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Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway
London's forgotten pneumatic experiment

Crystal Palace Atmospheric Railway
Crystal Palace Pneumatic Subway in 1864.


Crystal Palace gardens, Sydenham, south of London, England.

1864 - 1865 (?)

Pneumatic railway running within a 600 yards, 10 feet diameter, tunnel between Sydenham and Penge entrances of Crystal Palace gardens. Tunnel gradient was 1 in 15 with a sharp curve. A unique coach made the shuttle between the two extremities of the tunnel, seating capacity 35, equipped with to sliding doors at each end. Propulsion ensured by a steam engine coupled to a fan, 22 feet in diameter. Reported to be running in the afternoon only. Price: 6 pence for the trip. This experimental railway seemed to have a very short existence.

No firm confirmation could be obtained about the gauge used on this short line. It is likely that the GWR broad gauge (7ft1/4inches) was used, as well as an old steam engine converted into a stationary engine. The coach could be also a GWR leftover.

Remnants of the tunnel have been found in 1992 (?) in Crystal Palace Gardens. See this message posted on newsgroup uk.rec.subterranea by Hugh Ainsley in January 1998.


A contemporary description of the system:
From The Mechanics Magazine, circa 1865:

"The tube extends from the Sydenham entrance to the armory near Penge-gate - a distance of about a quarter of a mile, and it is, in fact, a simple brick tunnel, nine feet high and eight feet wide - a size that renders it capable of containing an ordinary Great Western Railway carriage. That actually working in the tube is handsome and commodious. The piston is rendered partially airtight by the use of a fringe of bristles extending nearly to the brickwork of the tunnel and its floor. A fan 20 feet in diameter is employed to exhaust or to force in air, and perhaps it is imppossible to devise any other expedient so well calculated to answer the required purpose. It must be remembered that either a plenum or a vacuum equivalent to 5 of an inch of mercury is quite sufficient to propel even an heavy train at a high speed on a moderately level line. In the present instyance, the motive power is supplied by an old locomotive borrowed from one of the railway companies, which is temporarily mounted on brickwork. The tires have been removed from the driving wheels, and these last put the fan in motion by straps.

The line, we have said, is a quarter of a mile long; a very small portion of it, if any, is level, but it has in it a gradient of one in fifteen, an incline which no engineer would construct on an ordinary railway; and as it is not a level line, so it is not a straight one; for it has curves of only eight chain radius, which are shorter than those usually found in existing railways. The entire distance, 600 yards, is traversed in about 50 seconds, with an atmospheric pressure of but 2,5 ounces. The motion is of course easy and pleasant, and the ventilation ample, without being in any way excessive. All the mechanical arrangements are so simple and must be so obviou, we imagine, that it is needless to dwell on them. We feel tolerably certain that the day is not very distant when metropolitan railway traffic can be conducted on this principle with so much success, as far as popular liking goes, that the locomotive will be unknown on underground lines."


Note: I do not have the drawing mentioned above. If a visitor to this site have a copy of the Railway Modeller of September 1981, we could arrange a scan/photocopy of this document for my files. Please contact me at : fdelaitre@altern.org. Many thanks.

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© 2001 by Frédéric Delaitre
Created: 98/02/26
Modified: 02/07/10


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