A little over 100 years ago a radical new form of underground railway was proposed — a monorail of most unusual design, but one that would be designed like an underground roller coaster with sharp declines and ascents between stations.

London’s underground railways were already designed with a slight dip between stations so that trains leaving would accelerate down a slight slope, and when approaching a station the upward slope would slow them down slightly.

What an Australian engineer, Elfric Kearney proposed was to massively exaggerate the dip between stations to a stomach churning 1 in 7 gradient, and use gravity to accelerate trains to 60mph by the time they reached the middle of the track, and then slowing them back down again on an equally steep ascent.

As such, the railway would need far less electricity to run, with gravity performing around 85% of the work.

monorail

The idea did have two upsides though, the stations would be just below the surface so no need for deep escalators — or lifts at the time — but the tunnels would be deep enough to avoid digging up the roads. The other is that the tube today is hot in part due to the heat dumped into the tunnels by the trains. Trains that use a fraction of the energy to move would also create less heat.

However, if the deep slopes planned weren’t radical enough, he also planned to run the trains on a monorail system, with a single row of wheels underneath and a set on the roof.

This was in fact a variant of the gyroscopic monorail that uses the naturally ballancing effect of a spinning wheel to overcome the instability of running on a single wheel. The top set of wheels overcomes the problem that once the trains stop, they tend to fall over.

It was claimed that a single track made derailment impossible — although I struggle to see how — and a single track would be more comfortable to ride over. A note in The Times about a demonstration model in March 1910 said that the railway could be built for around half the cost of conventional tube lines.

One American newspaper talked of One Cent fares between stations, which would have been cheaper than the tuppeny tube being offered by the Central Line.

The line would have run from Cricklwood, then have had stations at:

  • Brondesbury
  • Quex Road
  • Carlton Hill
  • Lord’s
  • Edgware Road
  • Marble Arch
  • Hyde Park Corner
  • Victoria
  • Pimlico
  • Vauxhall
  • Oval
  • North Brixton
  • East Brixton
  • Herne Hill

and finally, at Crystal Palace.

A smaller spur would have also run from:

  • Strand
  • Waterloo
  • Kennington

…then joined the line at Oval.

kearney

Had the line been built, it would have radically altered the way London built up over the past century, particularly at Cricklwoood, Brixton and Crystal Palace.

Generally, one radical idea sometimes gets considered, but two at the same time was unsurprisingly doomed to failure.

Not that the failure of a grand scheme in central London put him off, as he repeatedly popped up across the UK, and overseas determined to build his monorail. There was even a Kearney Society set up to promote the monorail concept.

A few of their ideas included a railway under the Thames at Woolwich, a link from Beacontree to London, and a railway between North and South Shields, and in 1939, proposals for an underground railway in Leeds considered the monorail.

None of them came to pass, and the idea for a monorail in tunnels, however steep, died off.

…but you might also like this: London’s Lost Suspension Railway at Kings Cross

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8 comments on “Unbuilt London: A roller-coaster monorail under the streets of London
  1. Matt says:

    I hate to be that guy, but I think you mean ascent, not accent.

    Fascinating post, though!

  2. Missed opportunity. They should totally have built the Victoria line that way, especially with all of today’s concerns about energy efficiency.

  3. A says:

    There’s a whole chapter about the Kearney schemes in London’s Lost Tube Schemes (Capital Transport, 2005), including pictures showing the rather sumptuous interiors that were planned.

  4. Dan Tonks says:

    To be pedantic, it isn’t really a Monorail (noting that it requires 2). Pretty cool though, not one I have heard of before.

  5. Martin Wells says:

    There was a protoype model of the system built which is now in the National Railway Museum archives. Also, a full size carriage was commsissioned and built by Brush Works in Loughborough. It seems possible that the carriage was never paid for as it was ultimately used by the Brush Works night staff as a rest area before subsequently being destroyed by fire.

    Elfric Kearney (full name Elfic Wells Chalmers Kearney) also wrote a novel ‘Erone’. A utopian story which featured a monorail system!

  6. Jonathan Gardner says:

    apparently there was meant to be a demonstration model at the 1911 Festival of Empire in Crystal Palace Park – its route is shown on the map of the festival (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Festival_of_Empire_1911_Map.jpg) but apparently it was never built: http://sydenham.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?p=56247#p56247

  7. Nik says:

    Good post, and I like your amusing spellings of “Cricklewood” 🙂

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