English Electric – A Centenary Appreciation


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.


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.


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



Flying By Rail


Exactly 20 years ago, in the Spring of 1998, the German Government approved the project to build the world’s first high-speed maglev railway line.  The plan was to link Berlin and Hamburg with what was effectively a development of British Railways Research Dept., and Professor Eric Laithwaite’s “Linear Rotating Machine”.  The invention by Eric Laithwaite took place in the 1960s, and a little over 30 years later, in 1997, the world record speed for this form of traction achieved a speed of 450 km/hr.  In effect, rendering the Japanese ‘bullet’ trains to what might be described as ‘semi-fast’!!

Transrapid 08 for DBaGTransrapid 08 for DBaG_Close ViewThere has of course since then been a lot of development of high-speed rail on conventional tracks, but the UK has still not caught up with what it had essentially begun over 50 years ago.  There have been claims, notably referred to in “Wikipedia” that the idea was first put forward in or around 1904, and under a US patent, followed by a similar series of “patented inventions” in Germany during the 1930s, and yet another attempt in the late 1960s in the US.  All of which proved to be simple experiments along the way, with the greatest rail based advances taking place in the UK and Germany between 1978/79 and 1984/85.

The “Transrapid” project in Hamburg in 1979, and the simple Birmingham ‘maglev’ people mover built on the linear induction motor concept devised by Professor Laithwaite some years earlier.  The Japanese also embarked on the development of magnetically levitating high-speed trains, but the technology they adopted required super-conducting electro magnets, which was perhaps a limitation on its prospects for mass transportation.

Shanghai TransrapidToday there is only one implementation of the original Transrapid design, the one linking Shanghai to Pudong International Airport – a distance of 30.5km.  There had been plans to expand within China, but costs proved excessive, and existing high-speed rail provides the solution across China’s rail network.  In Germany, the original plan to build a line across to Denmark and Holland was also ruled out on the grounds of costs.

It seems unlikely that – given the improvement in conventional steel wheel on steel rail technology – that the maglev idea will be anything other than a might have been.

It was all looking so much different back in the 1990s, when I wrote this article for Electrical Review:

Electrical Review Nov 1998 Maglev Feature


Some further reading:




From “Settebello” to “Frecciabianca”


When I was about 9, my parents bought me a copy of the Ian Allan “Locospotters Annual” for Christmas, and inside were all manner of railway stories and photographs. Amongst these was a particular item about the Italian State Railways train which operated from Rome to Milan, as one of the new, post war luxury trains – this was the “Settebello”, “Beautiful Seven” or “Lucky Seven”. This, and a few other stories set me on course to visit and travel on a variety of European railways.

Settebello at Rome

Settebello at Rome – photo from 1962 ‘Locospotters Annual’

In Italy, this service started in 1953, using the ETR300 series of multiple unit trains. At the time it was the epitome of high-speed luxury, with the fastest section of its route between Rome and Bologna, where it would average 130 km/hr. This train was seven-carriages, electrically hauled throughout, reaching Milan in 6 hours initially, but accelerated until the journey time in 1978 was 5 hours 35 minutes. It became part of the TEE network from 1974, with international services operated jointly by Italy, West Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Settebello leaving Rome

As the luxury, supplement-charging train, the “Settebello” ceased operating in 1984, but was renamed in that year, under the TEE brand as the “Colosseum”. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to ride on this service, but Italian railways have continued to expand its high-speed network, with “Direttissima” lines connecting the major cities, Rome, Florence, Turin, Milan, Venice, etc.

Like the UK, Italy developed and operated ‘tilting trains’ in fixed formations since the 1960s, to enable increased speeds on existing tracks, without the need to build new, more direct high-speed lines. The Italian developments back to the late 1960s when Fiat Ferroviaria carried out its first experiments with tilting technology. The first real steps forward were made in 1976, when the experimental ETR401 took to the rails. This four-coach train was the first in the world and the nickname “Pendolino” adopted on the famous tilting railcar experiments stuck.


Ironically perhaps, the technology used on the “Pendolino” trains in Britain uses technology developed by British Rail in Derby for the ill-fated “Advanced Passenger Train” (APT). This was later acquired and adapted by Fiat, for the ETR450 trains, which began operating between Rome and Milan in 1988, followed by another 9-car series – the ETR460 in 1992.

ETR460 Set at Verona PN

ETR460 at Verona Porta Nuova in 2016

However, not all high-speed trains in Italy are tilting trains, largely thanks to the construction of the new high-speed routes. Services like the Freccia Rossa, Freccia Argento, and Freccia Bianca provide the backbone of operations on long distance national and international services. More recently, as the expansion of ‘privatisation’, competition from the new ‘Italo’ train operators has seen ever more innovation, and the latest ETR600 series of tilting trains, first seen in 2006.


Italo at Rome

‘Italo’ Set 4 at Rome

Whilst not having had the pleasure of a trip on the “Settebello”, I have had a number of enjoyable trips on high-speed (non-tilting) trains on the Turin-Milan-Venice main line, notably behind the ETR500 series, such as the ‘Frecciabianca’ below:


ETR500 Frecciabianca at Verona PN

ETR500 on Frecciabianca service at Verona Porta Nuova in 2016

We have a lot in common with the Italian approach to the ‘little pendulum’ trains, although the UK has been much slower to invest in high-speed rail than other European countries, and the tilting trains operated by ‘Virgin Trains’ in Britain are now 16 years old. The tilting mechanism was applied to the all-electric units as shown below, and some of the diesel powered variants on cross-country services.

Virgin Pendolino at Oxenholme 2014

Virgin Pendolino service at Oxenholme in 2014

There are some new trains entering service in 2017/18 in the UK, built by Hitachi, in Pistoia, Italy, Japan, and in the UK. These new 9-car units will operate on the Great Western and East Coast main lines, and as Class 800 also have both all electric and diesel powered options, and are part of the UK’s IEP (InterCity Express Programme), announced back in 2009.

GWR Intercity Express Train edited

Whilst the old manufacturers such as GEC-Alstom (who built the original UK high-speed pendolino sets), may not be as common as they once were on the rails, perhaps the Hitachi designs will offer comparable results.


A Ticket from Lancaster to Morecambe


It is surprising to learn that Lancaster had a number of connections with important, and critical railway developments, alongside its perhaps more famous connections with English furniture making, and of course its royal links through John of Gaunt.

Alongside the Lune, the factory of railway wagon and carriage builders – the Lancaster Wagon Co. – was set up on Caton Road. A handy place for a factory too – with the “Little North Western” main line close by, anfd its station at Lancaster Green Ayre. This railway line formed the Midland Railway’s route to the harbour at Heysham, from Clapham, providing a new terminus for its boat trains, which had previously gone to Barrow-in-Furness.

The Midland Railway station at Green Ayre also had a link to the more famous Lancaster Castle station on the London & North Western Railway, via a steeply graded and curved line across land now partly occupied by a supermarket. The line from Green Ayre to Morecambe – both Euston Road and Promenade Stations was electrified just after the turn of the 19th/20th century – and one of the earliest in the UK.

MR Morecambe motor coachThe line had originally been electrified in 1908 by the Midland Railway, with electrical equipment from Siemens, and the 6,600V AC overhead system developed in Germany. This was a very far sighted decision by the railway company, and allowed for much more flexible train operations than the 3rd rail techniques used in the south of England.

More importantly, in the 1950s, it was the test bed for what is today’s UK standard electrification schemes, with equipment from other Lancashire based railway companies – English Electric.   Whilst Britiain had tried 1,500V DC overhead systems for main lines, it was more costly and did not offer as much future for higher speeds as the 25,000V AC system.   This arrangement had already shown to be very successful in France, and it was this system that went on to be adopted on British Railways. But where to test it?

Lancaster to Morecambe 25kV testClearly, the Lancaster Green Ayre to Morecambe & Heysham was the obvious choice – and it was successful. The impact of this 1950s test scheme cannot be underestimated – its success has been key to BR electrification across the country.

A Ticket to Ride

Established by Robert Gillow, Lancaster was a centre of “high-end” furniture making in the 18th century, it may be less of a direct connection, but one of Gillow’s employees – Thomas Edmondson – he of the railway ticket fame was born in Lancaster in 1792.

Edmondson was a Quaker and originally worked in the Lancaster cabinet making business of Gillow, but left to find his fame and fortune in the rapidly expanding world of railways.

He moved to work as Station Master at Brampton on the Newcastle to Carlisle Railway. Whilst there he devised the idea of using a small piece of cardboard, pre-printed with journey details, with the tickets numbered by hand, and validated by a separate date-stamping press. His most important development was a mechanism to pre-print and stamp the tickets with their serial numbers before being issued to the passenger.

Edmondson tickets are still in use on some railways around the world today – but ceased to be used in Britain in the 1980s.   It is unlikely that passenger train travel would have been as successful without Thomas Edmondson of Lancaster’s invention.   Gillow’s loss of a cabinet maker was the railway’s gain – all over the world!

So You Thought Barcodes Were New?


Back in the mid 1950s, British Railways developed a device to allow wagons to be checked, and their movements monitored using a system of codes, with a plate attached to a wagon, and a reader/scanner fixed to the track.  Like all such systems, they were designed to track the type or owner of the wagon, its location, etc.

Ultimately the idea could have been implemented to replace the use of labels attached to wagons, and identification numbers, type, use, etc., and replace more manual methods of recording where and what use the asset was being put to, including any maintenance needs.

Wagon Barcodes BR Style

Similar trials were carried out in the USA, by the Association of American Railroads, and each of these systems could be identified as the forerunner of modern RFID and bar or QR code systems.

Who would have thought barcodes in the age of steam on British Railways.  But then, the days of steam also included road-railers, and intermodal as well as container systems.