GIPR’s first ‘Crocodile’.
GIPR’s first ‘Crocodile’. SBB Historic

When Switzerland was still exporting ‘Crocodiles’

In 1925, the Schweizerische Maschinen- und Lokomotivfabrik in Winterthur was contracted to build ‘Krokodil’/‘Crocodile’ locomotives for the Great Indian Peninsula Railway.

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim

Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

On 16 April 1853, an ornately decorated chartered train of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR), carrying 400 VIP passengers, pulled out of the Bori Bunder railway station in Bombay. The railway age had reached India. The train, consisting of 14 carriages, was pulled by three steam locomotives delivered from the UK. The engines were named Sultan, Sindh and Sahib. From then on, the network of routes criss-crossing the then British-ruled subcontinent flourished and grew, because the railroad was intended to increase the export of cotton, silk, opium, sugar and spices. At the end of World War I, the key railway hubs in British India were connected by 4,300 kilometres of broad-gauge track. A few years later, on 3 February 1925, the Bombay train station, now renamed Victoria Terminus, had another reason to celebrate. The Great Indian’s first electric locomotive was ready to depart. And once again, a chartered train pulled out of the railway station – this time without the clouds of steam and the whistles. Two years later, the undisputed queen of electric engines set off on her Indian adventure on the first line supplied with 3,000 volts direct current: the legendary ‘Krokodil’ from the workshops of the Schweizerische Lokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik (SLM) in Winterthur.
An Indian ‘Crocodile’ in operation.
An Indian ‘Crocodile’ in operation. SBB Historic
The following is noted in the contract and specifications: Lok. Type CxC / Freight Loco / Ordre L5880. The delivery date for the prototype was the end of April 1927. According to the contract, nine further models were to be delivered between July and September of the same year – one unit per week, if possible – packaged for shipment by sea to Bombay, India. One of the contract conditions stipulated the contractual penalty: half a percent of the selling value per week of delay. It was a big order, which was supposed to be followed by others across Europe. The Winterthur factory had built its reputation from 1919 onwards with its SBB designed and constructed engine, a heavy mountain freight locomotive with a diagonal rod drive. One of the conditions at the time was that the new traction engine had to be able to cover the Goldau-Chiasso route twice within 28 hours – with a stop of just 15 minutes at each terminus – pulling 860 tonnes. From 1922 onwards the first 33 engines, reverently known to the railway workers – and also to the population at large – as ‘Crocodiles’, traversed Switzerland on their tireless journeys between Basel and Chiasso. Soon they had become a fixture of the country’s railway landscape.
An engine body in seaworthy packaging prior to shipping to India.
An engine body in seaworthy packaging prior to shipping to India. SBB Historic
SLM Winterthur was responsible for the mechanical components of the Swiss ‘Crocodile’. The entire electrical system was supplied by Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon. This division of labour didn’t suit the British-dominated clients of the GIPR. In order to keep work and earnings in the motherland of the railways, Manchester-based electrical engineering company Metropolitan-Vickers was commissioned to build the engines for the freight locomotives, which required a great deal of coordination for the Winterthur company. "Once the electrical equipment has been installed and then disassembled to the full satisfaction of the consulting engineers [in Manchester], the mechanical part is dismantled and packaged, followed by shipping of the mechanical part from the nearest British port to Bombay, India. The packaging material should be supplied by us in such a way that it can be used for onward transport to Bombay. After arrival in India, the reassembly of all mechanical parts is carried out by us at our expense." The overall impression of the Indian ‘Crocodile’ is that it is chunkier and more angular than that of the sleeker, lower-slung SBB models. When building the locomotive body and the two ‘engine noses’, the Winterthur crew had to adjust their design to conditions dictated by the climate, the long distances without servicing, and the dimensions of the track, which was 241 millimetres wider. "A hood, housing the fan assemblies, the reversing switchgroup and some other electrical equipment, is constructed over the engines. This hood is high and wide enough that it can be inspected from the inside, to allow for the engines to be checked even during a journey." A total of 40 ‘Crocodiles’ with a C + C wheel arrangement were in use on the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. Only the first 10 of these were built in Winterthur. The order for another 31 ‘Crocs’ later went to Vulcan and Vickers. It was clear early on that the British begrudged Switzerland the ‘wonder locomotive’. A file note on the construction of the first series notes: "It looks as if only Metro-Vickers is allowed on the company plaque [on the locomotive chassis]." So it may bring some small satisfaction to know that the last surviving GIPR ‘Crocodile’, with plate number 4502, which is preserved in the Rail Transport Museum in New Delhi, was ‘born’ in Winterthur in 1927.
An SBB ‘Crocodile’ of the second Ce 6/8 III series from 1926.
An SBB ‘Crocodile’ of the second Ce 6/8 III series from 1926. Swiss National Museum

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