London's Victorian Hyperloop: the forgotten pneumatic railway beneath the capital's streets

Elon Musk's Hyperloop proposal seemed ridiculous, but it may surprise you to learn that the second-oldest underground railway in the world ran used a similar concept.

Since the opening of the first underground railway in London 150 years ago we’ve settled on a mix of different ways for moving people through cities - train, tram, bus, car, bike, bus, foot. Through the years, though, major cities could afford to experiment with some pretty far-out technologies - and so it is with the London Pneumatic Despatch Railway (LPDR), a Futurama-ish tube that carried parcels and people beneath the capital in the 1860s.

I first stumbled across the LPDR when reading up about pneumatic tubes after Elon Musk announced his Hyperloop idea. If you missed it, he wants to send people in capsules through a 570km-long pneumatic low-pressure tube from Los Angeles to San Francisco at speeds of up to 962km/h (yeah, really). I read that, then saw this:

(Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy British Postal Museum & Archive)

That's a party of Victorians gathered around a "pneumatic despatch tube", and they look like they're going to send those two men through it in a carriage. What the hell was this thing?

To find out, I asked Julian Stray, the senior curator of the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) - and the story begins in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. And you’ve got to deal with mail. It’s all about mail.

“The General Post Office (GPO) was the routing hub of the whole country,” Stray explains. “You would have had the foreign mails, the inland mails, the country mails, the mails to the provinces. Speed is everything. A loss of two minutes required a written explanation to one of the directors or the Postmaster General.”

The bandwidth of this system was throttled by the narrow streets between the stations on London’s edge and the GPO sorting office in the middle near St Paul's Cathedral - horse and carriage traffic jams could have Empire-wide knock-on effects - and, in an example of what Stray calls “that Victorian endeavour, that willingness to have a go regardless of the cost of failure”, some canny entrepreneurs spotted a business opportunity.

A group of men came together to form the Pneumatic Despatch Company. Its board was headed by the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, a close friend of Disraeli’s. Also involved were bookstore magnate WH Smith (yes, that WH Smith), and Thomas Brassey, an engineer who was one of the key players in the Victorian era’s “railway mania”. They were going to build a new kind of underground railway.

(Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

In the summer of 1861, Thames steamship passengers floating past Battersea Pier would have seen a curious experiment laid out on the river bank. 411m of cast-iron tunnel, 80cm tall and a little bit narrower than that wide, with carriages disappearing into one end and reappearing at the other. It was a pneumatic tube, big enough for bags of mail - and people. Grinning lads would climb into the carriages, lie under a blanket, and get fired along the tube at speeds up to 30mph.

Pneumatic tubes are still around today, in places like hospitals and banks. Most major cities in Europe and North America had their own pneumatic telegraph networks in the latter half of the 19th century, before the electrical telegraph took over - though some networks lasted for decades beyond then. François Truffaut’s 1969 film Baisers Volés features a scene with a character sending a letter via Paris’ still-operational pneumatic telegraph:

The modern pneumatic capsule system was invented by engineer William Murdoch in the 1830s. These were tubes of a few inches in diameter, designed to carry small, light items, like letters. Powered by a steam engine, they worked on the principle of suck or blow (and that's not how Musk's Hyperloop would work, by the way, which achieves its high speeds by sucking the air out of the tube so there's minimal air resistance for capsules riding on rails). It's a simple system, and inevitably some engineers in the mid-19th century wanted to scale it up to something big enough to carry people.

The most famous of these is probably Alfred Beach, whose 1870 Beach Pneumatic Transit was the first subway line in New York City (and which might be most famous now for its brief cameo in Ghostbusters). A tube-shaped train that could carry 22 people sat flush within a 2.4m-wide tunnel, blown along a 95m test track beneath Broadway. It was a popular tourist attraction at the time, but Beach failed to get investors interested in backing him in extending it into a proper underground railway (and a stock market crash in 1873 didn’t help either).

There was a similar demonstration railway built in 1864 in Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition, and there were some other experimental pneumatic trains in places like Devon, Dublin and Croydon, but there was never a full run at the idea that lasted very long. Pneumatic tubes are incredibly expensive to maintain when scaled up to the size of normal trains.

Of all the pneumatic railways, though, the LPDR is the oldest - it’s actually the second-oldest underground railroad in the world, opening only a year after the first Paddington-Farringdon line of the Underground - and the longest-lasting of them all. “As a system it was fantastic,” Stray says. “But it was a failure.”

The LPDR was built in two parts. The first, in 1863, was a single tunnel (the same size as the test one at Battersea) running from beneath platform one of Euston station to the Eversholt Street sorting office, a third of a mile away. But the second part, built between 1863 and 1866, was the main project - two tunnels, 2.8km from Eversholt Street to Holborn and 1.5km from Holborn to the main GPO office near St Paul’s.

It’s 2013, so let’s map it:

The reason it takes a long dog-leg detour down Tottenham Court Road is that the Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land between Euston and Holborn, refused the Pneumatic Despatch Company permission to mine its tunnels underneath. It was a bigger tunnel than before, too - 1.5m wide - running just beneath the road surface.

“It is phenomenal,” says Stray. “They had 21-foot-wide centrifugal fans at first powered by so-called ‘Cornish engines’, but they kept on handling it with bigger and bigger engines. It was some weight being transported in these things. Two of the carriages would be carrying about 12 tonnes, journeying at up to 30mph.” That's not bad - it was more than twice as fast as the 12mph trains on the Paddington-Farringdon line.

When it opened, the great and the good of London’s political and business class turned out at Holborn station to watch the first bags arriving from Euston - and to have a ride on it themselves.

“People would travel on it, clutching a tallow candle on their chest. It was the Alton Towers of its time. Occasionally as they came near the road surface they could hear the clatter of horse’s hooves on the cobble stones. It would dip down under Holborn, occasionally as it went low there would be a splash of water and a smell of rust, and they could tell where they were. There was a lovely report of a lady who was shot the entire length of the system, ‘who emerged virtually unscathed, crinoline and all’.” Visitors to London, including the son of Napoleon III, gave the LPDR a try.

Yet despite proving a smash hit as a novelty, the LPDR proved rubbish at what it needed to do most of all - transport mail. The stations at each end were in basements, and once you factored in the time it took to lug the heavy sacks up and down staircases at either end there wasn’t any kind of time saving compared to the horse and carriage. This became a bigger problem when times began to slip beyond nine minutes for each leg.

“It slipped down to about 17 to 20 minutes [from] loss of gas, loss of pressure," Stray explained. "Occasionally there would be complete breakdowns where someone would have to crawl into the tube with a length of rope, tie it around the carriages and draw them out. Also there was an ingress of water, and occasionally wet bags, and the last thing you wanted was damaged mail.”

There was also political opposition to the LPDR from within the GPO, which had been forced into paying for this expensive experiment by Parliament. "They were probably looking for a reason for it not to work - that’s my suspicion," Stray said. Business dried up. In October 1874, the last train left for the GPO, and it closed for good after soaking up £200,000 in costs - that's £1.9m in today's money. "They really only had a decade of use."

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the LPDR is how quickly it faded from memory. Transport blogger Ian Mansfield found an article from the Windsor Magazine in 1900 detailing the rediscovery of "London's lost tunnel", which is amazing for something that was barely a quarter-century old at the time.

By the 1920s, when the Post Office realised it could use its old pneumatic railway tunnels for laying down telephone wire, it had the problem that it had no idea where the tunnels actually were - and, when it got down there, it found that sections had been destroyed by newer construction projects, or used by companies illegally for storing things like lumber. Gas had a tendency to build-up in the city's sewers at the time, causing pavement explosions, but in 1928 a gas build-up in the old LPDR tunnel near the junction of High Holborn and Kingsway caused one of the most serious of the era (known at the time as "Holborn Explosion").

"It lifted the ground for hundreds of metres in each direction," said Stray. "It blew in shop fronts. There were flames that were 30 feet high in the air, that burned for hours on end. Below ground, where a lot of premises had cellar space, the walls were blown in a few inches." One man was killed, and thousands of pounds of damage was recorded.

All we have left of the LPDR are two of the carriages from the small tunnel between Eversholt Street and Euston - that's a photo of them at the top of this piece. They were found in 1930 during construction work at Euston, and are currently kept at the British Postal Museum & Archive in Debden. The rest of the tunnels - those not destroyed by more modern construction works - are probably caved in, filled with rubble, or otherwise lost.

Here's Rammell's 1958 map of where he thought the LPDR would eventually run:

(Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

The hope was that key government buildings - like the Houses of Parliament, India House, Custom House, the Tower of London, the Royal Mint, and the Bank of England - would all be linked up. In the end, a traditional railway built in 1927 - the Mail Rail - pulled off much of what Rammell dreamed of, linking Paddington to Whitechapel via several of Royal Mail's key London offices.

Mail Rail closed in 2003, becoming a thing of legend among the capital's urban exploration community (and only finally conquered by explorers in 2011). The BPMA is currently trying to raise funds to build a new Mail Rail museum and offer tours of certain closed sections, and from 2019 it hopes to offer rides on a replica train through a kilometre of the tunnels. Unlike the LPDR this piece of London history hopefully shouldn't be lost to memory.

Yet we should wonder about what might have been had the technology for the LPDR been a little bit more reliable, or its backers willing to lose a little bit more money. "This was ambition," said Stray. "This was 'railmania', a time when the supplements to things like the Times would carry a thousand proposals like this. People lost many millions of pounds. There is little surviving of this, little surviving headed notepaper, there’s no signage or anything like that. But there are the stories."

All that remains of an experiment. (Image: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, BPMA)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.