New York City Almost Had Subway Trains That Worked Like Soda Straws

Passengers boarding Alfred Beach’s pneumatic train car underneath Broadway Avenue in New York City. Image from New York Parcel Dispatch Company/rawpixel.

Scrolling through public domain photos on rawpixel, I stumbled upon some drawings of an odd-looking subway. The car is a flat-ended tube and slips through the tunnel with barely any space to spare. I hadn’t seen the images before, nor had I heard of the “Broadway Underground Railway” they depicted, so I investigated. This is what I learned.

In February 1870, a few miles from where masons were setting the first stones of the Brooklyn Bridge, Alfred Ely Beach unveiled his own plan to ease travel across New York City. It was powered by air. Beach’s subway included just 300 feet of track and and a single, cork-shaped car, but it was for demonstration only to prove his concept. All went well as hundreds of thousands of riders queued up to ride over the next few years. Beach knew that if he also could coax politicians and investors to climb aboard, then he could expand the line to Central Park and beyond. But therein lay the rub.

Beach’s subway was pneumatic, meaning he powered it with air pressure. If you’ve ever watched your driver’s license disappear up one of those suction tubes at a drive through bank, then you get the idea. The plastic carriers move because of a difference in air pressure between the ends of the system. Beach’s idea was to fit a train car snuggly in an underground tunnel, then use a huge fan to pump in air behind the car. The increased pressure pushed the car in the other direction, toward the end with less pressure. To pull the car back, he reversed the fan and sucked air out. The same phenomenon works when we suck liquid through a straw. As air pressure drops within the straw, pressure at the other end pushes the liquid through the straw and into our mouths.

Semuda and Clegg’s train, the Dalkey Railway. Note the air tube between the tracks. Image/Wiki Commons.

Beach didn’t originate the idea of pneumatic travel. In 1812, George Medhurst of England first suggested that compressed air would push a train car through a tube. Medhurst offered a variation, too. Instead of placing the train itself in the tube, he would attach the train to a piston housed in a small tube beneath the train (photo at left). He’d use air pressure to move the piston, which would drag the train along with it. Medhurst built neither system.

In the 1840s, Jacob Samuda and Samuel Clegg built a demonstration railway in Dalkey, Ireland, using Medhurst’s “piston in a pipe.” They went about the issue a bit differently. Instead of increasing air pressure behind the piston, they created a vacuum to the front that pulled the train. Beset by constant maintenance issues, the Dalkey line converted to steam in 1854.

From this point, several more pneumatic trains opened across Europe, all on the same principle of pumping air in to push the cars and drawing it out to pull them back. The lines enjoyed limited success, but none provided enough advantage over conventional advantages to operate long term.

From 1863 to 1874, Thomas Rammell and Josiah Clark operated the Pneumatic Despatch Company in London to transport mail. The squat cars were just big enough for a person to squeeze into. Adventurous souls occasionally rode the whole line at 35 mph (56 kph), including company executives and the Duke of Buckingham. A fan 21 feet across pumped air into and out of the line, depending on whether the cars were coming or going. Image from Wiki Commons.
While running the Pneumatic Despatch Railway, Thomas Rammel opened a full scale pneumatic train further south on the grounds of Crystal Palace Park. The line was short at 600 yards (550 meters). A huge fan shaped like a steamboat’s paddlewheel blew the passenger carriage along the track, then reversed direction to suck the car back. While the system worked well enough for a few months, Rammel’s railroad shut down after failing to impress politicians and investors. Image from Wiki Commons.

Alfred Beach published the magazine Scientific American and the The New York Sun newspaper. He was a patent lawyer who also invented things in his spare time, like a typewriter for the blind. He hoped to devise some way to ease the traffic congestion in New York City while avoiding the noise and pollution of coal-fired trains. When he discovered pneumatics, it was just the solution he was looking for. Beach patented several ideas related to his air-operated railway in 1867, while at the same time building a working model of the system. More than a hundred thousand people rode his demonstration “train.”

The demonstration model of Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Train in 1867. The open-air wagon has come to a stop after being blown through 100 feet of wooden tube by a large fan. Image from Wiki Commons.

Beach opened the real subway in February 1870, in the process inventing a new kind of tunneling machine that lessened disruption above ground. A press account at the time described the surprising elegance and airiness of the underground station and tunnel, and the “completeness of the machinery, the solidity of the work and the safety of the running apparatus.” In fact, the system worked much as Beach had hoped and the public loved it. He set a new goal of expanding the line.

Image of Beach’s subway from New York Parcel Dispatch Company/rawpixel.

Ultimately, Beach’s subway ran smack into the political and financial realities of the day. William Marcy “Boss” Tweed, the all-powerful leader of New York’s Tammany Hall political organization, refused to support the system without a cut of profits, which Beach apparently refused to offer. Investors were slow to embrace the idea without political assurances and a few ongoing technical issues continued to defy solution. The line finally shuttered to a stop after 1873, when a stock market crash and economic depression killed any hope for additional funding.

With Beach’s subway shut down, workers sealed the tunnel. There it remained until 1912, when tunnelers digging a new electrified subway broke through and found many of the contents still in place.

Remember Beach’s futuristic train the next time you’re sucking on an Icee while idling at the drive thru bank.

Beach’s tunnelers at work. Image from New York Parcel Dispatch Company/rawpixel.

Beach planned for future cars to have well-appointed interiors with cushioned seating and elegant lighting. Image from New York Parcel Dispatch Company/rawpixel.

Works Cited

“Atmospheric Railway.” Wikipedia.

“Beach Pneumatic Transit.”

“The Broadway Tunnel.” The New York Times. 27 Feb 1870.

Buchanan, R.A. “The Atmospheric Railway of I.K. Brunel.” Social Studies of Science, May, 1992, Vol. 22, No. 2, Symposium on ‘Failed Innovations’ (May, 1992), pp. 231-243

Courage, Katherine Harmon. “The First Subway in New York City Was a Cylindrical Car Pushed by Air.” Scientific American. 1 Sep 2020.

“Crystal Palace Pneumatic Railway.” Wikipedia.

“Dalkey Atmospheric Railway.” Wikipedia.

Dumoff, Abner. “Pneumatic Transit.”

“February 26, 1870: First Pneumatic Powered Subway Line in New York City.” American Physical Society. Feb 2013.

“Gravity-vacuum Transit.” Wikipedia.

“London Pneumatic Despatch Company.” Wikipedia.

Łotysz. Slawomir. “Alred Beach Not Alone: The American Patents of Pneumatic Railway in the 19th Century.” Icon, vol. 9, 2003, pp. 93–107. JSTOR. Accessed 13 Dec 2020.

Martin, Douglas. “Subway Planners’ Lofty Ambitions Are Buried as Dead-End Curiosities.” The New York Times. 17 Nov 1996.

“Pneumatic Despatch Co.” Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History.

“Pneumatic Tube System–How it Works.”

Santora, Marc. “When the New York City Subway Ran Without Rails.” The New York Times. 14 Aug 2013.

Steadman, Ian. “The Victorian Hyperloop: the Forgotten Pneumatic Railway Beneath the Streets of London.” City Monitor. 31 Aug 2016.

Stray, Julian. “The Beginnings of the Pneumatic Railway.” The Postal Museum. 4 June 2020

Vox. “The Pneumatic Tube’s Strange 150-year Journey.” 8 Apr 2016.

Wills, Mathew. “The Pneumatic Subway That Almost Was.” JSTOR Daily. 21 Oct 2016.

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