I watched a TV programme the other day about building nuclear submarines, and how the UK’s skills shortages had badly affected the availability of engineering skills in general. It put me in mind of the reach of railway engineering skills and products from English Electric, and Preston in Lancashire.
This part of Britain was the birthplace and development of diesel and electric rail traction and a powerhouse of innovation and world leading development. Against the background of the world’s economic depression in the late 1920s and 1930s, English Electric were successful in winning an order from Japan, for the Imperial Government Railways.
In fact, English Electric had supplied two sample locomotives in 1922, as Japan pressed ahead with electrification of suburban lines around Tokyo, and the main lines, which were electrified at 1500V d.c. Japan had demonstrated a progressive attitude towards railway electrification, for both government and privately owned lines, which became national policy. In 1922,
These two locomotives were English Electric’s first orders from the far east. The order was for two complete 1200hp Bo-Bo locomotives for the Tokyo Suburban lines, and were dual voltage, for use on either 600V d.c, or 1200V d.c. systems. The order was placed by the Imperial Government Railways as work began on electrification of a stretch of the Tokaido Railway, covering some 590 kilometres, between Tokyo and Kobe.
The dual voltage of 600V and 1200V d.c. was not the standard adopted for major electrification work, and Japan’s Railway Administration adopted 1500V d.c., as used on many railway main lines around the world. The plans for the Tokyo Railway included an overhead contact system, energised at 1500V d.c., and construction of the Tanna Tunnel, with which some difficulty was experienced. In 1923, progress with the project suffered a temporary setback in the Great Earthquake, which affected the whole area.
Following the successful trials of the ‘box cab’ Bo-Bo design, the company received an order for a further 26, box cab type locomotives, 9 for local passenger and 17 express freight locos. The only differences between the two types being the gear ratio of the final drive, and the brake gear.
Eight express passenger locomotives were also built by English Electric at Preston, of 1,836hp, and weighing 100 tons, sporting a 2-Co-Co-2 wheel arrangement, with leading and trailing bogies. Overall, the design was an extension of the Bo-Bo box cab types, but this time, equipped with six of the 305hp traction motors.
An unusual incident befell these huge locomotives during their delivery in 1923. At the time of the Great Earthquake, in that year, the ship carrying the locomotives from Preston to Tokyo was in Tokyo Harbour, and unloading was in progress. Unfortunately the bogies (for the Bo-Bo locomotives) and the motors were on the wharf, with the superstructure and control gear on barges, which sank during the earthquake. The bogies and traction motors disappeared beneath the sea too, as the wharf on which they had been deposited also collapsed. Replacement locomotives were built, and subsequently shipped out successfully.
These early Japanese projects were very successful, and further orders were awarded to English Electric in the 1920s, in turn paving the way for ever more electrification work around the world, from Buenos Aires to Mumbai, and South Africa to Australia. It is perhaps ironic that in 2017 and 2018, Japan is now exporting innovative electric traction back to Britain.
Japan is renowned for its high-speed “Shinkansen” trains, and Britain’s privatised train operating companies now operate trains built by Hitachi – equally as famous a name in engineering as English Electric.