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Making History - The Crystal Palace atmospheric railway

Mark Stevens from Hertford wanted to know about the experimental atmospheric railway built at Crystal Palace, Sydenham, south London. Making History reported from Crystal Palace Park almost 65 years to the day since the Crystal Palace burnt down. Sir Joseph Paxton had re-erected the Crystal Palace at Sydenham in the 1850s after moving it from Hyde Park where it was constructed for the Great Exhibition in 1851. Making History consulted Melvyn Harrison of the Crystal Palace Foundation, which runs the Crystal Palace Museum, and Jim Connor, author of Abandoned Stations on London's Underground.

The Crystal Palace atmospheric or pneumatic railway was built in 1864 at the lower end of the Crystal Palace Park, and was working for a matter of months. It ran for about 600 yards in a 10-ft diameter brick tunnel between the Sydenham and Penge gates to the Park. The tunnel had a gradient of one in 15 and the railway went round in a sharp curve. It had a coach which could seat 35, and a sliding door at each end. There was a remote steam engine coupled to a fan. The railway had a collar of bristles which made it airtight and enabled the coach to be sucked along - at a speed of probably 25 mph. The trip apparently cost sixpence. The engineer was Thomas Webster Rammell, a man behind other pneumatic railway experiments in London. In fact his serious purpose was to design a pneumatic railway to go from Waterloo to Whitehall under the Thames.

The atmospheric line at Crystal Palace has become an urban legend with associated stories of it being haunted. It frightened as well as thrilled the Victorians. Some contemporary accounts and a couple of engravings exist, but there is nothing else actually left of it.

One early experimenter with the idea was George Medhurst (1759-1827), who in about 1810 worked out the principles of air-propelled transport. None of his schemes ever materialised, but in the 1840s other atmospheric or pneumatic railways were built.

The English lines used atmospheric propulsion in both directions, while the French and Irish lines were built on hills and their trains simply returned downhill by gravity. They were all single-track lines and all eventually converted to steam railways. The trains had both metal and leather parts and a greasy or waxy animal fat sealant was reputed to have been eaten by rats, though it was more likely that the leather merely deteriorated.

There were also pneumatic despatch railways designed for freight. Engineers J. Latimer Clark and T.W. Rammell formed the Pneumatic Despatch Company which built a demonstration tube above ground in Battersea, south London, in 1861. This line successfully carried loads up to 3 tons - and even a few passengers, lying down in the vehicles in a 30-inch pipe. When the Post Office became interested in the system, the company built a tunnel from Euston station north to their North-West District Office. This opened in 1863 and was used until the financial crisis of 1866.

In the 1920s, when electricity was available, London got a new driverless train system with tunnels of a similar size to the Pneumatic Despatch Railway. This Post Office tube railway continues in use today.

The first underground railway carrying passengers arrived in the 1860s. The first section of the Metropolitan Railway from Farringdon to Paddington opened in 1863. This used steam locomotives, despite the line being mostly in a tunnel, which was smoke-filled.

It was at this stage that the idea of atmospheric railways resurfaced and the experiment was tried out at Crystal Palace. Another, smaller demonstration line was built in the USA in 1867 by Alfred Beach. He also opened a passenger-carrying pneumatic subway in New York in 1870. This was the only atmospheric railway to operate under a city street but was only 312 feet long.

Jim Connor told Making History that Rammell's experiment at Crystal Palace was a try-out for another scheme which began construction but was never completed. This was the Waterloo and Whitehall Railway which was planned to connect Waterloo station to Great Scotland Yard, passing under the Thames. Work on the scheme was stopped by the financial crisis of 1866 and never revived. The tunnel had been started from the Great Scotland Yard end and had just reached the river.

After this time, electric railways began to become practical and the pneumatic idea was finally dropped. However, the original concept of the pneumatic dispatch tube continued to develop. Post offices in London, New York and Paris soon had miles of pneumatic tube. Pneumatic dispatch tubes were also used in large buildings and some are still used, especially for carrying money.

Further reading


Place to visit

Crystal Palace Museum
84 Anerley Road, London SE19 2AH
Tel: 020 8676 0700 or 07889 338812. Fax: 0870 133 7920
Website: www.crystalpalacefoundation.org.uk