London Pneumatic Despatch Company, Syndenham, 1864

The Future of Tube Travel: A Short History

As Elon Musk announces the next in a series of increasingly ambitious projects, Hyperloop, I thought I’d look over the history of travelling, quite quickly, through tubes. The idea as a form of transport has always been placed firmly in The Future, both in media references (Futurama, The Jetsons) and in design speculation. The thought that we could travel at hundreds of miles an hour excites us; ever since the invention of the bicycle, we’ve always dreamed about going that fast.

But first, what is Hyperloop? Elon Musk, the man responsible for Tesla motoring, the commercial space project SpaceX, and PayPal, has always set his sights on going faster, and further, so you wouldn’t expect anything less than a revolution. Hyperloop would essentially cut out the inconveniences of current transport; it would be safer and faster and exist at a much lower cost that your average rail network. It would also be immune to weather, and most importantly, considering our current energy concerns, be sustainably self-powering; in fact, it would create too much power. All through the use of vacuum, air, and tubes.

His proposal for the Alpha phase of Hyperloop published on Monday night exploded over Twitter in an inevitable storm of idealism and scepticism. However, the biggest questions that surfaced were simply: Is this possible? Will it ever be built? This cynicism is justified, as the history of ultra-fast tube travel details a series of failed or dormant plans to travel through tubes, seemingly forgotten until the next one is announced. Here is a short history.

Artist’s Rendition of Beach’s pneumatic tubes, at the American Institute Fair in 1867

Bounce Tube Pneumatic Travel

In the early nineteenth century, before the invention of the automobile, the thought of being pushed through tubes at speed, in darkness, and subjected to particularly uncomfortable air pressure, seemed a positive one. This is where Pneumatic Travel came in, the process by which items encased in a capsule-type vessel are propelled through tubes by compressed air or a partial vacuum.

The first recorded instance of pneumatic tubes and railways dates back to 1812, with the initial proposal of vacuum travel, or ‘atmospheric railways,’ by inventor George Medhurst. Eventually, Medhurst’s pneumatic capsule transportation was realised by William Murdoch in 1836, which demonstrated a working, fast delivery system that many businesses still adopt today. This laid the way for the design of actual pneumatic railways, with several demonstrations of absurdly grand passenger carriages that moved surprisingly quickly. The London Pneumatic Despatch Railways’ overground demonstration reached up to three metres per second, with an air pressure of only two and a half ounces per square inch. Unfortunately, like many of their peers, they were unable to fund the build needed, and disbanded in 1866.

At the American Institute Fair in 1867, Alfred Beach showed the very first example of the infrastructure needed to carry pneumatic passenger travel, promising the same speed afforded to capsules. Envisaged as a precursor to the underground rail system, Beach’s pneumatic railway was built, illegally, underneath New York’s Broadway in 1869. However, with all of its promise, and with rhetoric identical to those who followed the idea, Beach’s tunnel failed spectacularly. No-one died, but they failed to get the right legislation, and enough money, to make it happen.

Screenshot from Acabion’s demo of vacuum tubes, with their streamliner as vehicle.

Acabion Tubes

In 2011, Swiss company Acabion, self-proclaimed as ‘THE Institute for global mobility’ have created a vehicle, the Streamliner, capable of travelling at 12,500 mph—pretty damned fast. What is particularly interesting about their particular business model is that they have predicted, and outlined, the future of transit, allowing for their innovation, which envisages a network of maglev-driven vacuum tubes tubes that would allow passengers to travel the globe in two hours. However, Acabion see the vacuum tube as an inevitability, and has chosen to wait until around 2100 to test their vehicle out at this speed.

Terraspan’s outline for their global network


Terraspan plan to link Canada and Mexico through a network of superconducting cables, vacuum tubes and mag-lev trains, similar to those currently in use, and reach speeds of up to 4,000 mph. The superconducting cables would create an international power grid that would be far more efficient than the current usage and power creation in the US. Nothing has been announced yet, however, and visiting Terraspan’s website, I’ve noticed a lot of information has disappeared. Apart from a brief section of how it works, Terraspan’s links to specific parts of its proposal now politely point to the message; ‘Under revision in the light of the information shared by Elon Musk and Hyperloop, please send inquiries to:’


ET3, Evacuated Tube Transport Technologies, patented in 1999, is a maglev vactrain designed by America engineer Donald Oster. Fantastically marketed as ‘Space Travel on Earth’, this super-fast, frictionless system promises to deliver passengers from New York to Bangkok in two hours, with a force of 1G, and at a tenth of the price of current transport systems. Their business model outlines that in two years time (from 2012), a three-mile demo at 375mph will exist, bizarrely, as an amusement ride, and in five years time, most major cities will be connected via ET3. The company is still in development and has sold licenses to various industry professionals to enable them to work on the project. They are yet to release any comment on Hyperloop.

There have been many more attempts at designing faster, more efficient travel that will alleviate all of the current concerns we have about transport; however, these are those with the biggest claims of bringing the future directly to us. Does Elon Musk’s reputation make Hyperloop that step closer to reality? Musk has already said that he is not taking the lead on this project, choosing to concentrate on his commercial space project, SpaceX. Yet his name, and his promise, will always remain the key factor in our outlook on Hyperloop. Are we placing our hopes on another doomed project?

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