Following my posts on the Hyde Park Pneumatic (the ‘sewer railway’) and the Beach Transit Subways, this is a further look at attempts to build subterranean pneumatic railways in London – and we cover a number of obscure schemes including the Victoria Station & Thames Embankment and the Oxford Street & City Railways.
The very earliest idea appears to be attributed to Denis Papin from France, and an associate of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Papin put forward plans for a pneumatic transportation system probably as early as 1665/67, though some sources claim it was later. Papin moved to England for a while and took up residency as temporary curator of experiments for the Royal Society during 1684-5 and he delivered a lecture on pneumatic systems to the society on 12 November 1684.
It seems little happened for a hundred years and twenty five years until George Medhurst developed further ideas in 1810. The first ever demonstration passenger tube pneumatic line was established by John Vallance in Brighton during 1826-27. Many people have tried their very best to exploit the potentials of this very advanced, but difficult to implement, technology.
London’s first atmospheric railway was the line to Croydon in the 1830’s. Only part of the system was built – from Forest Hill southwards. It was plagued with problems and ultimately the entire line reverted to a wholly traditional steam railway. Nevertheless it signalled a thirty year long struggle to find and build a successful air propelled railway for London. Not surprisingly one of the earliest schemes was for a pneumatic line between Kensington and Hyde Park. The idea behind a pneumatic railway was instead of the train being outside the atmospheric pipe, it would be inside the pipe, or tunnel, rather.
The notion of pneumatic railways were soon considered serious enough for a National Pneumatic Railway Association to be formed in 1835. It was set up by Henry Pinkus, an American who now resided in Bedford Square. He demonstrated a working model of a pneumatic line in Cavendish Square near Oxford Circus, in conjunction with the launch of the association.
Apparently this model was a failure. I cant find why it failed however the following entry from the The Magazine of Science, and Schools of Art suggests Pinkus’ pneumatic model was “loaded somewhat with unnecessary machinery…”
The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal suggests clearances between the carriages and tubes were not tight enough to permit efficient operation of Pinkus’ pneumatic system….
There was anger that Michael Faraday and others had been duped into lending their names to the National Pneumatic Railway Association “without a perfect knowledge of the use to which their names were to be applied.”
Despite criticism of the Association and the experimental failures in Wigmore Street, Pinkus continued unabated by building a half-mile long experimental pneumatic railway as a demonstration line in order to boost the Association’s fortunes. This was constructed alongside the Kensington Canal during 1836, but very little is known about this other than it was a traditional atmospheric style railway. Pinkus’ plans had also allowed for vessels on water to be pneumatically hauled so it is quite possible his experimental railway was dual purpose and used to haul canal boats on that section of canal in place of horses.
It is quite possible this early canalside experimental railway was sited along the Kensington Canal southwards for half a mile from its canal basin at Olympia. The basin was served by the West London Railway and so it would have been expeditious to utilise this existing railway infrastructure.
Following these early failures in London, an attempt to build a pneumatic railway was made by French inventor Alexis Hallette. He formed the Hallette Atmospheric Railway and Canal Propulsion Company in 1846 and a 150 yard demonstration line was built in Peckham by Hallett’s London engineer S. Williams.
It appears the earliest pneumatic (and underground) proposal of any sort in London was a line from Kensington (at the terminus of the Kensington Canal and West London Railway) to Hyde Park Corner. This was proposed in 1836. Most reports suggested the line would terminate at Knightsbridge Green (at the top end of Sloane Street) not Hyde Park Corner, although both locations are a short distance apart. It seems the pneumatic – underground plans were soon dropped in favour of a railway in either a shallow cutting or a series of cuttings and tunnels. Nevertheless the pneumatic theme continued to make itself prevalent for the West London Railway itself tested a short atmospheric line at Wormwood Scrubs in 1840.
There were so many proposals for a line between Kensington and Knightsbridge that Punch Magazine weighed in by proposing its own Centrifugal Railway (1845). The rationale behind Punch’s very own railway was that “passengers get to their destination by being whirled somehow or other head-over-heels; and though this mode of transit would not do for very long distances, it is presumed that a series of somersaults from Kensington to Knightsbridge would not be disagreeable.”
Pneumatic railway proposals continued to make their presence and a major one (though not exactly running underground) was Moseley’s Crystal Way, which originated in December 1852 when William Moseley first registered his plans, and debated in Parliament during 1855, would have seen trains running every five minutes between Bank and Oxford Circus. The line would have been sited twelve feet below the surface in what was technically a glorified cutting. Moseley, in addition to being an architect based in Charing Cross, was also the County surveyor for Middlesex. Noted buildings to his designs include the Middlesex House of Detention in Clerkenwell and the Surrey County Lunatic Asylum – the latter is now part of the Springfield Hospital in Tooting. Railways were something of a departure for Moseley, and his grandiose design, a sort of elongated Westfield with trains, was perhaps too expensive to be properly realised.
In 1857 Thomas Webster Rammell, a civil engineer whose offices were at 10, Walbrook, and whom we can claim as London’s pneumatic subway hero, wrote a book detailing a system of street tramways in London using atmospheric power – its atmospheric pipes would be laid in the roadways. I dont know what caused Rammell to veer from street tramways to pneumatic tubes, but it may be that he saw a further development upon the principle when he drew up his tramway proposals.
Battersea Fields pneumatic railway, 1861. Source: Wikipedia
Rammell proposed far more substantial pneumatic railways in London during 1864. The Crystal Palace railway had not yet been built and the only real world experience of his so far had been the Battersea Fields experiment and the London Despatch Railway. Yes the lines along the South Devon Coast, in Dublin, and from Forest Hill to Croydon had been built and were operating, but these were traditional overground railways using atmospheric power – those we are looking at specifically use air pressurised tunnels to power the trains and not only that, the carriage of passengers was now being mooted.
In January 1864 our London pneumatic subway hero was busy with his ideas and soon constructed the experimental Crystal Palace line to show his ideas worked. The Crystal Palace line began operation August 1864 but it was a very short lived railway – just three months of operation – especially as plans had been made to continue its operation into 1865.
Rammell’s Crystal Palace line 1864. Source: Wikipedia
A reason for the building of the Crystal Palace line was perhaps to prove that pneumatic railways were not the designs of a lunatic, which was how a London court described Rammell a few months earlier. His sanity had been questioned when he tried to defend the need to build a pneumatic railway underneath Oxford Street.
1865 was meant to be Rammell’s year. Several of his subway lines were proposed. The first was the Victoria Station and Thames Embankment Railway, which was to pass from the new station at Victoria to roughly where Manchester Buildings were on the Thames Embankment, being roughly where the present Westminster station is. The line would then head along the Thames to Blackfriars (That is of course the same route the later Metropolitan District Railway used a few years later.) The Victoria and Thames Embankment Railway was to be entirely underground using tunnels of ten feet six inches diameter.
The other 1865 line was to be the Oxford Street and City Railway (sometimes referred to as the Hyde Park and City Railway). That was to travel from Marble Arch below Oxford Street, High Holborn, Charles Street before terminating at the Metropolitan’s Farringdon station. (Much of that route was used forty years later by the Central London Railway.)
Even though it was proposed to operate the Oxford Street line on the pneumatic principle, Rammell was forced to admit the pneumatic side of things might not work and admitted he would consider other forms of propulsion although he did not reveal what. The Oxford Street’s tunnel sizes were to be the same as those for the Victoria and Thames Embankment route.
Rammell was the sole promoter for the two and half mile long Oxford Street line, and joint promoter for the Embankment route with Sir John Fowler – who was currently promoting what was to be London’s first underground railway – the Metropolitan Line.
It is interesting that Rammell seems to have some connection between the Oxford Street line and his other proposal from Hyde Park to Knightsbridge which I discuss here. Ultimately the derision over the Oxford Street proposal was perhaps a factor in prompting Rammell to seek a smaller line as proof that pneumatic underground railways could work, and his plan to use a disused sewer was perhaps in part a move to convince the doubters his plans would work, especially when so much consternation was made how the Oxford Street line would affect the Middle Level sewer along Oxford Street.
The Oxford Street line was promoted with a capital of £600,000. This was a very low sum and a hearing in early January 1864 at the Marylebone Court House to debate the Oxford Street line proposal, the chairman said “no-one could conceive that any person on the outside of a lunatic asylum would invest any money he might have in such an undertaking…”
It is not known what would become of the London Pneumatic Despatch line which followed part of the route the Oxford Street line would take. Would they share resources such as the necessary machinery? Perhaps this is one reason why the capital for the Oxford Street line was low, although there is nothing to indicate this.
Rammell was insistent that his pneumatic railways could work on larger railways, and he tried to impress Parliament that both the Battersea and London Despatch lines actually had problems because the pneumatic system was not so effective on these smaller railways. Rammell insisted the Crystal Palace line would show his assertion to be quite correct. No one believed him on that very point, not even the Parliamentary Committee he stood before in February 1864.
Both of the proposals were rejected by Parliament in early March 1864. Rammell became more ambitious following the rejection of his proposals, and he turned to the idea of building routes underneath the Thames.
Actually the idea of pneumatic operation beneath the Thames was not original. The system had initially been proposed for Brunel’s Thames Tunnel in the 1840’s. Its not known how far these plans proceeded. The initial plans for the Tower Subway in the late 1860’s made provision for a pneumatic railway, however those were soon dropped in favour of a cable hauled railway.
Construction of the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway. Source: Wikipedia
It seems the general prognosis for pneumatic railways beneath the Thames were just not very good. This was confirmed when Rammell came up with his Waterloo and Whitehall Railway scheme. The bill for that line was successfully passed and construction began in 1865. This was the only serious pneumatic subway line to begin construction work. The tubes were cast and ready to be placed underneath the bed of the Thames. The works were soon abandoned due to cost and the works ultimately sold off. This aborted scheme certainly put the nail in the coffin for London’s pneumatic subways.
Despite the Waterloo line’s partial construction and abandonment, it just didnt stop Rammell’s enthusiasm. He seemed quite desperate to make a success with pneumatic subways and was soon planning yet another new line using nothing more than a derelict London sewer. This has been discussed in my post on the Hyde Park Pneumatic Subway. Rammell was already an expert in sewer and drainage systems as evidenced by work in Aberdare, Barnstaple, Hereford and Southampton and no doubt he had clear ideas on how to convert redundant sewer tunnels for transport use.
The opening of the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 had shown that underground railways using normal methods of propulsion, eg steam, were popular and clearly the way forward in terms of solving London’s transport difficulties. Obviously the idea of pneumatic railways had become a dead duck and Rammell made no more attempts at securing a line of that sort in London.
Recently the Hyperloop has revived great interest in the concept of carriages propelled through pressurised tubes.