Preston to Mumbai


The railway network of India is vast, and its cities have extensive suburban and metro networks, with Delhi seeing one of the most recent projects to build a 122 km double-track Orbital Rail Corridor. The route will run around the west of Delhi from Palwal in the south to Harsana Kalan in the north, and provide some relief for the severe congestion on the capital’s inner routes. The metro routes in and around Kolkata have also been expanded in recent years, with October seeing the first underground station on the East-West metro line opened for revenue service.

But the first electrification work for India was sanctioned by the government in August 1922, as the railway’s traffic continued to increase, and the escalating costs of coal for steam hauled services.  Contracts were let to the Tata Hydro Electric company to provide the power supplies, and English Electric for the supply of substation equipment including rotary converters, circuit breakers and control panels.    The 110,000V a.c. supply was delivered to three principal substations at Dharavi, Kalyan & Thane, where it was converted through the English Electric rotary converters to 1500V d.c. as the feed to the overhead catenary.

Each of the substations was equipped with a pair of 1,250 kW, 750V converters, connected in series – the total installed power was 15,000kW.  At Kalyan, three of these 2,500kW units were installed, and used English Electric’s own design of automatic switching equipment.  The line’s outdoor switchyard was located here too, and included electrically operated oil circuit breakers and the step up transformer for the 110,000V incoming supply, along with other control and auxiliary equipment.

In addition, English Electric were awarded the contract for the new motor-coach trains – not strictly multiple units, but a powered coach and three trailer cars, all supplied from Preston back in 1925. The job involved a section of the then Great Indian Peninsula Railway’s Bombay to Kalyan line, and followed a review of the line’s capacity initially undertaken in 1913, but the work postponed until after WW1. The subsequent review decided that electrifying the Harbour Branch would be the only way to improve operations there and follow that with additional electrification work as deemed necessary.

All told, it might be described as a good contract win for English Electric.

But, even before the first section was completed, the railway company committed to electrify the extra 22 miles to Thana, and by 1928, it was extended to Kalyan, some 34 miles from the starting point. In the image at the head of this post, the map on the left shows the extent of the initial electrification, with English Electric’s involvement, whilst the second shows the routes in place in 2019. On the second map, the original start and end points, together with the two main stations in between are highlighted by a box.

The work of English Electric in the 1920s, in promoting electrification was comparable to the projects that involved Metropolitan-Vickers, their arch competitor in Manchester. In this case, Preston Based English Electric secured a contract to provide equipment for the infrastructure and substations, along with 53 four-car trains. The line was electrified, in common with many others around the world, at 1500V d.c., and this was the first electrification project on the Indian 5ft 6ins gauge. It was rapidly followed by electrifying a further section of the GIPR (Great Indian Peninsula Railway).

Opening Day

On 3rd February 1925, the first train on the Bombay Harbour Branch from the Victoria Terminus to Kurla set off from Platform 2, at 10.00 with motorman Jahangir Framji Daruwala at the controls, under the watchful eyes of a crowd of onlookers, and the then Governor of Bombay, Sir Leslie Wilson.  

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So, this first Indian electrification celebrated its 95th anniversary in February 2020 – an achievement reflected in a number of publications.   The original line into the area from Kurla, was 9 ½ miles long, but ended short of the harbour, and in order to complete the extension and electrify the line, a bridge was constructed to carry the line over the goods yard at Wadi Bunder.  This was seen as the most cost-effective way to get the Harbour Branch into the city terminus at the time, but involved two 1 in 42 gradients on either side of the goods yard.  At the time of its opening in 1925, this gave an alternative route from Kurla to Victoria Station – this was the first phase of the electrification.

The newly built car sheds at Kurla

Phases 2 and 3 took the electrification on from Kurla to Thane, and finally Kerula, with the rolling stock numbers increased as the work progressed.  The Bombay scheme was rapidly followed in the space of a few years by work on the GIPR (now Central Railway) main line, and the suburban lines of the south-eastern city of Madras, or Chennai as it is today.

For the first electrified railway in India, the Preston powered motor coach trains consisted of a single motor coach with 4 x 275hp traction motors, and three trailer cars.   Each of the motor coaches was fitted with a pair of roof mounted pantographs – although only one was used to draw power from the contact wire when running.  Power was fed directly to the traction motors by opening and closing contactors through a camshaft, where the angle of the camshaft is determined by the position of the driver’s master controller handle, and in turn fixes the number of contactors closed, or opened.  This simple camshaft control was used for many years on early electric motor coach trains around the world, and for English Electric was usually driven by a small electric motor.  Others would be based on a pneumatic motor – but the ‘all electric’ form was often favoured in Preston.

Driver’s position and master controller. The controller is typical of the designs used by Dick, Kerr Ltd. who became English Electric, in Strand Road, Preston.

The driver’s position in the motor coaches was standing in front of the window, as per the illustration – looking at which suggests little difference in appearance with the Dick, Kerr tramcar controller that they will have been based on.  However, although English Electric had received this order at the time the Bombay Harbour Railway was being electrified, according to the company’s records they were all in service by 1928, but this includes the vehicles supplied for the 2nd and 3rd sections of the route.  Before this too, in 1926, the company had delivered a pair of battery locomotives, with a Bo-Bo wheel arrangement, weighing in at 50 tons, and operating at 440V d.c., also for the Bombay area.  These were similar in appearance to the Bo-Bo locomotives delivered to Madras (Chennai) around the same time.

Monsoons & Traction Motors

The original 275hp traction motors with their diverter valves that would be closed when running over flooded tracks to prevent damage to the motor. This was needed before the work to divert monsoon floodwaters in the Bombay and harbour area had taken place.

For the traction motors on the single motor coach, special provisions were required to protect the undercar equipment during the monsoon season.  There had always been problems on the route during monsoons, even with steam traction, as flood water would put the fires out, so now, the traction motors had special air valves fitted to divert floodwater away from the sensitive machinery.  The motors were actually the standard self-ventilating type, whilst other items of equipment, including the camshaft control gear was housed in the main body of the car, above the floor. 

Because of the problems caused by flooding during monsoons, and not just for the railway, work was undertaken to divert floodwaters away from the line, which resulted in changes to the power equipment on the motor coaches built for service as the electrification reached Thane and Kerula.  The use of the special diverter valves fitted on the first batches was discontinued on the stock delivered for the final section of the route to Kerula.

Considering that each four-car train was equipped with a total installed power of 1100hp, this may have been necessary to some extent, due to the heavy weight of Indian rolling stock during this period.  In this case, each of the original four car sets weighed more than 200 tons when empty.  They were carrying huge numbers of passengers too, and in the first year of operations, over 16 million were carried on the new electric trains, and this had increased again by over 68% by 1928 – an undoubted success, to say nothing of the revenue.

The scene was set for expansion of India’s electrified rail network, and driven forward by the railway company, the next steps would include main line operations, and with some fairly unusual designs for motive power.  Following the Bombay suburban success, the GIPR company then embarked on a comprehensive program of electrification, involving routes from Bombay to Igatpuri and Poona, negotiating the severe gradients climbing the Ghats to the Deccan Plateau. 

Here again English Electric were responsible for the complete project, which, in addition to the provision of the catenary, substations and other items of infrastructure, included one of the largest water generating plants manufactured in the UK.  This latter, like similar machinery for the Sao Paulo Electric Co. in Brazil, was for installation in the Tata Power Co.’s generating station in Bombay.  the name of Merz & McLellan, or more precisely at that time, Merz & Partners, appears as consulting engineers to the project, just as they had been in South Africa, and elsewhere in the former British Empire.

Today, 95 years on, the electrified suburban lines of Mumbai have grown significantly, as indeed has the population, and although the present day locomotives and trains have a much more international flavour, English Electric, and Preston, Lancashire remain closely allied to the first scheme.


Useful links – worth a look:

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Mumbai Local : A Journey Through Mumbai Harbour Line

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