The Victorian Hyperloop: the forgotten pneumatic railway beneath the streets of London

An engraving of a similar system at Crystal Palace in 1864. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Since the opening of the first underground railway in London over 150 years ago, we’ve settled on a mix of different ways for moving people through cities: train, tram, bus, car, bike, bus, foot. Over the years, though, major cities could afford to experiment with some pretty far-out technologies.

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). The story begins in the middle of the 19th century, at the height of the British Empire. And 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. 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. 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.

Ian Steadman is the editor of How We Get To Next. This article was originally published on our sister site the New Statesman in 2013, when Ian was its tech writer.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Why is it acceptable to kill someone? On the mysterious history of Britain’s road death toll

A London speed camera, 2004. Image: Getty.

A decade ago I became fascinated by a graph. This one:

I had been tracking the underlining data for years. The figures were easy to remember. Every year it was 3,500, plus or minus a percentage point or two.

Yet when the 2008 data was released, it had fallen to 2,538. This was 1,000 less than the figure in 2003. I plotted the above graph, and as I said, I became fascinated.

Because this is a really important graph. This is a plot of the number of people killed on Britain’s roads each year.

In Great Britain, collectively, we used to kill nearly 3,500 people on our roads every year. Consistently or, dare I say it, boringly: 3,500 deaths a year, 10 a day. It was accepted, in a, “Well yes it’s bad, but what can you do about it” kind of way. There was no clamour for change. Newspapers weren’t running headlines about the deaths mounting up, as they do with knife crime.

Meanwhile a train crash would be front page news for a week. Take the train that derailed at Hatfield on 17 October 2000, a tragedy in which 4 people died. That led to huge media interest, massive upheaval on the railways, and, ultimately, as the re-nationalisation of Railtrack, whose failings had caused the crash. Yet more than twice as many people will have died on the roads that day. Nothing was written about those deaths. Nothing changed.

In 2000, four people died in train crashes, while 3,409 died on the roads.

Here are those figures again.

1997 – 3,599 people killed on our roads

1998 – 3,422

1999 – 3,423

2000 – 3,409

2001 – 3,450

2002 – 3,431

2003 – 3508

But, in 2004 the figure dropped below 3,400 for the first time, to 3,221. Then in 2005 to 3,201.

2006 – 3,172

2007 – 2,946

Below 3,000! This was change. Significant change: 500 lives a year were not being lost. If you use Britain’s roads, your life may have been one of them.

2008 – 2,538

2009 – 2,222

When the 2010 figures came out I was amazed by the headline figure: 1,857.

That’s still far too high, of course, but it was 1,701 lower than seven years earlier.

This was a major story that deserved a ton of coverage, which it failed to get. Having shown no concern for when we were killing 3,500 people, it wasn’t overly surprising that the fact we were now killing 1,700 fewer wasn’t celebrated.

At any rate, the graph had flat-lined for years, then, in half a dozen years, it halved. Why?

The lack of media coverage resulted in an absence of answers. One commentator, Christian Woolmar, observed that there was no clear answer to why this had happened. But he went on to point out that there had been a fall in the average road speed over this period.

My anticipation of the 2011 figures troubled me, because I expected them to go up. Obviously I didn’t want them to: I desperately want zero deaths on our roads. But something happened in 2010 that I was sure would lead to more fatalities and bring a halt to the falling trend.

I was right. In 2011 we killed 1,901.

Sometimes, being right is shit.

The news was better in 2012. The fatality rate was 1,754. So was the 2011 figure just a blip, due to some significant snowfalls that year? No: the trend was over.

The number of people killed on our roads has remained stuck in the 17 hundreds. 

2013 – 1,713

2014 – 1,775

2015 – 1,732

2016 – 1,792

2017 – 1,793

2018 – 1,782

We have returned to a flatline on the graph – and if anything, I’m more fascinated now than I was before. Road deaths flatlined at 3,500 for years, then fell sharply, then flatlined again at half the rate.

This can’t have happened by accident. I wished I could explain it. I wish we could repeat it. No: I wish the second flatline hadn’t happened, and the fall had continued. If the rate of fall had continued, we’d have reached zero deaths on the road by now. You’d be right to question whether this is possible – but if you can half the number in a few years, why can’t we eradicate them altogether? The railways are an example of what is possible. The last time a passenger died in a train crash on Britain’s railways was in 2007.

It was time to figure out the answers to two questions. Why did the death toll fall? And why did it stop falling?

The obvious reason for a reduction in deaths on the road is the improvement in car safety features. This could create a gradual fall in the death toll as new, safer cars replaced older ones. But I’m not sure it can explain a 40 per cent fall over a 4 year period.

There’s a way to check whether cars on the road became almost twice as safe between 2003 and 2010: you can compare the figures with the rest of the EU. Car safety features are international, and any new feature would have appeared around the same time across the continent.

So I found the EU figures for 2000 to 2017, indexed for 2000 and plotted the graph for multiple countries. It was a busy graph. For clarity the following graph only includes Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Italy along with a straight line drop for comparison.

The good news is that things are improving across Europe – but no country had quite the same trajectory as Britain. They all have a fall much closer to a straight line of the sort you’d expect a general improvement in car safety would produce.

One thing I did notice is that, from 2013, these five countries stop falling. The technology based solutions of recent years, such as automatic emergency braking, don’t appear to be saving lives as of yet.

So, yes, cars are safer – but that doesn’t seem to explain why British roads suddenly became 40 per cent safer between 2006 and 2010.


In 1999, the New Labour government announced that it was going to reduce deaths on our roads. The target was a 50 per cent reduction by 2010. As you now know, it succeeded. This was a major achievement for a government. The kind of thing you would bang on about all the time. “Deaths on our roads halved by Labour!” But the party wasn’t in government when the 2010 figures were released – and it’s hard to take credit for your achievements from the opposition benches.

That it was government policy is not a full explanation, and how this happened is a little opaque. From what I can gather there was a wide ranging approach. The fire and rescue service changed their practices: because they recognised that survival rates were directly dependent on how quickly people got to hospital, this became the priority. Disturbing a police crime scene was allowed if it saved a life. Accident black spots were located, highlighted and safety measures implemented. Throughout that period road safety campaigns focused on speed, with “Speed Kills” being the dominate message for that decade. The government also changed the laws on speed cameras.

RoSPA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, has a lot to say about speeding and speed cameras. Its “Speed Camera Factsheet” states that, “Cameras are a very effective way of persuading drivers not to speed, and thereby reducing the number of people killed and seriously injured.” It reports that an independent review published by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2005 said that “cameras significantly reduce speeding and collisions, and cut deaths and serious injuries at camera sites”, adding that cameras sites were delivering 100 fewer deaths per year.

Cameras first appeared in 1991, and revenue from court fines and fixed penalties went to the Exchequer. However in 2000 a trial scheme saw local councils keep the fines to pay for the cost of speed and red-light cameras. The pilot was so successful that, in 2001, legislation enabled this to happen across the country. The cost of providing and operating cameras moved from the local authority to the law breaking motorist.

The golden age of the speed camera had begun.

There was a tweak to this legislation in 2007. Fines reverted back to the Exchequer’s piggy bank. The DfT switched to funding cameras through a road safety grant. The intention was to create a greater mix of road safety measures agreed between local authorities and the police.

The number of people killed on British roads in 2007: 2,946

The number of people killed on British roads in 2010: 1,857

So perhaps the creation of the Road Safety Grant had a significant impact.

The second question: why did the death toll stop falling?

In 2010 I was unaware of Labour’s target to halve deaths on the roads. But, the change in government was enough for me to predict that the fall was over.

When the Tory/Lib Dem government negotiated its way into power in May 2010, the press declared that it was the end of the horrible nanny state – a return to personal freedom, liberty and the rule of common sense.

The way that this was to play out in real practical terms was on our roads. The evil speed camera was in the firing line. The narrative was that these cameras were just there so councils could extract cash from the poor public. Completely ignored were the facts that the fines were only handed down to dangerous, law-breaking drivers, and that councils no longer got the cash from fines.

Soon after the election the coalition government said that “Labour's 13-year war on the motorist is over” and pledged to scrap public funding for speed cameras. The Road Safety Grant to local authorities was cut from £95m to £57m. This meant that the government was now receiving an estimated £40m more raised in fines than it was spending on road safety. The cut to the grant reduced the camera maintenance budget by 27 per cent. It removed all the funding for new cameras, speed humps and other safety measures.

And the golden age ended.

Councils across the country announced their change of policy. Oxfordshire County Council switched off its speed cameras on 1 August 2010. Money was saved; lives were lost.

Eight months later, on 1 April, Oxfordshire’s cameras snapped back into life when the council reversed its decision because deaths on the county’s roads had immediately increased.

Turning off speed cameras sent out the message that we were no longer taking speeding seriously. The road safety campaigns changed their focus. The message that Speed Kills fell away and was replaced by drink- and drug-driving messages. It’s easy to miss that these campaigns move from encompassing virtually every driver to targeting a minority. A switch from confronting a socially acceptable behaviour to re-enforcing something already unacceptable. The state is no longer challenging everyone to be safe – only the small minority of bad people.

Yet speed still kills. The World Health Organisation states that an increase in average speed of 1 km[h typically results in a 3 per cent higher risk of a crash involving injury, with a 4–5 per cent increase for crashes that result in fatalities.
The majority of safety measures installed before 2010 remain in place and are saving lives. But with the funding gone councils are no longer installing new measures and the death toll is no longer falling.

So you can make a strong case that the pattern of road deaths was the result of government policy.

Which begs the question of our government: why has it accepted that it’s OK to kill, or be killed, on our roads?