In the white heat of the Victorian age a number of motive powers seemed set to vie for the future. Steam power? Cable? Both were relatively new technologies whose potential seemed endless. Briefly in the 1860s, however, it seemed destined to some that the era we now know as the Steam Age would actually be known as something else – the Pneumatic Age.

To understand how pneumatic traction came to make a mark on London one must first understand its rivals. For whilst with hindsight the supremacy of steam seems preordained, at the time it was by no means guaranteed. No motive mode had yet established superiority or supremacy and the field was still wide open.

Steam traction had a long gestation period and was a maturing technology, but it was also dirty and noisy. It was reliable enough, however, for investors and they funded the mid-century railway mania led to lines all over Great Britain.

Cable traction meanwhile was used in London in 1837 on part of the Euston to Birmingham railway line as well as on the London and Blackwall Railway trains from 1840 to 1848, but the ropes had continuing problems with twisting. In both cases steam traction soon replaced cable haulage.

Cable traction was also used for the short-lived Tower Subway, which was soon converted to a walking tunnel under the Thames and was also initially planned for the City of London and Southwark Subway into King William Street Station, but the rope of the day was not up to the greater forces required thanks to the gradient. The line subsequently opened as the City and South London Railway and used electric locomotives. As a result of this, the gradient would even prove to be problematic when the line was converted to the then-new electric traction, as fully laden electric trains sometimes had to make two or three attempts to climb into King William Street.

Practical Pneumatics Invented

crosssectionCe qu’il y a sous le pavé de Londres (Under the pavement of London: top to bottom – gas pipe (small diameter), water pipe (large diameter), Pneumatic Despatch Railway and car, Metropolitan railway tunnel and train.

The principle of air propulsion was first recorded by Hero of Alexandria in his Pneumatics in the second century BC, the Greek root pneuma being the spirit of invisible and almost weightless air. Pneumatic tubes for conveyance of paper and objects were suggested by Frenchman Denis Papin in 1667, and in 1810 London businessman George Medhurst published a paper on ‘conveying letters and goods by air’. Around this time, Medhurst sought financing for three distinct forms of air-propelled transport – a pneumatic tube for transport of capsules, a larger scale tube to carry passengers or freight, then a piston within the pipe moved by air pressure, dragging along a vehicle outside it (later known as an atmospheric railway). Unfortunately he would not see any of them implemented in his lifetime as he could not raise the capital to implement his ideas, but all of them were developed and saw at least experimental trials in the coming decades, being realised in the reverse order of their invention.

Practical pneumatic despatch of objects however was developed by engineer William Murdoch in the 1830’s. These were tubes a few inches in diameter, designed to carry small, light items like letters in cylinders, blown or sucked by steam powered higher or lower air pressures respectively. In 1836 he demonstrated a working, small scale fast delivery message system, but that did not interest investors either.

Initial Experiments in Atmospheric Railways

Building upon George Medhurst’s last proposal, a number of individuals developed functioning atmospheric railway propulsion systems from the 1820’s to the 1840’s, notably the London & Croydon in 1846 and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 1847 South Devon Railway in Exeter. However this branch of pneumatic motive power was a technological dead end and will be shunted off to a separate article.

Pneumatics Supplement the Electric Telegraph

The first half of the 19th century saw the introduction of the electric telegraph, principally used for business on the stock exchanges for advance information and hence fortune, but the gain in speed from the telegraph could be lost if a message took a long time to be transcribed then sent by hand from the telegraph office to the Stock Exchange.

To avoid this delay that engineer J. Latimer Clark, using Murdoch’s pioneering ideas, designed and installed in 1853 the world’s first commerial pneumatic message tube using cylindrical carriers, between the London Stock Exchange on Threadneedle Street with the Electrical and International Telegraph Station 220 yards away on Lothbury Street. The evolution and success of this technology is explored over on our sister site, Lapsed Historian, in Get Him on the Blower – London’s Lost Pneumatic Messaging Network. By 1897, London’s pneumatic tube network included 42 stations and covered 34 miles. Similar systems were installed in Manchester, Birmingham, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Newcastle, as well as in Paris, Berlin and New York. Such tubes were seen as essential for effective communication in any large city.

Based on these successful pneumatic tube developments, the Secretary to the Post Office Rowland Hill (noted for his successful postal reform and Penny Black 1d stamp in 1840) in 1855 commissioned two engineers (Gregory and Cowper) to investigate the possibility of constructing a larger pneumatic tube, up to 15 inch in diameter, to convey more substantial mail loads and parcels underground between the General Post Office and the future site of their West Central District Office (WCDO) at Little Queen Street and Holborn. They reported in 1856 that such a line was possible but at significant capital and running costs, so the Post Office dropped the idea.

London Pneumatic Despatch Company Formed

Whilst the Post Office dropped the pneumatic parcel tube idea, two men didn’t – engineers Thomas Webster Rammell and the same Latimer Clark. Both were part of the group that incorporated the Pneumatic Despatch Company Ltd. in June 1859 to build an underground pneumatic tube railway of an even larger diameter. This was a step up in scale, and would use air to propel small railcars (as the cylinders) in tunnels to carry standard mail bags and small parcels between main railway termini and post offices. A stationary steam engine turning a reversible fan would blow or suck the cars along.

The Company was a powerful one, the board being headed by Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (and son of the 2nd Duke who featured in the London Reconnections 2014 Christmas Quiz), a close friend of Benjamin Disraeli (soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister), and included William Henry Smith (who ran railway bookstalls) and Thomas Brassey, an engineer and key player in the era’s “railway mania”. One of the notable engineers that supported the venture was Robert Stephenson, but he had no known engineering or operational role, and he died within four months of the company being incorporated.

By that time railways were the main form of mail distribution across the country, but the railway termini in London were often not at the same locations as the postal sorting office (the latter being constructed in the day of the mail coach). The Pneumatic Despatch railway was to be the missing connector.

The Company’s plan was also for key government buildings – like Parliament, India House, Custom House, the Tower of London, the Royal Mint and the Bank of England, as well as commercial enterprises like the Stock Exchange – to all be linked up, and that the government and companies would pay well for the expedited and secure service. Rammell’s 1858 map shows where he planned the Pneumatic Despatch Railway to originally and eventually run, linking Paddington, Waterloo, London Bridge, Charing Cross and Victoria.

rammellRammell’s 1858 map of original Pneumatic Despatch Railway routes and terminii (Credit: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

In 1859 the Company obtained the necessary Act of Parliament to dig up roads and lay down tubes, and raised £25,000 to construct a pilot route.

Prototype and Trials

The first pneumatic railway trial was conducted successfully at the Boulton and Watt manufactory in Birmingham in about 1860. After this success, nine foot cast iron pipe segments of a tube 2ft 9in high, 2ft 6in wide in a railway tunnel cross-section was manufactured by the Staveley Coal and Iron Co. works in Derbyshire. A century later the castings for the Victoria Line tube were made at these same works, which were shortly to become part of the Tubes Division of British Steel.

The first working pneumatic railway prototype was tested in 1861 on land owned by Vauxhall Waterworks and the London Brighton & South Coast Railway at Battersea (Nine Elms). The cast iron segments were joined to create a quarter mile long tube on the surface, with curves up to 300 foot in radius and gradients up to 1 in 22 to simulate the expected underground line profile.

battersea_pneumaticBattersea Fields Pneumatic Despatch Railway testing [WikiFree]

Motive power was provided by a 30 horse-power engine with a massive 21 foot diameter fan providing pressures of 1 to 6 oz/sq inch. The tube contained 2 ft gauge track upon which the 3 ton 8 ft 4 in long cars ran, which fit the tunnel to within an inch all around, and had indiarubber flanges to create an airtight seal. It was hoped that this would provide a tighter seal than the atmospheric railways of the 1840’s, and the test runs achieved speeds of up to 40 mph. The cars resembled the shape and colours of 1930’s tubular but bull-nosed racing cars. Weights simulating mail and even human passengers were successfully sent through it. The system was deemed a success, and plans to build the underground parcels railway (as it was also known) were put into action.

First Operational Pneumatic Railway Tunnel

The tube cast-iron sections and steam pump were reused from the Battersea trial and laid from the sorting room at the North West District Office, under Eversholt Street to beneath platform one at Euston Station a third of a mile to the south, with additional cast-iron sections ordered.

wills_cigarettesWills’ Cigarettes Inauguration of Pneumatic Tube (Credit: Royal Mail Group Ltd. 2013, courtesy BPMA)

This first operational tunnel was tested from January 17, 1863, and following inspection by the Post Office the first mail was carried on February 20, 1863. Two or three cars could carry up to 14 tonnes equivalent of mail at an average speed of 30mph – more than twice as fast as the 12mph trains on the brand new Paddington-Farringdon Underground line that had opened just a month before. In fact the London Pneumatic Despatch Railway was the second underground railway in the world, albeit not in passenger carrying revenue operation.

mouth_of_tubeMouth of First Pneumatic Railway Tunnel (Credit: IanVisits)

Many local notables and visitors made the journey in the Pneumatic Dispatch Company tunnel, including Prince Napoleon, son of Napoleon III. Most of the tunnel was just under the road surface so horse hooves and vehicles could be heard, such that repeat passengers could tell what corner they were at and the streets above at any moment.

The tunnel air was cool, clean and fresh even on the hottest summer’s day. And there was no vibration, jolting or dangerous steam, and very little chance of collision, so the potential for this new motive power seemed large, and hopes were high.

The Times of February 10th, 1863 wrote:

Between the pneumatic dispatch and the subterranean railway the days ought to be fast approaching when the ponderous goods vans which now ply between station and station shall disappear for ever from the streets of London.

The London Journal of the time added:

Not only have letters and parcels been transmitted, through the tube but we hear also that a lady, whose courage or rashness – we know not which to call it – astonished all spectators, was actually shot the whole length of the tube, crinoline and all, without injury to person or petticoat.

The service which started on 20 February 1863 included 13 trips each day, with a daily operating cost of £1 4s 5d. The rail car conveying up to 35 bags of mail made the short journey in one minute. The testing process continued until some 4,000 journeys had been made with little delay or incident. The Company estimated that five times the number of trains could have been run without incurring appreciable additional expense.

dispatch_evershotFirst Dispatch of Mailbags from Eversholt [WikiFree]

The Post Office was charged a nominal carriage fee to encourage them to trial the line – priced to be equivalent to the cost of sending the mail bags by cab. At the time the Company believed that the Post Office was satisfied with the Railway’s operations.

This first pneumatic railway tube’s life would not prove to be a long one, with its last run coming in October 1866, just after the financial crisis of May 1866 that was initiated by a London bank failure that kicked off an international financial downturn. La plus ça change. By the time the economy recovered in 1868 the Post Office had realised that the tube didn’t provide significant time savings due to access times and transfer of mail bags at each terminal, so they declined to enter into an agreement to restore it to operation.

Even though this initial line was under-powered and leaked air, however, it had at least shown commercial potential. Construction was soon proceeding on a second pneumatic railway tunnel line as the Pneumatic Despatch Company sought to develop further lines within London, attempting to raise an additional £125,000 (£10M in 2014), of capital after the economy recovered and the resumption of lower interest rates.

Second Pneumatic Railway Tunnel

When work began on the first pneumatic railway in 1863, construction had actually started concurrently on a larger 3ft 8 1⁄2in narrow gauge line in a side by side pair of 4ft 6in by 4ft 1in tunnels, one for up traffic, the other for down, from Euston to Holborn. Straight portions of the tunnel were constructed of 9 foot long cast iron sections, similar in profile but larger than the first tube’s, and the bends were built of brick. The steam power was located at the central station in Holborn.

The first section of this second tunnel started at the Arrival Parcels Office of Euston Station, proceeded under platforms 1 and 2, then ran south under platform 3. At the southern end it turned west under Drummond Street then south on Hampstead Road. The route unfortunately had to take a dog-leg detour down Tottenham Court Road as the Duke of Bedford, who owned most of the land between Euston and Holborn, refused the Pneumatic Despatch Company permission to disrupt his streets. The line proceeded from Tottenham Court Road until New Oxford Street, and under Holborn.

pneumatic_derekMap of the Pneumatic Despatch Railway route (Credit: Derek Bayliss)

When this second tube opened in October 1865, London’s political and business class turned out at Holborn station to watch the first mail bags arrive from Euston. The Pneumatic Despatch Railway, just two years after the surprisingly successful Metropolitan underground railway, looked like The Next Big Thing.

inauguration_holbornNote the two gents in the first car (Credit: IanVisits)

train_holbornTrain of Cars Holborn (Credit: IanVisits)

The second section of this second pneumatic tunnel also started construction in 1865 from Holborn, dropping down under the Viaduct and Farringdon Street, Newgate Street to Gresham Street via the General Post Office on St Martin’s le Grand. By the time of the 1866 financial crisis, a ⅜ mile tube from Holborn to Hatton Garden had been constructed. Construction restarted in 1868 after the financial crisis passed, and the tube was completed to St. Martin’s le Grand for the General Post Office in 1869. Telegraph wires were run inside the tunnel to the three stations, Euston, Holborn and the GPO to signal dispatch of a mail car. The journey time between Euston and the GPO was 17 minutes, covering 4,738 yards and included a section with two gradients of 1 in 15 (steeper than found on any steam railway) across the Fleet Valley where it reached sixty miles an hour.

The General Post Office (GPO), Communications Hub of the Greatest Empire the World has Ever Seen

In the 19th Century, the GPO in London was one of the wonders of the age. As Julian Stray, the senior curator of the British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) explained to Ian Steadman in a New Statesman article:

“The General Post Office (GPO) was the routing hub of the whole country. 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 British Empire’s communications were being constrained however by the crowded, narrow streets between the railway stations at the periphery of central London and the GPO sorting office in the centre near St Paul’s – horse and carriage traffic jams could delay communications, thereby affecting events on the other side of the world. You can read more about the GPO in Get him on the Blower.

Problems with the Technology

This would seem to have represented a perfect opportunity for The Pneumatic Despatch Company railway to impress, yet despite proving a hit as a novelty it was not terribly reliable at actually transporting mail. The stations at each end were in basements, and it took valuable time and labour to transfer the heavy mail sacks in and out of the railcars, which ate up the time savings gained. This became a bigger problem when times sometimes slipped beyond nine minutes for each leg to 20 minutes from the loss of pressure. As British Postal Museum Senior Curator Stray explains:

“Occasionally there would be complete breakdowns [in the pneumatic tube] 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.”

The main difficulty lay in maintaining the tunnel sufficiently airtight, even after engine power had been increased six-fold, and mechanical faults began to develop. The Pneumatic Despatch Company considered further efforts useless.

start_of_iron_tubeStart of Iron Tube (Credit: IanVisits)

Manually lugging the mail bags out of the rail cars and up from the basement negated the most of the time advantage of the pneumatic railway. The infrastructure to take full advantage of the Despatch Railway had not been built, nor had even been foreseen. There was no precedent to follow. Mechanisation was being attempted on individual segments of what we now call the work flow, and the modern, mechanised and integrated processing operations pioneered by Henry Ford’s car factory assembly line were still 50 years in the future.

The LPDC obtained further powers from Parliament to construct additional routes in August 1872 to St Pancras, Kings Cross and Liverpool Street stations, and to Pickford’s parcel depot on Gresham Street in the City. None of these were started though due to a shortage of funds.

Post Office Loses Interest

Soon after the LPDC realised the Post Office were also losing interest in the pneumatic railway. They were not impressed with the system, only realising a 4 minute time savings on average on this second line, and they doubted the system’s reliability and ability to convey heavier loads. The lack of infrastructure and machinery to move the mail vertically quickly at each terminal cut into the time savings, and the possibility of soggy mail did not help. So in October 1874 the Post Office informed the Company that there was no long term prospect of Post Office traffic on the system. The last mails were carried on 31 October 1874 and the Company stopped paying rent for the station site at the GPO.

Shortly thereafter the company opened the pneumatic system to the public for the carriage of parcels, ‘in the face of a Post Office monopoly’. There was little uptake. The company directors also sought other means of recouping part of their considerable investment. In 1874 the Pneumatic Despatch Company tube was used to try to extract the smoke produced by trains in the Metropolitan Railway’s tunnels between Gower Street and Great Portland Street. Whilst the immediate effect appeared favourable, later reports suggested there had been little benefit and the experiment was ended.

The company went into liquidation in June 1875, having spent £200,000 (£1.9m nowadays) on the system which was now closed for good. A winding up order was issued, however difficulties were encountered in identifying the persons responsible for the debt. The Secretary to the Company handed over the keys to the office on 26 May 1876 requesting that the Post Office forego the rent arrears. On 7 March 1882 the London Gazette carried the notice that the Pneumatic Despatch Co. had dissolved.

Soon the pneumatic railway was all but forgotten amidst the burgeoning Underground network and other amazing inventions like the telephone and electric traction.

Rediscovery of the Pneumatic Despatch Railway in 1895

As no original records or plans still exist for the LPDR, only press articles and lithographs from the period, we are fortunate that the Pneumatic Despatch Railway tube was rediscovered in a basement of Euston Station in 1895 by engineer George Threlfall. Over a five year period he explored the tunnels in detail (save below Holborn Viaduct which was full of water), finding that the 30 year old tube often had gaps between tunnel segments, and that the railcars had in some cases rubbed the solder right off the joints. But he found the rails in good condition and determined they could be still used. Undeterred and confident of being able to repair the tubes, he set up a revived London Despatch Company and, on 6th June 1896, by order of the Court of Chancery, the name of Pneumatic Despatch Company was restored to the list of Joint Stock Companies, with the goal of selling its reprised and improved services to the Post Office.

before_cleaningTube before Cleaning (Credit: IanVisits)

Much of the mail to the north of Great Britain still passed through Euston Station, with 11 tons leaving the GPO for North-Western Central (Post) Office at the busiest hour. Vans carrying up to two tons each took 24 minutes in the best case, but heavy traffic, fog, and greasy pavements could double the time. The contract for the delivery of mail to stations at the time specified eight miles an hour, and attaining this speed was one of the GPO’s chief difficulties. For a time new-fangled motor-cars were tried, but they were unreliable and were stuck in traffic as well.

To proceed Threlfall had no details, maps or documents, so he searched extensively but found neither the original company owners, their contractors, nor details or plan of the route. It was not until he found Mrs. Frances Rammell, widow of the late T W Rammell, that some of the original company papers and plans were recovered.

british_workmanBritish Workmen Once More In Possession of the Pneumatic Despatch Railway (Credit: IanVisits)

Threlfall planned to reseal the tunnels for water ingress and convert the cars to electric traction. A copper strip was to be laid between the rails, from which cars would have a roller to pick up the current, sufficient to power a maximum of seven fully loaded cars. The current would be supplied by the electric lighting companies, sparing the expense of a dedicated electricity supply. About forty miles an hour, or under two minutes for the journey, was planned. As each car would carry a ton of mail and parcels, a seven car train carrying seven tons of mail would silently swoosh from post office to station in a twelfth of the time taken by horses and vans.

With the preliminary work done, shares in the new London Dispatch Company were sold in 1899, with an American named Batcheller acquiring the rights of the Company, and Threlfall reportedly making a profit.

However despite The Windsor Magazine of April 1900 noting that:

“Over thirty-six years have passed, and the railway van is to-day more ponderous, ten times more numerous and a hundred times greater danger to those who use the streets.”

The Post Office was even less interested in the revived Pneumatic Despatch Railway than it had been the first time around. As a result no supporting funds were forthcoming for even a trial run, and no tunnel repairs or electrification were started.

Large Diameter Pneumatic Message Tubes

Birney C Batcheller was not to be dissuaded. A mechanical engineer who designed and built pneumatic tube mail systems in Philadelphia and other US cities, using larger diameter tubes for greater capacity, he had taken over the company he worked for in 1892 and renamed it the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Company. He eyed the lucrative UK market and became a main competitor of London’s successful Lamson Pneumatic Tube Company.

Batcheller submitted a proposal to the British Post Office in 1901 to install larger diameter pneumatic mail tubes (with carriers, not a railway) similar to those his company had developed and installed in the US, but the Post Office rejected them as too costly.

The new head of the Pneumatic Tube Company, John Milholland, then developed a separate plan for a network of yet larger parcel pneumatic tubes for London with British electrical engineer Col. Crompton. Their plan was to incorporate as the Metropolitan Pneumatic Despatch Company and raise £4M of capital for a 95 mile network of double 12in pneumatic tubes to interlace the City and slightly beyond in a 4km radius. However the Post Office, London County Council and other local authorities rejected this as the required street excavation would have been far too disruptive. The Parliamentary Bill was rejected in 1905, as was a modified Bill shortly thereafter. London Despatch Company was finally liquidated and dissolved in October 1905.

GPO Builds Its Own Mail Rail Tube

The Empire was booming, and as The Windsor Magazine of 1900 noted, traffic was getting even worse, even with several new passenger Underground lines in operation.

The British Post Office was aware of narrow-gauge underground railways in Berlin and in Chicago, the latter of which had begun revenue operation as an electric freight railway in 1906. So in 1909 a Post Office Departmental Committee was set up evaluate a number of options, including refurbishing the Pneumatic Despatch Company tunnels.
However the Post Office determined that the 40 year old Pneumatic Despatch Railway tunnels did not run along the ideal route and were too small for the size of trains required for its system.  Furthermore advances in tunnelling with the Greathead shield meant it would be easier for the Post Office to dig tunnels along a more optimal route and develop its own electric powered tube railway. Parliament approved the creation and development of the Post Office Railway in 1913.

Construction soon started, with elevators and chutes at each district and central post office as an integrated system to streamline mail transfer. It was completed in 1927 (after war delays and funding problems) between Paddington and Whitechapel via several key London post offices. The London Reconnections article In Pictures: Moving the Mail Rail looks at this system in more detail.

Although the Rail Mail system was closed in 1993, a segment of it is scheduled to reopen operationally for public rides in 2016 on a 1 km ride section of track around the Mount Pleasant station and depot. Featuring descriptive displays of the railway, mail processing equipment and the heavy iron flood gates, Mail Rail will be a key part of the new British Postal Museum, something we’ve looked at before in Reopening London’s Mail Rail.

Post Office Belatedly Interested – For an Even Newer Technology

By 1920, the Post Office realised it could re-use the old pneumatic railway tunnels, by then known as the Parcels Tube, but for running telephone cables, so under the Post Office Tube Acquisition Act 1922 it purchased them from Batcheller’s company. Detailed plans of the tunnels were not available, so when the Post Office did some digging, it found that some tunnel sections had been destroyed by road work, construction projects or used illegally by other companies for telegraph cables or for storage.

1921_blueprintProvision of 2-3″ Pneumatic Tubes to WCDO – Route Plan – 2·3·21. Copyright Unknown but thought to be BT Archive.

The following is the key text from this blueprint:

“Note: The possibility of rebuilding the Parcel’s Tube [the Pneumatic Despatch Railway] at this point is under investigation. Failing this it will be necessary to lay a line of ducts & if so two tubes will be laid at the same time.”

Handwritten in feint red ink and pointing to the subways at High Holborn and Kingsway:

“It may be necessary to lay tubes here [illegible] space”

Further handwritten ink just above the duct Legend states:

“[illegible] Parcels [illegible]”

Note that ‘2-3″ tubes’ likely means ‘two 3″ tubes’, as the GPO tubes were 2 1/4″ diameter not 2″.

Gas Buildup

In the early twentieth century gas used for heating/lighting had a tendency to build-up in the city’s sewers and underground voids, sometimes causing pavement explosions. In 1928 an explosion attributed to the ignition of a built-up mixture of coal gas and air in the old Pneumatic Despatch Railway tunnel near High Holborn and Kingsway caused one of the most serious of the era, known at the time as the “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. Though the cause of the explosion was never conclusively determined, the Post Office was forced to fill in or ventilate its Pneumatic Despatch Railway tunnels.

Demise of the Pneumatic Railway

The demise of the pneumatic railway technology was due to a number of factors. It didn’t scale up well and was too expensive to maintain. Steam, although far dirtier, was far more reliable, although it could not be operated remotely.

One wonders why cable traction wasn’t tried in the Pneumatic Despatch Railway. Cable traction would have provided direct energy transfer from motive power to vehicle with little or no loss. Perhaps it was the lack of sufficiently robust ropes or cables, as experienced by the cable traction attempts.

But given the efforts to increase pneumatic engine power six fold to overcome air leaks, there must have been another limitation – a political one. The GPO had no love of either the technology or a solution foisted upon them by politically connected individuals such as Disraeli. Further it seems the GPO had lost patience with the reliability problems and occasional soggy mail in the trials.

A pneumatic railway has a large contact surface – not just the rails but the rubber flange all around the vehicle. And not just one but two kinds of leaks were problematic, air out and water in.  The investors had tired of sinking money into a doubly leaky tunnel with no returns.
Competing directly with better established and understood steam railways, pneumatic railways were a new technology, and the latter’s shortcomings gave it no advantage over the former.

Electric traction was developed near the end of the 19th century, and was ideal for underground rail lines for obvious reasons – clean, with no smoke or soot, and did not require constant attention on board. Furthermore electric traction scaled up and down very well, lending itself well to the later unmanned Post Office Railway.

Remains and Legacy

The Pneumatic Despatch Railway tunnels were progressively removed by subsequent road and Underground construction, filled in by the Post Office, or caved in from bombing.

All that remains of the railway are two of the rail cars from the initial, smaller 2ft gauge tunnel between Euston Station and the North West District Post Office. They were discovered in 1930 during construction work at Euston, and are currently kept at the British Postal Museum Store in Debden, Essex, where they can be seen on the regular tours.

Of the many requirements of a successful transport/motive power mode, adaptability, affordability, scalability, maintainability, capacity, recoverability in case of malfunction, quietness, simplicity and velocity, pneumatic railways only offered the latter three, but not all of the time. Electric traction soon proved to be far better but even that couldn’t save the Post Office Railway, as gas and diesel power in surface vehicles and eventually email replacing letters left far less demand for it.

Of the three pneumatic communication technologies developed in England in the nineteenth century, atmospheric railways, pneumatic railways and pneumatic message tubes, the latter is the only one still in use today. The London Pneumatic Despatch Railway was the last gasp and the end of the line for urban pneumatic railway technology.

If you’re interested in finding out more about London’s history of pneumatic networks, then you can read Get Him on the Blower – London’s Lost Pneumatic Messaging Network over on Lapsed Historian

An article of this depth and history is due to the efforts of many, from the papers of the Newcomen Society, which specialises in the history of engineering and technology since 1920, to the modern day assistance of history and technology professionals such as John Liffen, Curator of Communications at the Science Museum, Andrew Emmerson, author of numerous excellent books on subterranean London, and Julian Stray, Curator of the British Postal Museum & Archive.

Many thanks as well to Ian Mansfield of IanVisits for the use of his scans of The Windsor Magazine article of 1900, and to the British Postal Museum & Archive for some of their images.

And finally to passionate enthusiasts Graham Feakins and David Holt who have assisted greatly with resources, papers, technical details and suggestions.

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There are 75 comments on this article
  1. The Other Paul says:

    Fascinating article LBM, thanks

  2. Malcolm says:

    A fascinating article. A great deal of research must have been necessary. I particularly like the pictures, which have a splendid Victorian feel.

    Interesting that the carriages also have (if the pictures are technically accurate) another feature which does not seem to have been used subsequently. They appear to extend below rail level, between the rails; the wheels are a short distance up the side of the wagons. This would presumably help with stability.

  3. Melvyn says:

    Your mention of events in Kingsway, Holborn re explosions re build up of gas seem to be very similar to recent events in this location !

    Paying cash in shops which was then sent via pneumatic tubes with change returned was once a feature of a number of department shops .

    Could new 21st Century pneumatic tubes have a future given increasing road and rail congestion ?

  4. Chris C says:

    Ok so WW is on the left, LBM in the middle and PoP on the right.

  5. Walthamstow Writer says:

    Interesting article. A few things stand out.

    – The Times of 1863 predicting the demise of the delivery van. What would they make of today’s scale of delivery activity?

    – Melvyn’s beaten me to it but 87 years later we have a similar under pavement fire in Holborn as well as regular explosions albeit from decaying electric cables.

    – The attitude of the Post Office to its transport needs and the efficacy of contracted services doesn’t seem to have changed over 160 years. Seems that road transport always wins out for them.

    @ Chris C – ?? don’t understand what your comment is referring to,

    [I believe Chris C is referring to the Wills’s Cigarettes image at the top of the article, and the three gentlemen closest to the cars, the two pneumatic attendants in white, and the supervisor in blue. LBM]

  6. James Bunting says:

    Fascinating article LBM. Thank you.

    The British Postal Museum and Archive have, in their Museum Store at Debden, one of the cars. Not regularly open for visitors it is worth looking out for one of their open days. A trip in one of those was described by one of the curators during my visit a couple of years ago. Very much a case of Victorian daring and extremely uncomfortable.

  7. Briantist (in Gigabit internet heaven) says:

    @Long Branch Mike

    Interesting read, much better summary than two of the waffley books about the subject I have just read.

    I always found the idea of an Atmospheric Railway one of strange wonderment, and was just a little disappointed to find out it meant pneumatic.

    I always find myself wondering: “with today’s material technology could such a system be made to work?”

    If you could provide the air pressure in leak-free tubes, it would certainly be very quiet, energy efficient and cool (in the sense of not heating up).

    Given that there are many (heavy oil) pneumatic lifts around as well as the brake-system used in cars. the technology is still there.

    Given the ability of computer control systems, you might also be able to overcome some of the other problems of the old system (no flat junctions, for example).

    My guess, however, is that however much lighter an engine-less train would be, the need to provide the electrical power to a system of distributed “fans” (or perhaps “micro-generators” in the modern parlance) would eat into the reliability and energy costs rendering even a 21st Century Atmospheric Railway unworkable.

    Never say never, I guess.

  8. Fandroid says:

    Fascinating stuff LBM. However there is a tiny anachronism. It was for the City and South London Railway that cable traction was contemplated for haulage into King William Street. The Northem Line was never at King William Street station and came into existence somewhat later anyway.

  9. Captain Deltic says:

    Interestingly our recently built Sainsbury’s is equipped with a pneumatic, or rather, vacuum, system to take cash from tills. About 4-6 in diameter with vertical risers.

  10. Fandroid,

    I have taken the liberty of correcting that point in the article. Actually it was the City and South London Subway that cable traction was contemplated for. The whole point of calling it a subway was to dissuade parliament to subject them to railway regulations. They even tried sticking with the name subway when changing the plan to using electricity but eventually it got properly referred to as a railway.

    Incidently, this is the reason why underground railways are called subways in America. They thought that subway was the correct English term as that is what our proposed underground railways were called in the legislation for them.

  11. Chris H says:

    Thanks for a very well-researched and interesting article.

    Some ideas seem to come and go every generation or two. Elon Musk’s Hyperloop is essentially an elevated pneumatic railway, albeit with a lot more power to propel the carriages. It looks similarly unlikely to be commercially or technically successful.

    With hindsight it is strange to think that there would ever be a competition in feasibility between a steam-powered railway requiring two parallel tracks; and a pneumatic railway which requires a sealed cast iron tube, rubber flanges *and* the usual accoutrements of a railway!

  12. Kit Green says:

    This link
    seems reasonably on topic to post here.
    (It also goes along with Anomnibus’s stated desire to 3D map places like Oxford Street before demolishing everything.)

  13. Captain Deltic says:

    Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’, is a de-scoped (to use the current in-word) version of the ‘Electrosender’ transport system (1) used by the Treens for inter-city travel on Venus. This had cars in an evacuated tube propelled by electro-magnets . Design speed was 15,000 earth miles per hour.

    1)Hampson F Eagle No 14 14 July 1950

  14. Herned says:

    Thanks for a fascinating article, I had not come across this before. I hadn’t heard of the use of pneumatic systems between buildings either, which seems such an obvious solution somewhere like the city before the advent of telephones that it is surprising it was never developed more

  15. ngh says:

    Re LBM,

    Mechanisation was being attempted on individual segments of what we now call the work flow, and the modern, mechanised and integrated processing operations pioneered by Henry Ford’s car factory assembly line were still 50 years in the future.

    Mr Ford (master self publicist) may have invented the term “Mass Production” but it was going on well before then, often not well known now despite having been famous at the time. Some local examples:

    Marc Brunel’s steam powered Portsmouth (Pulley) Block Mills for the Royal Navy (1802) 130,000 blocks /year, 3 production lines (block size specific) with 22 machine types (90+% reduction in workforce, significant reductions in required workforce skill levels, standardisation and much higher quality achieved).

    John Penn’s steam gunboat engines for the Navy during the Crimean War (made in Greenwich, 1 ship engine a day)

    Earlier examples include the Venetian Arsenal in the 1400s and well known earlier US examples than Ford include the Springfield Armoury (automated mass production of rifles during US civil war) and Singer (Sewing machines).
    Et Monsieur Jacquard’s programmable power loom of 1801 for programmable automation (using punch cards).

  16. Anonymice says:

    Chris C
    @ 13 April 2015 at 01:03
    Isn’t that Sir Peter Hendy in top hat, just visible directly above LBM?

  17. timbeau says:

    “However the Post Office determined that the 40 year old Pneumatic Despatch Railway tunnels …………were too small for the size of trains required for its system. It would be easier for the Post Office to dig tunnels along a more optimal route ”

    Drain extendadors please note this lesson from 100 years ago.

  18. Dave Russell says:

    To be pedantic, PoP (13 April 2015 at 09:54), it was the “City of London & Southwark Subway”.

  19. Dave Russell,

    You are correct of course. I had forgotten that. I have taken the liberty of rewording LBM’s article to recognise this fact.

  20. Long Branch Mike (M. Pneumatique) says:

    Thanks to all for your kind words. It was a real please researching this article and I am glad it’s brought joy to others as well.

    @James Bunting

    Indeed there is a link in the article to the Postal Museum’s events at Debden, in the Remains and Legacy section, at the end of the second paragraph, under “where they can be seen on the regular tours”.

    @Fandroid, David Russel

    Thank you for the correxions on the City of London & Southwark Subway.


    Thank you for correcting this ‘Subway’ in the text, and for the interesting tidbit of the origin of the North American use of ‘subway’ for Underground.


    Thank you for these examples of pre-Ford assembly lines. One of the joys of delving into history is the discovery of another hidden history underneath the received ‘wisdom’.


    As others have mentioned, there are numerous pneumatic tube network implementations still being built, in shops, hospitals etc.

    Larger diameter pneumatic tubes are very much niche applications, such as New York City’s Roosevelt Island pneumatic garbage tube system, and Japanese and Russian raw material tubes.

  21. Westville13 says:


    You might also have added Garrett’s Long Shop at Leiston built in 1853 for the construction of portable engines I believe as a result of the growth in orders following the Great Exhibition.

  22. Graham H says:

    @LBM -how do you find the time to do all this excellent research? One interesting subtheme is the amount of effort the GPO put into monitoring the speed of its services and the sheer effectiveness of the result. The van delivery speeds are one of the few (only ?) statistical series going back into the mid -C19 (unamusingly,they show that traffic speeds having picked up between the wars, are now back where they were before 1914…). As to effectiveness, Asquith was able to engage in two rounds of exchanges with his mistress between the morning cabinet meetings (he was bored with them and preferred to write to Venetia Stanley instead) and dinner. The latter presumably wouldn’t have involved the pneumatic railway (or the pneumatic express tubes ) and it would be interesting to know what the impact of the pneumatic systems was on delivery patterns – at best anecdotal I guess, like the Asquith tale.

  23. Briantist (in Gigabit internet heaven) says:

    @Graham H
    “how do you find the time to do all this excellent research?”

    I would venture:

    London’s Lost Pneumatic Railways eBook: Ian Mansfield: Kindle Store


    London’s Lost Tube Schemes: Antony Badsey-Ellis: 9781854142931: Books

  24. Theban says:

    I appreciate an historical article for a change, thank you

  25. Fandroid says:

    @Briantist. When heavy oil (or water) is used as the transmission fluid, the term used is ‘hydraulic’ not ‘pneumatic’. Hydraulic systems were and are used for transmitting power in a flexible manner, not to my knowledge used for transmitting objects like the pneumatic tube does. London’s hydraulic power network was built as a clean alternative to local steam power, but was soon overtaken by electric power.

  26. @Briantist, Graham H

    I was greatly inspired initially by IanVisit articles on pneumatic and atmospheric railways, which he collected into the eBook. I sheepishly admit I didn’t read London’s Lost Tube Schemes for researching the Pneumatic Despatch Railway, but will definitely do so for my planned sequel article on atmospheric and other pneumatic railways. The Newcomen Society papers are amazingly detailed and appear to be the source material for much 20th and 21st century writing on London pneumatic tubes and railways.

    So, standing on the shoulders of giants, and all that… It did take a really long time to compile, cross-check sources, ask the fine museum curators who freely gave of their time, expertise and images.

    I would also like to thank the Members of the London Reconnections Academy…


  27. Briantist (in Gigabit internet heaven) says:

    “When heavy oil (or water) is used as the transmission fluid, the term used is ‘hydraulic’ not ‘pneumatic’. ”

    Yes, given the word comes from the Greek “pneuma” (for “wind”) this seems fair enough. I was drawing parallels as from a physics point of view there isn’t much between pneumatics and hydraulics.

  28. timbeau says:

    There are some very significant differences between pneumatics and hydraulics. Leakages are merely a nuisance in pneumatics, but air can be replaced easily. Hydraulic oil cannot. Hydraulics are incompressible – the volume of the system has to remain the same – so the only way you can move an object (piston) of cross section x a distance y is by moving another piston with cross section z a distance xy/z.

    To move a train the size of the London Pneumatics railway’s (say 2.5 feet in diameter) a distance of a mile you need to shift 26,000 cubic feet of hydraulic fluid. (approx. 750,000 litres).

  29. ngh says:

    re Timbeau,

    “Hydraulics are incompressible”
    Liquids are compressible, just about 4 orders of magnitude less compressible…

    The Bulk Modulus of most common liquids (water, oils, petrol, most organic liquids) is 1 -3 GPa where as Air is circa 0.1 MPa. Hence why liquids are often used for pressure testing as it is far less catastrophically messy if it goes wrong as liquids depressurise far more quickly due to lower volumetric change (for example the de Havilland Comet fatigue testing where the aim was evidence preservation).

  30. Anomnibus (Lewisham People's Front [Catford Branch]) says:

    “I notice the mass of tubes has disappeared. Are you done with that particular experiment, Holmes?”

    One of Holmes’ favourite journals lay on the now-cleared workbench, opened to a review of the very latest in expensive narcotics, by one J. Clarkson. (“So good, I had to punch a colleague in the face from the sheer joy of snorting it!”)

    “Ah yes, my dear Watson, I was hired as a consultant to find out whether our Italian friend Mr. Domino could use the newfangled pneumatic technology to deliver pizzas without all that tedious mucking about with horses and messenger boys.”


    “Turns out the pizza is rather ill-suited to the technology.”

    “Shame. Physics can be dashed pernickety.”

    “Indeed, but all is not lost! Pneumatic tube delivery proved ideal for Mr. Gregg’s sausage rolls. Now all I need to do is work out where the pipes should be built…” He rose abruptly, opened the door to the hallway and called down the stairs: “Mrs. Hudson—oh, there you are!”

    Our long-suffering landlady entered with the tea tray.

    “Where did you hide my dratted crayons?”

    “Look, Mister ‘Olmes, I can put up with the fiddle playin’, an’ that funny-smellin’ stuff you like to smoke. I don’t even mind when you take them narcotics! But I draw the line at crayonin’! T’ain’t natural for a grown man to do that! T’ain’t natural at all! So I threw ’em out! Now, would either of you care for a scone?”

  31. Graham H says:

    @anomnibus – 🙂

    @ngh/timbeau – indeed, this article could so easily have slithered off (and no doubt will, now) into a discussion on the network of the London Hydraulic Company,whose redundant accumulators could still be seen in the eastern parts of London until recently.

  32. Castlebar says:

    I am encouraged that as yet, nobody has produced a map with suggestions for possible extensions.

  33. Graham H says:

    @Castlebar – and that map to show how the redundant pneumatic tunnels could be linked to the W&C and/or the GNC to allow people to be whisked to Southend Airport, if not the Porte de Vanves.

  34. Castlebar says:

    @ GH

    or “Porte d’Aldwyche”

  35. ngh says:

    Re Graham H & Castlebar,

    I think the Victorian Crayonistas already done that to death looking at the 1st map in the article…

  36. Graham H says:

    @ngh – I may have been writing in irony…

  37. Milton Clevedon says:

    Presumably the irony crayon is metallic grey in colour?

  38. Graham H says:

    @Milton Clevedon – but of course.

  39. Mark Townend says:

    @with a little dark orange to represent rust

  40. Milton Clevedon says:

    LBM’s pneumatic article leads one to wonder how haphazardly residual responsibilities were or are allocated for maintenance of redundant infrastructure – clearly the pneumatic tubes were neglected for decades after their closure.

    A similar problem befell the redundant Chicago Goods Railway tunnel system – it was largely forgotten about until the River Chicago was offered a route in to many Loop buildings’ basements because someone dredged too enthusiastic a hole which encountered the Goods Railway system.

    In Edinburgh – with largely an east-west railway system – there is still the disused north-south Scotland Street tunnel, unused by railway since 1887 !

    There are many tunnels now bricked up or their entrances filled in among the thousands of miles of closed railways in Britain. Derelict viaducts also abound, and other former railway lands, and I believe were either passed onto Network Rail if there was a vague chance of a route being used for transport purposes, or otherwise passed on to London & Continental as land assets for value recovery, on the abolition of BRB(R).

  41. Long Branch Mike (M. Pneumatique) says:

    @Milton Clevedon

    In fact, much research is now being conducted to identify forgotten infrastructure and its owners, to avoid surprises, such as the building drill that pierced the Northern City line [from Moorgate] at Old Street, on the following topics:

    • railways and their crossings (ie bridges and subways and the need for these to be provided, the legislation and changes to rights and responsibilities)
    • identifying ownership, rights and responsibilities for railway or third party assets (pipe crossings, bridges, rivers and streams, walls and fencing)
    • the ownership, rights and responsibilities of railway assets interfacing with third party property
    • the vesting of British Transport Commission railway assets in London between London Underground, British Rail and its successors, post the Transport Act 1962 and the Railways Act 1993

    Some example papers of the research undertaken are:

    London’s Deep Tube Railways: Visibly Invisible. Darroch, Nathan (2012), MA by research thesis, University of York.

    A brief introduction to London’s underground railways and land use, Journal of Transport and Land Use, Vol 7, No 1 (2014)


    The most common perception of London’s underground railways and land use is that the railway stimulated suburban development and growth of the city. However, the interface between the railway, private property interests, and urban and suburban development is much more complicated than this. This paper introduces a brief overview of the interrelationship between the railway and land use in the central zone of London and some of the complexities involved with the presence of the railway and the development or use of adjoining lands. As this topic appears to be little discussed, evidence is used from London Underground records and specialist knowledge to form the argument that the topic should have greater discussion academically and practically.

  42. Milton Clevedon says:

    Thank you for those references. I’ve had a quick look at them, and they provide an interesting discussion on the metamorphosis of underground railway structures and their enforced co-existence with neighbouring properties (and vice versa), although there is rather less about the impact of the railway’s presence on adjoining or nearby property values and how those may have been enhanced or reduced depending on the nature and impacts of those railway activities.

    There’s at least one study about the overall impact on property values of the Jubilee Line Extension, published in 2004/05. The principle that a (tube) railway might be beneficial underlies the Mayor’s supplementary business rating on London to help pay for Crossrail 1 – and that other locally raised taxation will be required also for Crossrail 2, as set out by Crossrail 2 MD Michèle Dix at the 25th March 2015 London First Infrastructure Summit ( ).

    The valuation of transport impacts on properties in the catchment might also be relevant for largely above ground schemes such as the proposed Outer Orbital, shown in slide 29 of Isabel Dedring’s presentation ( ) at the same summit. How properties might benefit from transforming some of the road network into tunnels could also be relevant, with the current proposals for some road tunnels with the existing road lands then built on (Isabel Dedring link again, slide 33).

    Maybe the failure of the pneumatic tube, and the changes in mail demand which led to the closure of MailRail, pointed to too specialised a tunnel infrastructure without sufficient benefits to defray high costs and maintenance, as opposed to more general purpose carriers such as high volume passenger railways and multi-purpose road corridors.


  43. Graham H says:

    @MC/LBM – a few assorted points about the relationship between (underground) railway construction and property:

    – A major change took place in (1924?) when the judiciary decided that property rights do not extend to the centre of the earth (!); this made construction under exisitng properties that much easier, particularly when combined with that well-known case (Selfridge v the CLR) about nuisance caused by statutory undertakers
    – I seem to recall that the construction of the Victoria Line also led to studies about the impact on property prices and may have lain behind the introduction of DLT at the time.
    – In general, the BTC and its predecessors had excellent property records and because they had been constructed “cumulatively”, keeping track of properties and rights was relatively straightforward. The difficulty came with intra-BTC transfers (eg BR-LT), where it was assumed that the BTC would last for ever and therefore transfers followed the actual change of responsibilities fairly slowly, if at all.
    – Privatisation (especially of other utilities such as gas) led to a major record-keeping disaster. There was no obligation to keep old records (apart from a very weak one of “historical significance” – not something that appealed to cut-and-thrust entrepreneurs…). Wearing one of my many latterday BR hats, that of the Board’s archivist, we found that nearly every day, as we sold off subsidiaries, my 6 archive staff would be faced with a van load or three of “redundant” archives, all uncatalogued and unlikely to be so for many decades.
    – Even for modern assets such as rolling stock, the records were far from complete (will not repeat again the story of the last BR vehicles and their fate…)
    – Besides the obvious property items such as land and buildings, the Board and its predecessors had acquired an enormous number of more esoteric property rights such as abstraction of water, wayleaves and so on – these were not always recorded properly in the deeds and will go on causing difficulties for many years yet. [They are also sometimes marketable assets – for example, in East African railways, I found that the undertaking had acquired extensive water rights in the days when Garratts climbed their way into the interior but these were not properly recorded – usually a deal between the local chief and the company – but they were very valuable these days, diesel traction despite].

  44. timbeau says:

    @Graham H
    “will not repeat again the story of the last BR vehicles and their fate”
    oh please? At least tell us where to find it!
    I’m trying to imagine what they were – presumably something the ROSCOs didn’t want? Or something on permanent loan to the NRM?
    The chairman’s limousine?

  45. Mike says:

    Very interesting!

    Modest correction: “Stavely Ironworks” should be Staveley ironworks, Staveley being the name of the company and its eponymous location, ironworks not being part of the company’s name.

    [Thanks, corrected. LBM]

  46. Greg Tingey says:

    The London Hydraulic Power Coy exited for a long time – IIRC it stopped operating as “intended” after 1970 – it’s “mains” are now used for data-fibre-opitic conduits.
    Hydraulics were a very good source of locally distributed power – paticulalry in places like city goods stations (with lifts for wagons) & docks.

    See Here:
    here too

  47. Julian says:

    The Lamson Group is still selling its air systems! I didn’t realise how it tied back so directly to the London pneumatic railways, so thanks for joining it all together.

    Lamson have a website at – for railways the technology may have failed rapidly, but it worked and continues to be viable for small-bore tubes that could be made airtight, where shifting physical stuff is necessary – cash and paperwork. It seems to have vanished from public consciousness with the demise of remote cashiers in shops, but is very much alive for cash in shops and drive-in banks (perhaps the only place it’s now seen in public), medical samples in hospitals, paperwork. The carriers are identical to those of old.

  48. Ian J says:

    @Guano: The research was funded by the Transport Systems Catapult, which disappointingly is not a giant catapult used as a transport system.

    For me the key lesson from LBM’s story for the proposed Mole system is in this quote:

    The stations at each end were in basements, and it took valuable time and labour to transfer the heavy mail sacks in and out of the railcars, which ate up the time savings gained

    It turned out that the propulsion system didn’t really matter – the difficult bit was integrating a single transport route into a wider distribution system. Even the Post Office Railway eventually stopped being useful when the Post Office shifted more of its operations out of central London. The idea of some kind of underground freight distribution system won’t go away, but it won’t go anywhere much either until someone works out a better way of getting goods to the surface and handling them when they get there.

  49. Graham Feakins says:

    @IanJ – “The idea of some kind of underground freight distribution system won’t go away, but it won’t go anywhere much either until someone works out a better way of getting goods to the surface and handling them when they get there.”

    What was wrong with chutes and conveyor belts? See e.g. the first few moments here:

  50. Graham H says:

    @Graham Feakins – chutes and conveyors would surely limit the size of what can be handled and the former,at least,the nature of the goods to be dropped. There would also seem to be a continuing need for a manual interface between the surface access systems and the horizontal system as in airport luggage handling? [In fact, airport luggage handling seems to be quite a good practical example of the sort of system you describe, albeit above ground, and it’s notably labour intensive and has difficulty in handling non-standard stuff – usually hang-gliders when I travel., for some reason..]

  51. Ian J says:

    @Graham Feakins: What was wrong with chutes and conveyor belts?

    They don’t work so well now that mail is transported mainly in trays, pre-sorted by destination, which then stack into wheeled containers. And there would be obvious problems with using chutes for other freight like supermarket deliveries.

  52. Anonymous says:

    @Graham H – is there no end to your skillsets? Hang gliding as well as surface methods of travel.

  53. Graham H says:

    @Anonymous – not one of my skills, alas (these days,I have even given up windsurfing…) – it’s merely that whenever I travel by air, the airport seems to have an unusually large number of people lugging those very long/large bags for hang-gliders. Maybe I go to the wrong places?

    To pick up Ian J’s point, airports’ luggage systems seem to work only because goods are packed in broadly uniform containers and even then,many mistrust the system not to damage their contents by using “attack” luggage (ie luggage which survives by destroying all competitors in the vicinity.)

  54. Greg Tingey says:

    Ian J
    The GPO tube was proposed to be extended from W district office to Willesden in a “surface tube” [ basically a set of steel hoops with plastic covers – to keep the weather & theives out ] … & might have happened had not a certain person (named in the GPO tube thread) not been given charge, followed by the switch to all-road transport in Central London (!)

  55. Paying Guest says:

    @Greg Tingey
    The area mains were still in operation later in the 70s. I used to visit the Computing Devices Company (CDCo) regularly throughout 1974-5 at their then premises on the 4th floor of a building in Scrutton Street and occasionally the lift would stop for a minute or two. The explanation given by their CEO was that Tower Bridge was opening using its back-up system causing a pressure drop in the main.

    I’m not saying I believe his story, but the lift was definitely powered by the London Hydraulic Power Company.

  56. @Graham H and his windsurfer

    Hockey sticks, whilst not as long as the aforementioned surfboards and hang gliders, also require special handling. I should add that very few sticks these days are made of wood, but of carbon composites – whilst strong, they can also be quite brittle.

  57. Castlebar says:

    @ Greg

    “[ basically a set of steel hoops with plastic covers – to keep the weather & theives out ] ”

    That explains where the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Co went wrong. No plastic covers.

  58. Graham Feakins says:

    When I suggested “chutes”, I had in mind the sort of chute in the form of a slide, a form of which is a helter-skelter, rather than a sheer drop.

    As for size limitation, surely that will be limited in any case by the subterranean vehicle.

    Here, you will see (per IanJ) “mail [is] transported mainly in [trays] sacks, pre-sorted by destination, which then stack into wheeled containers.” All shapes and sizes.

  59. Long Branch Mike (St-Patrick) says:

    The Post Office Railway used spiral chutes to slide mail bags down, although I cannot seem to find an image of one, nor does the excellent Pathé clip Graham F provided appear to show one.

    In the article photo “Train of Cars Holborn” of the Pneumatic Despatch Railway’s Holborn station, there are wheels embedded in the floor beside the rails, but these wheels don’t appear in any of the drawings, such as the image immediately above.

    Unfortunately I was never able to uncover precisely how these floor wheels were used in operation. Presumably containers of mailbags were rolled right up beside the rail cars to facilitate loading and unloading, like in the Post Office Railway clip. The bigger issue for the Pneumatic Despatch Railway was likely the vertical transport of mailbags, about which I have found no information.

  60. Guano says:

    “The GPO tube was proposed to be extended from W district office to Willesden in a “surface tube””

    Was this a serious proposal?

  61. Greg Tingey says:

    I don’t think it got past the equivalent of GRIP 2 …….
    If only because of other issues, previously discussed

  62. Theban says:

    There was a (hairbrained?) proposal to link London and Paris

  63. Long Branch Mike (St-Patrick) says:


    “The Pneumatic Transmission of Messages and Parcels between Paris & London Via Calais and Dover – Preliminary Study and Surveys, by JB Berliner, Civil Engineer, 1885”

    Fascinating! I shall read it on the weekend.

  64. Hugh.S. says:

    @Captain Deltic
    Have just been reading about a burglary at Sainsbury’s in Bury St.Edmunds where thieves got up on to the roof and extracted cash from flight pods in a vacuum tube in the roof void.Unusual but not unique-something similar happened at a branch of Tesco in Swindon.
    Apparently common practice in supermarkets to be transmitted from tills to secure cash offices by vacuum tube.

  65. Graham H says:

    @Hugh S -there’s a whole separate article (but probably not for this forum) on non-railway pneumatic tubes of the sort you mention, and indeed there was some correspondence about them behind the present item. Not only were suchtubes widely used in department stores for cash transmission*, as many of us recall, but the Post Office operated a network for the despatch of urgent messages, based on the GPO in the City and reaching as far as Charing Cross, and a similar system was operated by the security services within Whitehall. All these relied on small(ish) pouches or cylinders and could not convey anything bigger than files or bundles of cash. I was surprised to hear that modern supermarkets still use such systems.

    *There were also -less commonly – systems with wire baskets moving on chains, for the same purpose; I even encountered one very extensive network in the cellars of a champagne merchant in Reims.

  66. @Hugh S, Graham H

    “there’s a whole separate article (but probably not for this forum) on non-railway pneumatic tubes of the sort you mention”

    Indeed there is, and it does cover house tubes, cash railways etc. It is on LR’s sister site

  67. Anonymous says:

    I worked on a pneumatic “people mover” when I was in engineering school in the 60’s. It was the project of a Fluid Mechanics prof. I think we were measuring drag coefficients. It was basically a 4′ square pipeline built in the very big lab using a big fan and go-kart with a plywood back that fit the pipeline. Ironically, I heard the Post Office installed his design for moving mail from one building to another.

  68. Ian J says:

    @Graham F: Here, you will see (per IanJ) “mail [is] transported mainly in [trays] sacks, pre-sorted by destination, which then stack into wheeled containers.” All shapes and sizes.

    There is an obvious difference between the trays the Royal Mail uses now and the sacks they used to use. The letters in them are sorted into postcode order – good luck keeping them all in position in the tray as they spiral down a slide…

    As an academic article on prospects for future capsule pipelines noted,
    Mail Rail served a dedicated purpose and was well integrated into the postal distribution network. Once this network changed, it became more challenging to support as, in effect, the underground freight journey had to become part of an intermodal trip, with a significant impact on costs. The lack of flexibility also meant that other goods could not be carried. Therefore, future applications in the UK need to take into account supply chain structures, the need to form part of an intermodal transport chain and offer flexibility in terms of the products carried. Being able to carry palletised goods would potentially contribute towards this flexibility.

    Adapting the MailRail tunnels to carry pallets was in fact tried.
    The article mentions a 1990s proposal called Metrofreight which went as far as being allowed for in legislation, which would have used rubber-tyred, battery-driven, driverless vehicles to supply goods to major goods outlets in the Oxford Street area from a central distribution centre in Willesden.

    By 2001, the Metrofreight proposal had become more ambitious:
    Phase one of the £130M scheme plans to link Willesden in north west London to Whitechapel in east London via Paddington and Oxford Street.
    Two proposed secondary phases would head towards the M1 and Heathrow to connect with arterial routes.

    But there were signs of trouble raising the money needed:

    MetroFreight consortium members are Consignia, Kier Construction, J Murphy & Sons, John Lewis Partnership and HSBC. However, MetroFreight is looking for more members and investors.

    By 2003 when MailRail closed, the proposal seems to have been dead.

    @anonymous: was the test pipeline you worked on the one in Milton Keynes mentioned in the article linked to above?

  69. Sparks says:

    Some contemporary references to the Pneumatic Dispatch may be found in ‘The Engineer’ magazine, from the time of it’s ‘re-discovery’ in 1899 and when the Post Office Railway began to be constructed in 1924:-

    The Engineer 02 Jun 1899 – Pneumatic Propulsion (p.532)
    The Engineer 06 Oct 1899 – Pneumatic Tube from the General Post Office to Euston (p.354)
    The Engineer 13 Oct 1899 – The Pneumatic Despatch (p.368)
    The Engineer 31 Oct 1924 – Letters to the Editor – The Post Office Tube Railway (p.504)
    The Engineer 07 Jul 1924 – Miscellenea – Pneumatic Despatch Railway (p.525)
    The Engineer 21 Noc 1924 – Letters to the Editor – The Post Office Tube Railway (p.581)
    which may all be downloaded from the very useful

    The 13/10/1899 article is particularly interesting as it details the mechanism for venting the Metropolitan tunnels between Euston Sq and Great Portland St – is anyone able to tell us if any trace remains of this please?

  70. Sparks says:

    @LongBranchMike 16/04/15 23:30

    “In the article photo “Train of Cars Holborn” of the Pneumatic Despatch Railway’s Holborn station, there are wheels embedded in the floor beside the rails, but these wheels don’t appear in any of the drawings, such as the image immediately above. Unfortunately I was never able to uncover precisely how these floor wheels were used in operation. “

    I think these wheels are a sector plate to move the cars from one track to the other for the return journey. You can see the edge of it at the right of the photo.

    Great article!

  71. @Sparks

    Thanks for The Engineering references (I’d read a few of them), and the sector plate explanation!

  72. Paul says:

    Thanks for an interesting article.
    I must be one of the last people to crawl (or stoop to be precise) through the main part of the pneumatic railway tunnel, as recently as 2002/3.
    I was an engineer working for the construction company Amec and we had secured a contract to fill the cast iron tunnel sections with standard BT ducts and fill each section between manholes with foam concrete. The tunnels had a multitude of BT cables on hangers each side of the tunnel which made it awkward to get through. This was the reason that BT wanted them infilled as current H&S regulations made them practically inaccessible to workers.
    The tunnel was still in place in Drummond Street but then a section was missing where the Euston underpass had cut through it. The section under Tottenham Court Road was in place as was the section from New Oxford Street right through to Newgate Street. As in 1895 the steeply sloping section either side of Farringdon Street where it dips under the Holborn Viaduct and crosses just above the Fleet River was flooded and we had to pump this out.
    The tunnel rails were cast into the shape of the sections rather than being separate.
    I remember being surprised how shallow the cover was to the road above in many places – probably not more than about 2m.
    The earlier, smaller sized tunnel in Eversholt Street was also extant but due to its smaller size we could not access this and just filled it with foam concrete.

  73. @Paul

    Thanks so much for relating that, fascinating.

  74. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating article. Wonderful discussion.

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