Sunday, 6 April 2014

Atmospheric Railway

The idea of an atmospheric railway is not unique to South Devon. Trial routes were tried out in Dublin and in London but the most famous is Brunel’s which it was hoped would take passengers the twenty miles from Exeter to Newton Abbot at up to 70mph.

The idea is ridiculously simple. Rather than have the pump on the rails, which is effectively what a steam engine is, position several large pumps along the length of track to evacuate the air from in front of the piston in the pipe, drawing the piston along the pipe and the carriage, which is attached to the piston, is pulled along.

Two advantages over the traditional locomotive were evident to everyone. Firstly travel on the atmospheric railway is almost silent by comparison, while the lack of clouds of smoke, except at the pumping stations, would have made a refreshing change. A third advantage was not so apparent but probably even more important for these trains could not collide despite there being no on-board driver. That the air refilled the vacuum behind each carriage reduced potential motive power to a degree where it was insufficient to move it until the previous carriage had passed the next pumping station. Practical problems beset the project which could not be overcome with the technologies of the day and Brunel abandoned the idea in 1848 after only a year.

Little remains of the route today, save for a pumping station near Torquay and the more obvious building at Starcross. The latter stands alongside the modern railway and is now home to the local yacht club. On the opposite side of the road we find the pub named the Atmospheric Railway. Here the sign-painter has produced an image which some may liken to a GWR King class locomotive or similar. Clearly this individual never took the slightest trouble to ascertain just what the atmospheric railway was.

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