Part one of a five part series.

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What Are Pneumatic Railways?

In an age of steam locomotives and horse drawn carriages, a group of Victorians tried to build the world’s first true tube tunnel railway. A railway that would have also harnessed the power of the atmosphere to propel carriages in a manner that would astound the people of the time.

A method of propulsion that would still impress people if it were in use today.

Imagine if you will a giant pea-shooter, and instead of a pea, a train carriage full of people, and instead of a small straw, a giant cast iron tube running under Victorian London. Now blow the train down the tunnel to the other side by means of a giant bellows, and when the carriage reaches the other end, suck it back down the iron tube again. Then repeat, continuously.

That was the Waterloo and Whitehall Pneumatic Railway – a project that came astonishingly close to being a success, but was doomed to failure, by largely outside events.

This is its story.

To start, it helps to jump back a bit though, and get some background into the invention of the pneumatic railway and how, and importantly, why it came into existence.

There are in fact two types of atmospheric or pneumatic railway, and while the terms seem interchangeable, there is a slight bias in written records to calling the system I am writing about a pneumatic railway, and the other system the atmospheric railway.

The other system, the atmospheric railway is the more famous among fans of railway history as there were several examples of the system built around the country and abroad. As there are some superficial similarities, it is worth a quick look at it as well.

The atmospheric railway used conventional carriages and a conventional train track, but running between the tracks would be found a metal tube, and inside this would be a large “bullet”. A steam engine at the end of the railway (or at intervals along it) would suck the air out of the tube, drawing the bullet along the tube.

The bullet was itself attached to the train carriages by a stiff metal bar and as the bullet was sucked along the tube, so the carriages would be dragged along. You might have guessed a flaw in the design – how does a bullet in a sealed tube connect to the train carriages outside?

Well, the top of the tube had a slot, sealed with leather flaps, and as the bullet raced along the tube it pushed the flaps open to let the connecting bar pass, and then they slapped shut behind. Removing the steam locomotive had the huge advantage of the train carriages being propelled through towns without any of the steam and soot that bedevilled Victorian cities.

The chug chug chug of the locomotive had been replaced by the slap slap slap of the flaps on the top of the tube. The system was not a success though, as no matter what design they chose for the flaps, it was impossible to maintain a sufficiently strong vacuum to drag the carriages along and the flaps also tended to be rather unreliable and jam open at times, ruining the suction effect.

Although famously associated with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the system of flaps was developed by the marine engineers Jacob and Joseph Samuda, who will feature later on in our story.

Atmospheric railway with iron tube between tracks

There were a number of trials, but the two most famous uses of the system were the line in between London Bridge and Croydon, and another railway in South Devon. Neither lasted more than a year as Atmospheric Railways, and both switched to conventional steam locomotives. Both routes are still in use today though, with electric trains.

However, this article is about the other system – the Pneumatic Railway.

As with its counterpart, this also used a tube with a steam engine at one end to suck air out, but this time the tube surrounds the railway entirely, and the carriage itself become the “bullet” that is either blown, or sucked down the tube.

This sort of railway had a number of precedents before being enlarged to passenger service, and some of those are themselves quite fascinating aspects of Victorian engineering.

It was a Mr Thomas Webster Rammell who came up with the idea for the pneumatic railway and his greatest success was London Pneumatic Dispatch Company – a predecessor of the more famous Post Office railway that still lies under London.

To test the system, in 1861 Thomas Rammell and Josiah Clark set up a length of tube just over 450 yards in length in the Battersea Park and ran small capsules through it, powered by blowing air down the tube from a 30 horse-power steam engine[1].

The tube also demonstrated several steep slopes, including one which was said to be as steep as the notorious slopes at Holborn Hill, near Fleet Street. During the experiments, two carriages each of one ton in weight were said to have traversed the tunnel in less than 30 seconds. Initially loaded with bags of gravel, they later allowed people to sit in the carriages to experience the sensation of traveling without a locomotive.

The Battersea trials

The technique proven, a company was formed –the London Pneumatic Despatch Company — which then dug a deep level tunnel running from Euston, and over a number of years, eventually to Newgate Street. Designed for use by the Post Office, they were not that interested as surprisingly, it didn’t save enough time compared to the horse-drawn carriage to be worth the extra cost, and the company eventually went bust in 1875.

But, let’s jump back a bit just after that Battersea Park trial.

Although the trial was for cargo services, several people had squashed into the capsules and ridden through the tunnel and declared that aside from the size of the capsule, the notion of traveling without the noise and soot of the steam locomotive was quite pleasant.

Therefore, it wasn’t a big leap to try and scale up the pneumatic tube to carrying passengers. And that is what they did next, at probably the most famous example of such a railway, down at Crystal Palace.

This was a full size railway running along the eastern lower end of the Park away from the Palace building.  A brickwork tunnel about 10ft high and 9ft wide was constructed from the Sydenham entrance to the Armoury near the Penge Gate[2] – a distance of nearly 600 yards. It would appear to have been constructed above ground, then covered in soil, but I can’t be sure of that.

A single carriage ran through the tunnel, which was described by the Birmingham Daily Post as an elongated omnibus and could carry 30-35 passengers, and trips took around 50 seconds.

Entry to the carriage was at either end, and then closed with sliding glass doors. Around the outside of the carriage to form the necessary seal with the walls was a fringe of bristles to form a thick brush.

When the carriage starts its journey it would slide down to the mouth of the tunnel, where it passed over an iron grill in the floor and the iron doors closed behind it – and from the grill came the atmospheric pressure generated by the pumping station that would then blow the carriage down the tunnel. A second grill in the roof acted to suck air out on return trips[3].

The Crystal Palace trial railway

The railway opened to the public on the 30th August 1864, and although it was advertised in local newspapers as a visitor attraction, it was supposed to be just a technical trial, and open for just a few months.

Nonetheless, in just a few short years, the idea of the pneumatic railway had gone from a small tube at Battersea to a full sized passenger railway at Crystal Palace. The way was set for someone to take it to the next stage and build a commercial railway that would be no mere attraction, but a vital part of the transport infrastructure of the Metropolis.

On the 15th May 1865, a prospectus for such a railway was published in the national press[4] for a pneumatic railway running from just outside Waterloo Railway Station to a new station which would be built in Great Scotland Yard next to Whitehall.

The Waterloo and Whitehall Pneumatic Railway had been announced.


Next – the railway gets approval to start construction.

The web research notes will be published in part five.

Download all five parts as a Kindle eBook from Amazon today

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10 Comments

  1. Absolutely fascinating. I read the whole ebook over the weekend, and heartily recommend it. (Indeed, will do just that in a minute with a customer review!)

    The story of the pneumatic railway (and its forbears) is one which has enthralled me for several years too – so much so, I’ve recently completed a novel on the subject, and will be (e)publishing soon. The focus is less on the W&W scheme, more on the Crystal Palace side of things, but naturally Thomas Webster Rammell is at its heart.

    As such, I know how difficult it is to find out info on this subject, so many congratulations on uncovering so much. You found many illuminating details which had evaded my best efforts in the archives, and it’s hugely exciting to have a few more pieces of the jigsaw put in place.

    This is a story of such ingenuity that it deserves to be far more widely known. Not just ‘another random Victorian folly’, but something which came so close to completion that it very nearly had an immovable place in railway history. As it is, even the phrase ‘forgotten footnote’ doesn’t really do justice to just how ignored it has been.

    It’s great to have that put right at last.

  2. Alan Burkitt-Gray

    the two most famous uses of the system were the line in between London Bridge and Croydon, and another railway in South Devon. Neither lasted more than a year as Atmospheric Railways, and both switched to conventional steam locomotives. Both routes are still in use today though, with electric trains.

    Not quite. The London Bridge to Croydon is, of course, electric, with third rail (after an experiment with overhead wiring at the beginning of the 20th century), but the line in south Devon has never been electrified. It’s the bit of Brunel’s Great Western that runs alongside the sea. Soon most of the GW line will be electrified, but I suspect storms, sea water and electricity at 12,500 volts will not mix too well.

    • Andrew Emmerson

      Sorry Alan but the London and Croydon line was indeed atmospheric.

      See
      http://www.hows.org.uk/personal/rail/wwr/atmos.htm
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atmospheric_railway#London_and_Croydon_Railway
      …and numerous books.
      Andy.

    • Geoff Smith

      @ Alan Burkitt-Gray
      The Atmospheric didn’t get anywhere near London Bridge.
      Regular services ran between Dartmouth Arms (Forest Hill) and [West] Croydon. A few test trips operated as far as New Cross [Gate], but there was no public Atmospheric service north of Dartmouth Arms.
      Arguably the “most famous” was the Kingstown & Dalkey which ran for a decade.
      The standard histories, by Hadfield and Clayton, were published in 1967, and there is plenty of contemporary information on the Web.

  3. John Blake

    great to see all this information pulled together in one location – I am looking forward to the next instalment – for us older readers, will there be a paper version of the e-book ?…. but… although your main target is the pneumatic (positive pressure?) systems; when talking about the genuinely “atmospheric” systems, I am always a bit worried when I see references to pistons being “sucked” along – maybe it helps people to understand the system by an analogy to sucking liquid up a straw, but it always brings to my mind the old chestnut of “nature abhors a vacuum” – with the name “atmospheric railway”, why not let the reader learn the lesson that the work to move the train is provided by atmospheric pressure? as per the Wikepedia entry for “atmospheric railway”…..”By means of stationary pumping engines along the route, air is exhausted from the tube leaving a partial vacuum in advance of the piston or car, and air is admitted to the tube behind the piston or car so that atmospheric pressure propels the train.”

  4. Alan Burkitt-Gray

    @Andrew — wasn’t disputing the London & Croydon. Was arguing with the point “Both routes are still in use today though, with electric trains”. The GW line doesn’t have electric trains (except the Heathrow Express) and even when most of it is electrified that bit along the coast is surely unlikely to get overhead wires?

    • Bryce

      @Alan The Devon coastal section of the Great Western line is not currently scheduled to be electrified, but this is due to cost – there’s no reason overhead AC electrification can’t work in coastal areas.

      Many parts of the world have electric railways in coastal locations – the ECML has a section that runs right along the stormy Scottish coast without too many problems!

  5. Peter Udbjørg

    I have a book on early railways (mostly British, obviously). It has an engraving of one of these “atmospheric trains”. And it also mentions another reason for their demise: Vermin, or what is better known as mice and rats, ate the leather flaps, the flaps being well greased up to remain soft and water proof. And thus becoming a delicacy for these small rodents.
    That still are a headache for modern engineers, when they gnaw upon electric insulation and cause short cuts, in everthing from signal cables to high voltage. Or set up home in places where you (an engineer) most of all do not want a mouse (or rat) home…

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