English Electric – A Centenary Appreciation

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In 1918 one of the UK and world’s most famous engineering companies was born – The English Electric Company Limited. In the year of its formation, it acquired the Coventry Ordnance Works Ltd., and the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Company Ltd.; most importantly though – the shares of Dick, Kerr & Co. were exchanged for shares in the new business. At the time of its formation, it was fast becoming Britain’s major manufacturer in electrical technology, especially in tramways, light railways and general electrical engineering.

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Prototype ‘Deltic’ – perhaps the most famous of English Electric’s diesels in the erecting shop, alongside locos for South Africa and BR shunters, amongst others.                      Photo (c) RPB/GEC Traction Collection

English Electric went on to become one of the most famous engineering companies that the UK had ever seen, and covering every conceivable product from railway locomotives, to household products, jet aircraft to computers. Its zenith was perhaps achieved in the 1950s, and the only possible comparison in the 21st Century would be if you added BAe Systems, IBM, and Siemens together.

English Electric went on to research, design, and develop products in all of the markets that those three companies are working in today.

In 1918 the new company had a capital of £3 million, and the board represented other major industries, from the Great Easter, London & North Western and Great Northern railways, to shipbuilders such as Harland & Wolff, John Brown and Cammell Laird. Announcing this new business in the January 3rd issue of The Railway Gazette, commenting:

“… the company will be one of the three principal electrical manufacturing concerns in this country.”

Something of an understatement perhaps, but with Dudley Docker’s achievements with the soon to arrive “Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co.” a year or so later, competition was strong in the aftermath of the First World War.

Head office was in Preston, and English Electric and the town would become almost synonymous, but the works along both sides of Strand Road existed because of the arrival of Dick, Kerr & Co. from Kilmarnock. Dick, Kerr’s was the first British company to specialise in tramways and tramcar building, and in 1897 bought the old works and land on the west side of Strand Road, to establish the “Electric Railway and Tramway Carriage Works Ltd.”, which was registered on 25th April 1898.

Dick Kerr & English Electric Works, Strand Road, Preston. Aerial Image, May 1951 copy

Aerial view of English Electric Preston works in 1951     Photo (c) BAE Systems

 

Such was the company’s success; they needed extra space, which was provided by building on land on the opposite side of Strand Road, to form the English Electric Manufacturing Co., in November 1899. The first time the words “English Electric” had appeared, and although Dick, Ker’s had spawned the new factory, the two works were managed as separate companies.

The tram building works manufactured their own trucks or bogies to fit under the tramcar bodies they built, but would also fit trucks from Brill or Peckham if the customer requested.   The works on the East side of Strand Road concentrated on making the electrical machinery alone, from traction motors, to switchgear and control equipment.

Just after the turn of the century, in 1903, the English Electric Manufacturing Co. amalgamated with Dick, Kerr & Co., whilst three years later, the works on the West side of Strand Road had its name changed to the “United Electric Car Co.”.

So at the outbreak of the First World War, Dick, Kerr’s works occupied one side of Strand Road, and the United Electric Car Co. the other. During the war, Dick Kerr’s built mainly shells, and employed over 8,000 people, whilst United Electric built wagons, shells, and even flying boats, with the workforce rising from around 600 to 800, to over 1,200.

The next major event occurred in 1917, and propelled the company towards its final form. In that year, Dick, Kerr & Co. obtained financial control of United Electric, and laid the foundation for English Electric Co., which finally appeared 100 years ago. Some 10 years later, this is what the Preston Works looked like:

EE Works Preston - 1926 copy

A plan of the Dick, Kerr Works in 1926

There is more to English Electric’s story than Preston Works, but this where it all began.

English Electric achieved many ‘firsts’, but even before the company began business in 1919, the Preston Works had equipped Britain’s first main line electrification between Liverpool Exchange Station and Crossens/Southport.   Dick, Kerr’s electrified this with a third rail system at 600V d.c., and the rolling stock constructed by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway themselves, at Horwich and Newton Heath.

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English Electric/Dick Kerr’s first major electrification – the Liverpool to Southport line.  The first of many.                                                                                                                                           Photo: RPB/GEC Traction Collection

From a business point of view, the English Electric Co. Ltd., was established in 1918, and a spate of mergers followed quickly, as the demand for the new technology rapidly grew, both at home and abroad.

English Electric were pioneers and innovators in rail traction, electrical technology, computing, wireless and telecoms, until their protracted demise following the great GEC-AEI takeover some 50 years ago. Ironically 1968 too was a watershed year in the electrical industry in Britain.

The last owners and inhabitants of the Strand Road Works in Preston were of course Alstom, and the cliché of ‘end of an era’ was never so true as the factory is to close in July 2018, just over 120 years since Dick, Kerr & Co. set up the Electric Railway and Tramway Carriage Works Ltd.

Rail Technology Magazine – Alstom To Close Preston Site

BBC News: Alstom To Close Preston Site

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The Great North Rail Project

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As part of Network Rail’s £1 billion, 25-year “Railway Upgrade Plan” there are 7 projects that form the  “Great North Rail Project” sub-project which is intended to be complete by 2022 – only 4 years from now.  They include:

  • Liverpool City Region upgrade
  • Manchester to Preston improvements
  • Preston to Blackpool North
  • Transpennine Route upgrade
  • West Yorkshire signalling upgrade
  • Ordsall Chord
  • Calder Valley improvements

These seven projects are highlighted as the infrastructure improvements in the north of England.  Fair enough, Network Rail doing infrastructure work – but these projects seem to suggest Network Rail may be providing new trains – in particular there is a reference to those trains as part of the “Railway Upgrade Plan”.

The key benefits include longer, faster, more frequent trains; a better, more reliable infrastructure; and better facilities for passengers, especially at stations.

To be fair, and maybe I am being picky but isn’t it the job of the rolling stock leasing companies to buy and offer the new trains to the train operating companies – Transpennine, Northern Rail, etc. – not Network Rail.  Or perhaps since the physical infrastructure is being upgraded, is this going to be a first step towards re-nationalisation?

However, amongst the key projects of this grand plan, electrification is being progressed – yet not in the North.  The new “Azuma” trains have already encountered a problem, since the East Coast Main Line franchise is soon to be terminated, so they may not enter service at all, or be delayed, or under a publicly owned railway.  Similarly, Network Rail indicate that HS2 is one of their key projects – but I thought this was another privately funded scheme.

So where are we today?  There is still a lot of infrastructure work to be completed before Blackpool can be reached by a new electric train service, and Liverpool Lime Street is being closed in the summer for a couple of months, and the Chorley “Flying Arches” appear to be uplifted.

Here are a few snaps of work in progress in the North West:

 

 


Not so High Speed Northern Rail

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Last month (November), the Government published its vision paper on rail, entitled Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail”, extolling the virtues of the latest UK plans for ‘modernising” the rail infrastructure and services. It sets great store by the increased investment already made, against the backdrop of ever increasing passenger numbers, much of which is accurate.

At the same time it makes some bizarre statements about cuts in journey times of 15 minutes between Liverpool and Manchester that are simply not borne out by facts. Here’s what it says on page 21 of the published document:

  • “2.18  This investment in rail networks in the North of England has already delivered improvements, with the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester cut by 15 minutes, new direct services between Manchester Airport and Glasgow, and Manchester Victoria station upgraded. 
”

It carefully avoids any comparison with a figure for earlier years, so we are left to wonder if they mean the journey is 15 minutes quiker compared with 1947, 1957, or 1977.

However, comparing this claim between the timings for 2017 with those of the 1972 timetable – 45 years ago! – the fastest journey time is only 6 minutes quicker, and in 1972, there was still a lot of steam age legacy infrastructure and systems in place.

This is 2017

Liverpool to Manchester 2017

Fastest Journey Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester (Piccadilly / Victoria)

 

1972 - 2017 TimingsThe fastest services in 1972 were operated as ‘Inter-City’, with this example of a weekday service leaving Lime Street at 08:35, and arriving at Piccadilly 51 minutes later. Today’s service has only 1 more stop, at Wavertree Technology Park, a new station, and yet only manages a 6 minute reduction in journey time.

Still it is quicker, and yes, I am being picky!

This is 1972

Overall, the ideas suggested include work that has already been done, and work that might get completed. With the cancellation of electrification in the north earlier this year, in favour of Crossrail 2, I’m not holding my breath.

Investment in new trains as well as new technology is and has been long overdue, but to keep referencing HS2 in this ‘vision’ paper does not cut the mustard if the DfT want to demonstrate a commitment to rail services. Changes to franchising are perhaps just adding ever more complexity and ‘red tape’ to a privatisation scheme that has not offered a major performance – both operationally and economically – improvement to the UK’s network. The UK is still, after 25+ years of a ‘privatised railway’, still subsidising train operating companies.

Ah well, let’s see what happens next.

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Rail Workshop Closures Overshadowed by Beeching?

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Was Beeching the Fall Guy for workshop redundancies?

Back in the early 1960s, the Government of the day had spent millions modernising the railway network, with dieselisation and electrification schemes, which were an attempt to reduce the railway’s losses, whilst saddling the industry with massive debts. At the same time almost no attempt was made to integrate the road and rail transport businesses, with the road lobby freed from earlier restrictions, such asd the ‘C’ licences, and Marples giving free rein to build motorways without any thought for demand. Odd you might consider for a ‘free market’, and ‘competition’ driven politician.

More intriguingly, perhaps Beeching was used to further remove competition for road traffic in the transport market – whether passenger or freight. Removing the rail workshops capacity to compete for work in a declining market prefaced the reduction in route mileage, and flexibility driven by the Beeching Plan. That the workshops needed to be rationalised in a state controlled infrastructure is clear, but maybe Beeching was simply Marples’ “fall guy” in pursuit of road transport and motorway building.

The rationalisation and re-organisation of British Railways saw the loss of skills, and the lack of foresight to train existing personnel in new technologies that were emerging, aside from which, the community and social impacts were never fully addressed. Politicians were very much exercised in 1962 and 1963 about these dramatic changes – some of which led to the creation of regions, or ‘development zones’ across the UK, but which ultimately did very little to create sustainable manufacturing industry.

In the debate about the dismantling of the British Transport Commission on 27th June 1962, Ernest Popplewell the MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne made the following observation in relation to the closure of BR workshops:

  • Another important factor in regard to Government interference concerns the skill of the men in the railway workshops, which is now being cast aside. We find in this new development scheme —and I will not argue against the merits of it—the concentration of new works in a few up-to-date, modern railway workshops. This means dispensing with the services of many workshop employees, although it is admitted by the British Transport Commission that these men have the skills and are capable of doing other work, such as producing locomotives for export. They are not being allowed to do so. We have proved, as was proved during the war years, that these self-same men can produce other things apart from those necessary for transport, and can make a jolly good job of it. But now, because this is a publicly-owned undertaking, the skill of these men is to be completely wasted.

This debate in the House of Commons on the changes to the railway organisation, and the creation of British Railways Board, was the precursor to the dramatic changes in the later Beeching Report. The new British Railways Board was due to take over the role of the old Railway Executive from 1st January 1963, and plans were already well in hand to ‘rationalise’ the railway workshops, and reduce staffing.

Even without the even more dramatic consequences following the Beeching Plan, the re-organisation of workshops had a major impact on communities up and down the country.

This debate was – to say the least – lively – and with the then Transport Secretary, Ernest Marples, in the hot seat, some ‘sharp quips’ were recorded. When describing the work of Beeching’s study group, Mr Popplewell advised Ernest Marples that a study group was not needed to determine what were and what were not the most suitable traffic for the railways. Marples retort was to say that the Newcastle MP could all that was needed to know about railways, but didn’t do so well when he was there.

The ‘banter’ at the Parliamentary debates seems to have been as good – or childish – then as it is today!

Overall, this debate was about how the organisational changes were to be put in place, and what the work in hand by Dr Beeching and his advisors would produce. The social and community impacts of the Beeching Plan have been covered at length over the years, but the effect of closing workshops, loss of jobs, loss of skills, opportunities, and local communities’ economic loss have been overlooked.

Was this deliberate?

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1966 – Death of Darlington Loco Works

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In 1962, the British Transport Commission (Railway Executive), implemented a workshop rationalisation.  The idea being to eliminate duplication, over capacity, and create a more efficient national operation.

This was overshadowed by the “Beeching Plan”, implemented by the Government from 1963 onwards.  But, Dr Beeching was not the principal ‘bad guy’ – the real culprit was Ernest Marples, the Transport Minister.

marples-at-leicesterAt that time, rationalisation of workshops was a practical, and likely cost effective move.  However, Marples prevented the re-organised workshops from competing for engineering work beyond British Railways.  Had this been allowed, it might not have saved all of the engineering jobs, but might have been a life saver for many of the workforce, and their skills.

darlington-closure-protest-marchJust 50 years ago this year – most people recall that England won the football world cup – but at the same time, the historic locomotiove works at Darlington was closed, making more than 2,000 skilled people redundant.  The birthplace of railways had been dealt a dramatic and fatal injury by the action and inaction of the Government of the day.

This dramatic decline in the fortunes of railway employment in the area resulted – not surprisingly in some interesting exchanges in parliament.  A local MP received this response when asked what support was being made available to the men declared redundant:

“A special office of the Darlington Employment Exchange was set up at the North Road Workshops in October, 1965, and almost all the workshop employees registered for other jobs. Terminations have so far exceeded the number of planned discharges. It is estimated that about 250 people have 47W been placed, about 100 have found work and 40 have been transferred to other railway employment. Prospects of alternative jobs for the remaining employees are generally good; these include opportunities at the Railway Workshops, Doncaster for men willing to transfer.”

The MP making the response for the Ministry of Labour on 25th January 1966, was the MP for Farnworth – Ernest Thornton.

Late in the previous year, Ted Fletcher, the MP for Darlington made a significant speech in a parliamentary debate held specifically about the closure of Darlington Works.  A key point he made a number of times was about the adaptability and capability of the skills that the men had shown over many years. In the British Railways era they had also demonstrated the ability to build, repair and maintain diesel locomotives.

However, it seems that the railway management had a strategy and an agenda that they were sticking to, despite some clear examples that they might be travelling in a less sensible direction.  Take this particular observation that Ted Fletcher made in his speech on 4th November 1965, just a few weeks after the closure announcement by British Railways:

“I give an illustration of what has happened in one department of the works, the spring shop. In June, 1964, the management notified the unions that the spring shop was to close and that springs of locomotives being repaired at Darlington would have to be manufactured at another centre. The shop was closed and the machinery and equipment were put up for sale. Serious delays immediately commenced. Other sources of supply failed the management and eventually they had to reopen the spring shop. Meanwhile, the skilled men had got other jobs and the shop had to be carried on 1365 on a part-time basis. In a very short period orders for springs poured in from other railway centres and the spring shop had to be reopened for normal work.”

That doesn’t sound like a particularly practical way of managing a significant change within the works, let alone across the whole industry.

Inevitably, as in all other examples when major changes and where work is planned to cease in any business, the people needed to make the changes successful leave, and that approach still holds true over 50 years later.  There was no long term plan, no structure or development, save for the introduction of competition and allowing ‘market forces’ to dictate the industry’s future.

In the works, perhaps the 2,000 employees does not seem like a very large number, but then there was the impact on the works’ supply chain, local shops, communities, education and schooling, training, loss of apprenticeships and skills development.  Did the railway workshops’ reorganisation really save money?

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60 Years of Modernisation

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In 1955, the then British Transport Commission announced its programme for the modernisation & re-equipment of British Railways.  This was set against a backdrop of a worn out rail network, which had had little or no investment since the end of WW2.  The programme included the building of no more steam locomotives, and the use of diesel and electric traction for commuter as well as main line services.

More importantly it included a massive programme to electrify main lines, rebuild stations, workshops, signalling and telecoms systems that were out of date and falling apart.

The programme was simply announced by the BTC in 1955, with Government support. The following year, the Government issued a white paper “Proposals For The Railways”, which was intended to review the financial prospects and strategy for the railways.  The BTC had put in a request to increase freight charges, partly to cover the financial troubles which were becoming ever deeper.

On reflection, you might think it ironic, considering that the railways were generating operating surpluses of between £29million and £55million between 1948 and 1955.  The cause of their losses was simply the capital interest charges they were required to pay – amounting to £50million annually.

When the BTC was set up in 1947 they were hampered from the start by having no capital reserves, and constrained by fixed interest borrowing to allow replacement of expired assets (valued at pre-1939 prices), with new at increased post-war prices.  The amount of spending and type, and volume of assets that could be replaced was also constrained….

Until the modernisation and re-equipment programme was approved.

The 1956 “Proposals For The Railways” white paper recognised these difficulties and introduced a more flexible freight charging arrangement to try in some way to enable British Railways to compete on a more commercial footing.

The modernisation plan had already shown some clear benefits with the introduction of new diesel multiple unit trains on selected routes/services.  They were still a novelty as this excursion handbill from 1959 shows:

BR Ingleton Diesel Excursion May 1959 copy

The 1956 White Paper certainly seemed to provide evidence of very considerable uplift in both passenger numbers and receipts on the new services.   The choice of the West Cumberland lines gave an interesting comparison with the ‘city centred’ commuter lines around Leeds and Birmingham.

% Increase
Service Inaugurated Journeys Receipts
Leeds-Bradford-Harrogate

14-6-1954

144

100

Carlisle-Silloth 29.11.1954 66 44
Carlisle-Penrith-Workington 3.1.1955 84 104
Carlisle-Whitehaven 7.2.1955 44 62
King’s Lynn-Wells-Norwich 19.9.1955 40 30
Bury-Bacup 6.2.1956 132 164
Birmingham-Lichfield 5.3.1956 210 208

Clearly the modernisation plan was working in these examples, and the investment in new equipment continued to be justified.  However, only 3 years later, the “Re-Appraisal” white paper set the scene for some memorable errors, and paved the way for the perhaps greater errors delivered through Ernest Marples in 1963, with Dr Beeching’s report.

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