When researching material for my book on the history of GEC Traction, I came across a description of the “British Westinghouse” petrol-electric railcars, which were of course the design developed for the Great Central Railway, and which took to the rails in 1912. The British Westinghouse Co. became Metropolitan-Vickers, and ultimately part of the GEC Traction empire.
The development of an effective internal combustion engine had been going on for centuries, but the true petrol engine was ‘invented’ in the later 19th Century, developed from gas engines then in use, but the most successful was of course the engine designed by Nikolaus Otto. This ‘free piston’ design arrived in an 1864 patent, in England, and 12 years later, in 1876, in partnership with Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, the 4-stroke, compressed charge engine. The 4-stroke arrangement has also been described as the “Otto Cycle”.
Leaving aside the patenting in England of the first 2-stroke internal combustion engine in 1881, the earliest recorded use of the word ‘petrol’ appeared in 1884, when Edward Butler designed and built the first engine to use spark plugs, magneto/ignition coil, and spray jet carburettor. Butler had invented these last essential components of the 4-stroke petrol engine.
Still waiting in the wings was Rudolf Diesel and the compression-ignition engine, but for the years between 1884 and the First World War, petrol-electric transmission was attracting the attention of the transport industry, and especially some railways.
Why petrol-electric, and why railcars?
In essence, the railcar idea had been around since before the turn of the 19th to 20th Century – commonly known as steam railmotors, and were set to work on the railway companies’ lightly loaded, and rural branch lines. The economics of self-propelled rolling stock was all well and good for urban and intra/inter-urban operations had been long proven before the start of the First World War, but of course, these were electrically powered, both overhead and by conductor rails. On top of this, urban and suburban tramways had seen considerable expansion, with the electrical technology and vehicles manufactured by the likes of Dick, Kerr & Co., another GEC Traction business as English Electric in later years.
Overseas railways were more enthusiastic to the development of non-steam motive power, and the British Westinghouse railcar design had been supplied to Hungary, where 16 such vehicles were in service on the Arad to Caanad Railway Co. On top of this another 18 were running on the Ooster Stoomtram Mattschappij in Holland, and smaller numbers of similar types at work in France, Germany and Sweden.
The North East Railway Autocar
Back in the UK, the Great Central Railway railcar was not the first – although it was, at that time the biggest – in service in Britain. The honour of being the first non-steam railcar goes to the old North Eastern Railway company, when in 1903 it introduced a pair of what the company described as “autocars”. The idea to look at this form of traction for the NER was said to have been attributed to Vincent Raven, then the railway’s Assistant Chief Mechanical Engineer, who was drawn to the technology, and its advantages by expanding use on tramcars and tramways in the early 1900s.
The magazine “Automotor” (now “Commercial Motor”) published an article in 1909 that included this comment on those “autocars”:
“The North-Eastern Railway Company—one of the most progressive in this country—attempted such a solution a few years ago, and, largely owing to the persistence and the considerable genius of the district mechanical engineer, Mr. W. Murray, who had charge of the experiments, a couple of self-contained petrol-electric 50-ton coaches were successfully evolved and were running until quite recently in regular service with every satisfaction. That, however, was a fight against long odds. It was a mistake to attempt to convert heavy bogie passenger coaches of standard design.”
Whilst this was certainly the first such example in regular commercial service, other countries were making much more rapid progress, and by the time this story appeared in the press, Hungarian State Railways had no fewer than 150 petrol-electric railcars in operation. They were, like the NER design, lightweight vehicles, typically weighing a mere 19 tons, with 100hp deDion power technology.
The NER railcar (https://www.lner.info/locos/IC/ner_petrolelectric.php )was initially fitted with an 85hp Napier engine, but this was replaced in 1904 with engines from Wolseley Motors Ltd, initially of 100hp, in a flat four layout. In turn, the petrol engine was connected directly to the main generator from British Westinghouse, which supplied the electrical power to a pair of 64hp d.c. traction motors carried on the bogie under the ‘engine room’.
The fact that Westinghouse was involved is interesting, and demonstrates perhaps the enthusiasm that some engineers were pressing in the rail industry for non-steam traction, built on the considerable success that Westinghouse, Dick, Kerr and others had gained with tramways. However, it was the lack of enthusiasm and speed of the take-up of electric, or non-steam traction, by the railway companies, and equally in the slow progress of tramway growth in Britain that ultimately led to Westinghouse leaving the market before 1920.
The NER railcars survived in service in North East England, in particular on services to and from Scarborough, Harrogate and Selby until they were withdrawn in 1931. The body of No. 3170 was used as a holiday home at Kirbymoorside until it was rescued by an enthusiast in 2003, and is now fully restored and operational at the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Railway.
Whilst the NER can justly claim to have built the first petrol-electric railcar, with support from British Westinghouse, it wasn’t long before others became interested in the technology. Working with the Great Central Railway, the British Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co., designed and built the company’s first petrol-electric railcar, which took to the rails in 1912. According to the makers, this was a straightforward attempt to overcome some of the drawbacks of steam rail motors in urban and branch line workings.
In their publication of 1912, the company made this florid assertion about the benefits of their new railcar for the Great Central:
“The solution of this problem, offered by the British Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Co., Ltd., is the petrol-electric car. All of the disadvantages peculiar to the steam auto-car are done away with, and, at the same time, a great number of the advantages, which result when suburban railway systems are electrified, are also secured. The principal among these advantages are smooth and rapid acceleration and the absence of smoke and dirt.”
It has been stated that Sam Fay, General Manager of the Great Central Railway (GCR), had been impressed by the performance of petrol-electric railcars in Hungary and the rest of Europe, which opened the door to another example of this emerging technology. In this new example, the vehicle was ordered from British Westinghouse, as prime contractor, with the car body built by the United Electric Car Co., in Preston. The United Electric company’s workshops were just across the road from Dick, Kerr & Co., which later formed the core of English Electric, and the competition for rail traction equipment orders between the Preston and Manchester based companies continued until long after their absorption into GEC Traction.
The GCR – Westinghouse Railcar
This could have been described as the first petrol-electric railcar designed and built by a private company, and sold to a British railway – clearly both the Great Central and British Westinghouse wanted this to be a success that would generate sales. In general layout, this was a saloon coach, fitted with two bogies, one of which carried a pair of dc traction motors.
The power unit itself was a six-cylinder 90hp unit, and included 140mm bore x 156mm stroke cylinders, cast as three pairs, and running at 1,150 rpm. The engine was, like any conventional petrol engine, water cooled, and directly coupled to a d.c. generator rated at 60 kW, through a flexible coupling. The whole assembly was then mounted on a ‘bent channel iron bedplate’, making it as compact and rigid as possible. Given that steel was also available, it is a wonder that, given this new technology, a new, stronger material was not used.
Exhaust and engine cooling made use of the car’s roof, where the engine silencer and radiator were mounted.
The engine and generator unit was fitted at the leading end of the coach, and as the manufacturer stated: “ … all parts are in easy view and readily accessible for inspection and adjustment.”. The generator supplied power to a pair of 64hp axle-hung d.c. traction motors carried on the bogie in what became the classic arrangement for diesel electric traction for the following decades. The Westinghouse traction motors were totally to provide protection from dirt and moisture.
Control, unsurprisingly, made use of the company’s standard series-parallel controller, as used on tramcars, and light rail vehicles already in service. The single driver’s handle managed both the excitation of the generator field coils, and the petrol engine speed – and two control positions at either end of the vehicle were provided. In an early adoption of the “dead man’s device”, if a driver released his hold on the handle, power to the traction motors was automatically cut.
The coach body was of course built in wood on a metal underframe, with the outside finish being “teak painted, lined with gold”, and the interior in a mixture of polished oak and American ash, all it was stated in accordance with GCR practice.
On completion, trials took place in and around Manchester, near the British Westinghouse (Metropolitan-Vickers) factory where the railcar was built, and followed by a press trip on 28th March 1912 between Marylebone and South Harrow. A practice continued to this day, when new trains are delivered, or new technology is deployed.
Much the same as happens today, with new trains, over a century later.
The GCR-Westinghouse railcar has received little attention in the press, and in the first couple of years was likely operating some rush hour services out of Marylebone, as London’s suburban empoire grew. By the outbreak of the First World War it was based at Dinting and operated the Glossop branch. By all accounts it was unreliable too, and during severe winter weather, and periods of hard frosts, meant that the radiator had to be drained and emptied each night.
Following the end of the hostilities, the company introduced a new service from Macclesfield Central to Bollington, which later became known as the “Bollington Shuttle”. This service was begun in August 1921, and the railcar earned the affectionate (?) nickname, the “Bollington Bug”. An interesting photo was published in ‘Cheshire Live” in May 2019, showing the “Bollington Bug” at Macclesfield Station in 1925 (see link below). The railcar continued to operate this service until its final withdrawal on 6th July 1935.
Undeterred, Westinghouse made what it described as ‘tropical versions’ of this design, some of which ended up operating in Australia and New Zealand. In appearance they were the same as the Great Central Railway versions, but with a number of detail differences, as shown in the image below.
Ironically perhaps, the ex-GCR railcar on that service was replaced by a Sentinel steam railcar. Steam and coal were still king in the 1930s, 40s and 50s in the UK, but the inter-war years also saw one or two other diesel powered railcar developments, including on the GWR, and the LMS, where “Bluebird” appeared. But no other petrol-electric railcars appeared in passenger carrying service after these isolated examples.
Useful Links & Further Reading:
- The NER 1903 Electric Autocar Trust
- NER 1903 Autocar on BBC Look North – 18th October 2018
- The GCR Petrol-Electric Railcar (LNER Encyclopaedia)
- GCR Railcar as the “Bollington Bug”