Bloomberg Businessweek

THE GREAT MODEL TRAIN ROBBERY

How did thieves steal a valuable collection of scaled-down locomotives from a train club? Why did the case go cold? And who is “Jamie”?
DENNIS OLDERSHAW ROUNDS A CURVE AT THE GRAVESEND MODEL MARINE & ENGINEERING SOCIETY

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 this past Valentine’s Day, 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.

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