Counterfactual Croydon: Croydon’s Atmospheric Railway

By - Wednesday 29th May, 2013

In the second of his attempts to picture the ‘Croydons that could have been’, Tom Black asks what would have happened if a unique part of Croydon’s history had been a success

The delegation from Shanghai Transportation Authority left Croydon City with smiles on their faces. They are just the latest in the long line of groups who have visited Croydon to see quite how well our public transport system operates. London Atmospheric this week once again served as the finest example in the world of vacuum-powered railway propulsion. In case you’ve ever wondered how you can get a gleaming silver box from Croydon City to Wimbledon without so much as a hum or a buzz of an electric motor, the principle of atmospheric railways is relatively simple. A long tube is laid along the middle of the track and a vacuum created inside it. Each train has a piston inside the vacuum tube which is driven forward by the changes in air pressure. This efficient, green, and comfortable mode of transport can be enjoyed in more than 80 cities around the world – it seems Shanghai will soon be one of them.

As any Croydonian who knows their history will tell you, it all began in Croydon. Prior to 1844, there had been other atmospheric railways, but it was to be Croydon that saw the first truly successful commercial application of one. Initially, however, what began as the Croydon to Forest Hill atmospheric railway line was plagued with problems. Mssrs. Clegg and Semuda, the designers and builders of the railway, found that the huge pumping stations required to create vacuums on the lines were scoffed at by their rival George Stephenson and his fellow promoters of steam locomotives. Stephenson and his allies pointed out that if one section of vacuum tubing developed a puncture, the entire output of the pumping station was wasted.

For a time, this problem looked as though it would prove to be the atmospheric railway’s undoing. The tallow used to seal the vacuum tubing proved to be a magnet for hungry rats, whose teeth made short work of the sealants and led to the entire system being shut down on a weekly basis. Only vehement support from Sir Isembard Kingdom Brunel himself (who had every reason to back such railways, as his own Devon & Exeter atmospheric railway was having similar problems) kept its financial backers interested. While the monetary success of the efficient ‘Croydon & London Railway’ was being held up as ‘proof that atmospheric railways must eventually supplant all other forms of rail transport’, the day-to-day problems it encountered threatened to sink it before it could truly thrive.

Croydonians had a silent, sleek and expensive route to central London

Thankfully, the saviour of the atmospheric railway would come not just at the right time, but in the right place. The Revd. Julius Rose, a passionate minister who had travelled extensively in South America, believed Croydon was perfectly placed near London to be the engine room of the capital’s scientific revolution – particularly after such strides in infrastructure as the Surrey Iron Railway at the turn of the century. After twenty years of work which had begun in 1824, Rose was the unofficial figurehead for what had become known as ‘The Association of Croydon and Metropolitan Scientists’. A collection of some of Britain and Europe’s finest scientific minds, they met once a month to share their findings in an old warehouse just off Surrey Street. As the Association grew, so did its successes – including a Royal Warrant for Dias Iron Filings in 1841. The development of an early form of synthetic rubber in one of Croydon’s numerous laboratories would tragically not grant its inventor much success or fame – his work was outshone by a French improvement on his work within five years – but it did save the Croydon & London Railway. With truly secure (and entirely inedible) sealants in place by the end of 1846, the railway operated smoothly and became the envy of atmospheric railwaymen nationwide.

Within five years, the Croydon to Forest Hill route had seen people come from around Britain to travel on it. They marveled at its near-silent operation (an impossibility in the days before electric engines) and the ‘flyover’ its tracks used at Norwood Junction – the first such construction in the world. The railway’s first extension, in 1852, allowed passengers to go all the way to New Cross Gate, and by the end of the 1860s the Wimbledon Line had opened. The impact this had on the development of the fledgling London Underground should not be forgotten. In the 1880s, there was some suggestion that the District Line (opened in 1868) should go all the way to Wimbledon. Instead, the Metropolitan District Railway Company formed a partnership with the South London Atmospheric Railway and constructed an extension of the SLAR up to Earl’s Court. Croydonians had a silent, sleek, and expensive route to central London.

This expense was almost the SLAR’s undoing, and put in check some of the Atmospheric Mania of the 1890s. After the Wimbledon-Earl’s Court route opened in 1889, various underground railway companies explored means of building their planned extensions as atmospheric railways. However, the requirement for pumping stations every three or four miles proved unsuitable for more densely built up areas of central London, and so the Underground continued to be built, unsurprisingly, underground. By the time London Transport was formed in 1933, however, what had become the London Underground network remained a great deal more focused on north and central London than it could have done without atmospheric rail arriving on the scene.

People around the world enjoy atmospheric rail today, even if Her Majesty is rumoured to be less than enthusiastic about her annual vacuum-powered journey to Tattenham Corner

The Underground’s own Victoria & Euston Line, of course, would itself utilise vacuum technology when it was constructed in the 1930s. The newer, more efficient sealants it used paved the way for the upgrade of the SLAR, which was by now called its modern name of London Atmospheric. At this point, it carried millions of passengers a year from Croydon and its environs to Earl’s Court, New Cross Gate, Clapham Junction, Caterham, and – as of 1961 – Greenwich. London Atmospheric continued to grow, with the elevated extension from Greenwich to Stratford proving a crucial part of London’s preparations for the 2012 Olympiad.

So, as the men of the Shanghai Transportation Authority return home to sing the praises of Croydon’s proudest export, take a moment to be thankful for something you probably take very much for granted. People around the world enjoy atmospheric rail today, even if Her Majesty is rumoured to be less than enthusiastic about her annual vacuum-powered journey to Tattenham Corner. In Britain alone, the Edinburgh Vac-Train, Sheffield Atmos, the Birmingham Airway, and, of course, London Atmospheric all owe their existence to the bold steps in transport technology taken in Croydon in the 1840s.

Croydon’s atmospheric railway really did exist, but unfortunately was not a success. Its Croydon pumping station can be seen in the square outside Matthews Yard. More information on what actually happened to it can be found here.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Croydon Radio

    A nice piece of imagining. :)

  • PolarDog

    Oh, if only this were true!

  • George Harfleet

    Purest fantasy of the highest order. Would make a good 1st April story. Well told.

  • Omar AS

    Man. 4 years later and I still come back to this wishing it were real.