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......and then two come along at once

"Where was the first underground railway built?" Anoraks and general know it all's will sneer slightly at the simplicity of the question, but for you dear reader who does have a life, the answer is the Metropolitan Railway, officially opened on the 9th January 1863. The line ran from Paddington to Farringdon.

A slightly more difficult question is "when and where was the second underground railway opened?" This may stump the majority of those who found the first question a little easy, a few might venture The District Railway opened in 1868, but they would be mistaken.

The answer is that the second railway to run beneath London's streets was opened just five days after the Metropolitan, however it differed in many respects from it. The line ran from Eversholt Street adjacent to the British Library to Euston station a distance of just under half a mile and was operated by the London Pneumatic Despatch Company (LPDC). Whereas the Metropolitan carried passengers the LPDC carried freight. The passenger line employed steam locomotives to haul the carriages, while the LPDC used vacuum technology.

The LPDC was formed on 30 June 1859, to design, build and operate an underground railway system to convey mail and parcels between locations in London. Although the two railways differed completely, the reason for them existing was the same, the state of London's roads. As early as the 1840s traffic was becoming a problem in the capital, and as it continued to expand, getting around, or transporting your goods through it's streets became more and more difficult. It was the reformer of the post office system, Sir Rowland Hill, who commissioned the feasibility study into moving mail between post offices through underground railway systems.

The LPDC conducted trials in 1859 in Battersea Fields (now Battersea Park) where they established a 452 yard long test track inside a metal pipe, with several curves and gradients.

The vacuum was created by a 30hp steam engine and the freight was packed into wheeled capsules that ran on a narrow gauge track within the pipe. Each capsule fully laden had a weight of 3 tons and during the trials a top speed of 40 mph was reached.

Work commenced in building the Eversholt Street to Euston track in 1860 and it started to run capsules on the 15th January, just five days after the first passenger train on the Metropolitan Railway. A capsule conveying up to 35 bags of mail could make the short journey between terminals in one minute.

Following it's success the LPDC sought to develop further lines within London, and attempted to raise an additional £12m in todays money to finance the work. The prospectus rather grandly trumpeted that the new network would link "points so important that it is unnecessary to dwell upon the magnitude of the traffic that must naturally arise between them" Work started on the Euston to Holborn line in 1863, with the first capsule running on the 10th October 1865.

The strange thing about this inaugural journey was that the capsule didn't contain any post, parcels or light freight, it conveyed the rather flamboyant Chairman of the LPDC Richard Temple-Grenville on a twenty minute round trip to Holborn. Temple-Greville or to give him his full surname Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville was a politician and business man and a close friend of prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. Under his stewardship the LPDC looked to have a bright future, but as his political career developed he stepped down from the role in 1866 after overseeing the start of construction of an extension from Holborn to Gresham Street in the City of London. At the time of his departure the line had progressed about three quarters of a mile to Hatton Garden and had cost around £14m in today's money, shades of HS2 perhaps? At the same time the country was hit by the financial collapse of the Overend & Gurney bank and work was suspended while the board sought fresh capital. Construction restarted in 1868, and it was completed to St. Martin's le Grand for the General Post Office in 1869.

Although the network was not designed and run solely for Post Offices use, they must have been a major part in it's future operation. Inconceivably, it appears that there wasn't any binding contract between the two entities. The LPDC ploughed on with construction, while the post office used the existing network at a very nominal rate designed to attract them to use the technology, This continued into the 1870s and then the Post Office announced that they could see no benefits in using the existing and proposed network and pulled the plug on the arrangement.. The LPDC curtailed further building work and limped along until 1875 when it went into administration.

The tunnels containing the pipes lay unused until 1921 when they were bought for the knockdown price of £7,500 by none other than the Post Office, who since 1911 had been planning constructing and operating their own underground mail railway, more of which later.

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