Back in the early 1920s, railways in many countries around the world were beginning to invest more widely in electrification projects, and Preston based English Electric were what would be described today as world leaders in this field.
Today we have been accustomed to recognising Japan as home to very high speed trains since the early “Shinkansen” in the 1960s, and we now see electric units from Hitachi being delivered for use on railways in the UK. Barely 40 years earlier, English Electric designed and built a new Bo-Bo electric locomotive design, and shipped them 12,000 miles to Tokyo, for the Imperial Government Railway.
In 1922, English Electric’s first orders consisted of two complete 1200hp Bo-Bo locomotives for the Tokyo Suburban lines. The locomotives were dual voltage types, 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.
During their delivery in 1923, an earthquake occurred, and the ship carrying the locomotives from Preston to Tokyo was in Tokyo Harbour, with unloading 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.
Despite the initial earthquake disaster, the locomotives were a success, and resulted in a further order being placed on English Electric for a further 26, box cab type locomotives, nine of which were for local passenger duties, with the remainder on freight work.
Japan had adopted electric traction as its national policy, and not just for the state railway, but also the numerous private railways operating across the country. However, the dual voltage of 600V and 1200V d.c. was not typical, with other major electrification schemes for main line systems around the world adopted 1500V d.c.
On the suburban routes, in the UK, railways had adopted – mainly – the 3rd rail DC style – avoiding the use of overhead contact systems, despite that arrangement having been used around 1900. The Midland Railway and Lancashire & Yorkshire companies had each adopted both styles, but the overhead contact system was largely used by urban tramway and inter-urban transport networks.
Examples of both were adopted in Japan, and one of the world’s heaviest electric locomotives was built and supplied by English Electric for Japan in 1925 for the Tokyo to Kobe main line, generating some 1,836hp. Eight express passenger locomotives to this design were built at Preston, generating 1,836hp, and weighing 100 tons in a 2-Co-Co-2 wheel arrangement, with leading and trailing bogies.
In contrast, the Nagoya Railway used multiple unit style coaches/cars, taking their power from an overhead line through a tramcar trolley pole arrangement.
Today we are seeing the complete reverse of what happened in the 1920s, with Japanese companies, such as Hitachi supplying the very latest technology to main line and suburban railways in the UK. The names of English Electric and even GEC Traction may no longer be commonplace in Britain, but the legacy has been important for rail traction around the world.