Tuesday 25 October 2016

Flashback 1931 - first journey of battery-powered train

This week 84 years ago, the first battery-powered train - invented in Ireland - made its inaugural passenger journey

Published 06/12/2015 | 02:30

All aboard: Passengers of the Drumm train, December 1931
All aboard: Passengers of the Drumm train, December 1931

The streets of Dublin hum these days as the Luas light railway passes, and the rail-lines clack as the DART ferries commuters along the coastal tracks that have seen service for more than 180 years. Steam, coal, diesel and electricity have fuelled the engines at various times but for one short period the carriages were pulled along by the ingenuity of an Irish inventor.

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James J Drumm was a research chemist who was so inspired by a lecture on electricity that he returned to UCD to work on a doctorate on the subject of rechargeable batteries. He invented a nickel-zinc battery which was capable of rapid and frequent recharges.

The famous Shannon scheme at Ardnacrusha generated more electricity than was needed in the Ireland of the late 1920s. The Drumm Battery Company came up with the idea of using the invention to drive the nation's extensive train network, which greatly appealed to the government.

Eighty-four years ago this week, 60 of the Drumm batteries - each about the size of a one-gallon barrel and weighing 13.5 tons in all - were loaded into the engine and taken for its first ride with passengers, driven by Mr W Delaney. Among those who climbed aboard at Westland Row was WT Cosgrave, then President of the Executive Council, a role later renamed as Taoiseach.

In the Irish Independent, Cosgrave gushed, "It has been wonderful. I am satisfied with this amazing invention, but I do not understand its details and complications. It gave us marvellous results today."

"A Revolution in Transport," announced the Pathé News newsreels, "President Cosgrave and World Experts see amazingly successful trials of the Drumm 'all accumulator-driven' train."

Following more successful tests, the Drumm train went into service the next month, travelling at up to 55mph on the 14-mile line between Amiens Street (now Connolly) and Bray. There were terminals at both stations where the batteries could be recharged as a full charge only lasted for 90 miles, although improvements extended this to 136 miles. Extra 80-tonne engines were commissioned, and built at the Great Southern Railways yard in Inchicore, Dublin, but politics contributed to its demise. Cosgrave's Cumann na nGaedheal government had backed Drumm with funds for development but when it lost power in February 1932 he found Fianna Fáil less enthusiastic.

The trains showed their value during the economic war of the 1930s, and the Second World War, as a vital alternative to imported coal, but the war prevented Drumm finding overseas markets and his Battery Company folded. The trains ran up to 1949 when the cost of replacing batteries became uneconomic and cheaper alternatives were introduced.

James J Drumm died in 1974, 10 years before electricity was again used to fuel the city's transport with the introduction of the DART. In January this year, English train company Network Rail began trials on battery-powered trains.

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