerful enough to pull eight children, who ride, straddling passenger cars, around a special narrow-gauge track at 8 mph.

The Gravesend Model Marine and Engineering Society’s last remaining club train, stored in a container.

The burglars scoured the grounds, which belong, along with the locomotives, to members of the Gravesend Model Marine & Engineering Society (GMMES), a 66-year-old British railway club. They found a hoist, a wheelbarrow, and a set of the club’s walkie-talkies. Lifting the Mayflower onto the wheelbarrow, they rolled her to the fences. Using the hoist, they lifted her over the wood railing, lowered her back into the wheelbarrow on the other side, and huffed her through the farm toward the van, where they had to heave the train over the final fence to reach the curb. They returned at least three more times that night, plundering engines and other club valuables.

In the darkness, the thieves, presumably sapped yet unquestionably successful, piled back into the getaway van and disappeared into the night.

The following morning, around 9 a.m., Derek Williams and his wife, Sheila, were walking their spaniel by the Leisure Centre. Williams, a retiree who’s been a GMMES member for the past 19 years, strolled by leafless trees, then saw the mangled doors of the shipping containers. Alarmed, Sheila phoned the police, while Derek dialed the only person he knew who could actually help: Tricia Filley, the club’s indefatigable secretary, who was just sitting down at home to cereal with her husband, Alan.

“Trish,” Williams said. “We’ve been burgled!”

* * *

Model trains don’t have the broad appeal they once did. The same year GMMES was founded, 1953, toy manufacturer Lionel hit record sales of $33 million. A visionary Lionel sales executive named Arthur Raphael, who died the year before, believed that if the company could keep kids interested in trains until age 14, they’d be hooked for life. But with the rise in popularity of NASA and the Space Age, Legos and toy guns and Hot Wheels, and eventually Nintendos and Xboxes, Lionel (and its British competitor, Hornby) collapsed into bankruptcy and languished through various buyouts.

Rounding a curve on a Sunday run.

While it’s unclear whether their obsolescence has made classic train models more valuable, they’re still zealously sought-after at auctions by collectors, including loco-obsessed celebrities such as Rod Stewart and hooked-for-life fanatics such as my father, a Lionel addict, who, in what he insists makes perfect sense, has invested my meager inheritance into Southern Pacific and 763E Hudson electrics, each costing $2,500. Sir Rod declined to comment. “They’re pieces of art,” my dad says.

Anyway, as with anything of value and beauty, model trains have sometimes attracted the attention of thieves and vandals. In October 2017 a thief gripping a tiny flashlight with his teeth climbed through the ceiling of a shop in Devon, making off with expensive locomotives. Roughly a year later, a drunk burglar with a metal butter knife attempted to rob an 85-year-old retiree of his prized model railroad collection at his Lincolnshire cottage. (According to the Telegraph, they tussled, and the octogenarian and his wife sat on the tosspot until the police arrived.) And only in May 2019, there was a smash-and-grab at a model railway exhibit in Stamford.

“You’ll never guess what! Gravesend Model Marine have had four locos stolen!”

When she learned of the robbery, Filley, who’s 72, with sandy bangs and the steady determination of an Alpine cog rail, immediately started calling GMMES members. Arriving at the club with Alan in her Honda Jazz, she saw havoc: The main clubhouse door was ripped off and lay on the ground. Shelves were toppled and chairs flipped. It looked as if a bomb had gone off. “We were gobsmacked,” she says. “I can’t even remember cups of tea being made, because we were so in shock.”

As other members arrived, they discovered that four locomotives were missing, two owned by the club and two owned by members: the Mayflower, plus Simplex, Speedy, and the John Milton Metro. One of the victims, shattered by the theft of his beloved Speedy, a stout black and forest-green engine, effectively resigned from the club. Mayflower’s owner, Dennis Oldershaw, who’d built his locomotive over 25 years and planned to bequeath her to his grandson, broke down in tears and bolted from the scene. Mysteriously, one loco, which had been sitting unprotected outside on a workbench, was untouched, raising the prospect that the robbers had targeted specific trains. On the other hand, the thieves also took a lawn mower, a petrol strimmer (aka a weed wacker), and around £35 ($44) from the club’s cash box. When Gregory Emmerson, a younger, bearded member of imposing stature, crashed through the gate to the grounds, he lost it: “What the f---happened!?” he shouted. “F---ing hell!”

Even before the police showed up, Filley and her cohorts were hunting for clues. She canvassed neighbors to find out if they’d heard or seen anything suspicious the previous night (they hadn’t). She looked for area CCTV cameras, hoping they might have captured a glimpse of the rogues (no dice). She and her band of amateur detectives came across muddy scuff marks on the road near the lamplight and now-limp wire fence. Williams also found breadcrumbs of evidence—footprints, wheelbarrow tracks, an abandoned walkie-talkie, broken-off locomotive parts—along the farm route the thieves took to the club’s fences. As experienced engineers, club members immediately recognized how the robbers likely sawed into the containers. “Portable power tools are our worst enemy,” says GMMES veteran Karl Midgeley.

A forensics expert from the Kent Police eventually arrived, but because the club is open to the public on weekends—and the thieves presumably wore gloves—collecting finger­prints was futile. Another officer visited just after 5 p.m. to take statements, but Filley recalled him mostly mumbling along while listening to her take on the situation. She and the club weren’t impressed. “You don’t get much support from police in this country,” Filley told me, unsympathetic to the suggestion that there might have been more important matters to investigate. “It’s survival: If you want something done, you get on and do it yourself.”

Club member Andy Healey.

* * *

That same day, 62 miles northwest, not far from London in the town of Hemel Hempstead, a tatty white van motored up to the Miniature Railway Supply Co. A man entered the store, introduced himself as “Jamie” to owner Jeff Price, and said he had several locos for sale. “Interested?” Jamie asked. “I’ve just done a house clearance in Kent.”

Intrigued, Price followed him outside to the back of the van, where the stranger showed him a green engine with brass boiler bands—just like the Mayflower’s. Price asked Jamie to come back into his shop so they could go over the paperwork required for trains with boilers. But just as Price turned to reenter his shop, he suddenly heard doors slam shut and, snapping his head around, saw the van zoom away. Moments later, an assistant ran up to the baffled shopkeeper to report a stunning crime: “You’ll never guess what! Gravesend Model Marine have had four locos stolen!”

Despite good humor, club members are still bewildered by the theft.

* * *

On a Wednesday morning, GMMES members putter around the club’s sprawling lawn doing chores. A squad of senior engineers, their palms splotched with grease, are repairing British Railways loco No. 61149, while a pair of handymen with a mess of wrenches replace a rusty curve in the 5-inch-gauge track. (A track’s “gauge” refers to its width.) Emmerson and an equally bulky man smoking a cigarette deliver cups of coffee and tea on a tray.

In the four months since the theft, the club, aided by roughly £6,000 in donations from sympathetic locals, has mostly recovered. They’d welded all the shipping container doors back on, were installing security alarms, and, at the police’s recommendation, had planted prickly brambles and dense stinger nettles at the rear fence as a natural deterrent. Filley and a few members had lugged away a heap of heavy stones to make room for alarm cables. “I’m not some little woman putting the kettle on,” she says, sipping coffee from her Pudsey Bear mug.

Despite the good humor, members are still bewildered by the theft of the four locos, collectively worth £25,000 (or about $32,000). Citing the trains’ weight and distance from the getaway car, GMMES Chairman Richard Lightle wrote in the club’s newsletter, From the Smoke Stack, that “the thieves must have been built like the Hulk.” Boiler tester Ben Healey and his wife, Marion, theorize that it might have been a group of random visiting tourists (“scumbags,” Healey calls them), who’d taken photos of trains and asked about their monetary value. In any case, he’s certain that whoever the thieves were, they must have cased the joint carefully to avoid being captured on the CCTV cameras. “We were targeted—they knew exactly where to look,” he says. “They were well tooled up.”

I’d assumed a club consisting mostly of septua­genarians (one of whom matter-of-factly mentions he hasn’t been a member “that long, only since 1994”) would have struggled to respond to such a crime. But the opposite was true: The club is already surprisingly secure, and Filley, whose father was “an ex-copper in the rough area of Gravesend,” meticulously documented the robbery via a day-by-day timeline of events and labeled photos of every unearthed clue. Although the case has gone cold, she’s been spreading the message in the press and on social media, at auction houses and model-train shops, in hope of attracting fresh leads.

The professionals, on the other hand, have essentially given up. The Kent Police initially declined repeated interview requests, offering a series of ever-changing reasons. “As all lines of enquiry have been exhausted, the case has been filed pending further information coming to light,” press officer James Walker wrote in an email. When I contact the Hertfordshire Constabulary, which supposedly had taken over the investigation into the encounter between train store owner Price and “Jamie,” department spokeswoman Rebecca Choules says she’s unaware of the incident and the Gravesend heist and can’t find any mention of Price or his store in the constabulary’s records. “I have done everything I can,” she says. “I’m afraid it’s very much a needle-in-a-haystack situation.”

Filley, the club secretary.

* * *

With the case in danger of going colder and inspired by Filley’s doggedness, I take a shot at solving the mystery. I force myself to listen to several of my dad’s soliloquies on the primacy of “Kughn-era technology” at Lionel. I also study Michael Crichton’s The Great Train Robbery, as well as the 1978 film version with Sean Connery (which, coincidentally, is set in Kent and chronicles a heist worth £25,000 aboard a steam train that looks just like the Mayflower). My plan is to review all of Filley’s clues with the help of a private eye.

With 11 five-star reviews on Google, Kent Private Investigator’s Andy Punter seems like a surefire bet. (“A true godsend,” one review raved. “He managed to confirm all my worries and suspicions that my husband was lying about his whereabouts and having an affair.”) His website features the hallmarks of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes—eyes peering through binoculars, a motorcycle trailing a suspect’s vehicle—but when I reach him by phone, he refuses to take on the case, though he does offer guidance. Given the nature of the crime, Punter says “100% no” to it being an inside job, nor were the thieves pros. “If they stole the trains the night before, I can’t see ’em selling ’em the next day—that doesn’t make sense if they’re professionals,” he says. “There are so many close-knit model-train clubs. It’s like a little cult.”

Oldershaw.

Later that evening, I pull into the roundabout by the farm and park under the lone lamplight, a “proper deadlurk,” as Crichton would have had it. Retracing the thieves’ steps, I slip over the fence and walk along the plowed field, but I find nothing out of the ordinary, except the putrefied carcass of a fox and some empty bottles of alcohol—the area is purportedly a dwelling for the homeless, as well as a stop for RV-driving travelers. These caravaners—often referred to locally with the slur “gypsies”—draw finger-pointing from some barflies at the Gravesend Boat, where a Stella-sozzled twentysomething, who seems to use the C-word in lieu of commas, also shows me the local gossip page on Facebook. Commenters there puzzled over clues and expressed anger: “It’s so upsetting that something that has been enjoyed and cherished by probably thousands of people over so many years has been destroyed by 1 or 2 selfish, small minded f---wits. I hope they know they are hated by so many,” one wrote.

Even so, knocking on door after door of the houses across from the Leisure Centre earlier that day, I discover some neighbors not only are unaware of the robbery, but also don’t even know that a train club stands mere meters from their residences. Other homeowners, who have fond memories of visiting as kids, express sorrow at the theft but report that they heard nothing the night of the crime. (A tattooed man with a white van outside his front door laughs when I jokingly ask if he’d committed the crime. He does admit to looking “dodgy” but swears he’s innocent.)

Then, unexpectedly, a possible break in the investigation: Two of the homes on the street, I notice, have security cameras. At one, a skeptical-looking woman answers my knocks but says she doesn’t want solicitations. At the other home, which boasts multiple cameras, including one of those Amazon-owned Ring Video Doorbells pointing at the street, a shirtless tween in sagging jeans answers with his smartphone glued to his ear. I hand him my business card, pleading that he ask his parents to give me a call, but I haven’t heard back.

Lastly, I get in touch with Price, the owner of Hemel Hempstead’s Miniature Railway Supply. When I reach him by phone, he sounds almost scared. “It was a very confusing situation, and I cannot comment further—I tried to help, but it all came to nothing,” he says, before abruptly ending the call. What strikes me as unusual about alleged thief “Jamie” visiting his shop is that Miniature Railway Supply is so difficult to find online. It’s hard to imagine the store’s home­page, which has the aesthetics of a GeoCities site, receives many visitors. Assuming the robbers, in a rush to unload their stolen wares, clicked the shop’s link after Googling for one nearby, wouldn’t the Miniature Railway’s website have netted their IP address? When I follow up by email to beg Price for help, he again declines. “Access to our website visitor log is something that we have no experience of but would be happy for the police to undertake,” he wrote. “But we feel it is inappropriate to provide such access beyond the police.”

A driver stalling his engine.

A month into my investigation, after sending the Kent Police a dozen emails, I’m finally allowed to speak to supervising Sergeant Paul Diddams, who again says all leads have been exhausted. He says police had reviewed CCTV cameras in Kent, “but unfortunately the system had overwritten the footage.” When asked why most residents I talked with near the train club said the police never contacted them, and also why officers hadn’t probed the security cams at those two homes, Diddams responds, “I don’t know—I wasn’t the attending officer. I’d like to think the [on-site] investigator covered that, but I’ll look into it.”

As for Price, Diddams says his feedback was forwarded to the Hertfordshire police. When I relay that the constabulary told me they had no record of his lead, Diddams declines to “pass comment” on fellow officers and maintains his version of the story. (By email, Price says he was never contacted by the Hertfordshire police.) At an impasse, I mention my theory that the police could check the Miniature Railway website’s visitor history for indications of the thieves’ identities or whereabouts. “I see your point, and I’ll be honest: I don’t know,” Diddams says. Perhaps sensing the interview was going poorly, he later adds, “I want to stress that this was a horrible crime which had an impact on the victims. Something with such sentimental value as a historic model train—I get it, and we take all this seriously.”

* * *

In the attic of the Filleys’ chimney-topped home a short drive from GMMES, the mother of two shows me her husband’s extensive stacks of Hornby cabooses and landscape accessories. Despite holding an office at the club, Filley herself isn’t so much into model trains, but her husband and her son Samuel, now a driver of real commuter trains in Dartford, adore them. They can spend hours conducting the Lady Patricia and Stanier 5MT engines around the table’s miniature town and tracks. What Filley seems to love most is protecting those around her and the things they hold dear. In a way, the attack on the train club was an attack on her family.

Filley hasn’t stopped hunting for the lost locos, though she knows their turning up is a long shot. Her fear is that because the trains are readily identifiable—“too hot to handle,” as she puts it—the thieves might have destroyed them or sold them for scrap. She and other experts also worry they could already have been sold in the Netherlands or elsewhere abroad, where dealers are apparently less careful about boiler paperwork. “Locos are far harder to sell on the secondhand market because of that paperwork, though I know it can be forged,” says Bob Polley, chairman of the Southern Federation of Model Engineering Societies, which counts GMMES as a member. “Any country that doesn’t take the certification process seriously would be a possibility, in the same way that years ago a stolen Jaguar or Audi would be put in a shipping container out to the Soviet Union.”

Another potential outcome is that they’re in the private estate of an affluent, unscrupulous model-train antiquarian, puffing around in some secret basement railway—like stolen Rembrandts or Vermeers, their singular artistry appreciated only in secret. “I will not give up fighting,” Filley says. “I’ve been fighting for the past five years.”

For her, the stolen trains and the failure of police to find a culprit have brought back painful memories of an earlier injustice her family suffered. In 2014, Samuel, then 43, was jumped by thugs coming home from his friend’s place late at night in Gravesend. The attackers punched and stomped him bloody and broken; ripped off his clothes and personal effects; threatened to rape him; and dragged him into the lift of a flat complex. If not for a resident who heard the commotion and called the cops, Filley believes he would have been murdered. She attended every day of the subsequent trial. The judge in the case said that “other than [with] homicide,” he had never seen such “absolutely unconscionable” violence. “I had to watch the [­security camera] video of what they did to my son—it made me physically sick. I wouldn’t want any mother to have to sit through that,” she says. In 2016 two of the assaulters were given seven years of jail time—but they were released years early on probation. She thinks this was unforgivable, tainting her impression of law enforcement and the legal system.

Over chocolate biscuits, Filley says her feelings about the attack still drive her. Her charm and exceeding politeness—she regularly writes “chuckle” in emails instead of “lol”—belie a ferociousness of spirit. For her, solving the Great Model Train Robbery is now a lifetime pursuit. If I were Jamie, I’d be afraid. “Someone somewhere knows something,” she says. “They’re not going to get away with it.”