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History of the Application of the System on the South Devon Railway, 1844-1848—Report on State of Works (August 28, 1847)

As soon as it had been decided that the South Devon was to be constructed as an Atmospheric line, the dimensions of the cuttings, embankments, and tunnels were arranged for a single line, except on the long incline west of Totness, and on that east of Plympton. In the approaches to the principal summits the gradients were made somewhat steeper, so as to reduce the excavations.

In December 1844, Mr. Brunel prepared a specification and drawing of a steam-engine and vacuum pump, and a copy was sent to the most eminent engine-builders, together with a letter inviting tenders for six pairs of engines. The letter concluded as follows:—

Any party whose tenders may be accepted, shall, if required, furnish forthwith a more detailed drawing and specification of the engines as they propose to furnish them; the specification and drawing now sent being expressly made very general, in order that each manufacturer may, so far as is consistent with the general requisites and conditions, adopt his own methods of construction, or use any existing patterns.

The economical character of the engines which Mr. Brunel desired to obtain is sufficiently indicated by the requirement that they were to be high-pressure condensing engines, fitted with double-seated expansion valves, and having boilers proved to 100 lbs. per square inch, and guaranteed to work with safety valves loaded to 40 lbs. per square inch.

The tenders accepted were those of Messrs. Boulton and Watt, Messrs. Rennie, and Messrs. Maudslay and Field.

Mr. Brunel left it to the contractors to prepare their designs without any interference on his part, deeming it best to rely on their unfettered judgment.

The task of manufacturing and fitting the cast-iron tube was one of some difficulty, the longitudinal slit allowing of considerable distortion in the casting. This work was undertaken by Mr. George Hennett, by the aid of a set of very effective tools devised by Mr. T. R. Guppy.

The tubes were supplied at the rate of one mile per week, and by the middle of 1846 nearly the whole line was laid to Newton, and the valve was ready to be fixed.

In the autumn of 1846, Mr. Joseph Samuda went to Dawlish, taking with him a staff of assistants trained in the working of the system at Croydon; and every effort was made to advance the completion of the engines and the other parts of the apparatus.

Owing, however, to vexatious delays in the erection of the engine-houses and engines, it was not until the commencement of 1847 that a piston-carriage was able to traverse the first six miles out of Exeter. And, though repeated experimental trains continued to be run, no passengers had been conveyed by Atmospheric trains prior to the general meeting of the shareholders, at the end of August. Mr. Brunel’s report on this occasion was as follows:—

August 27, 1847.

It is a subject of great regret, and to no one more than to myself, that we have as yet been unable to open any portion of the line to the public with the Atmospheric apparatus, although a considerable distance has for some months been in a state to admit of frequent experiments being made upon it. This delay has arisen principally, if not entirely, in that part of the whole system which it might have been expected would have been the least exposed to it—namely, the construction and completion of the steam-engines.

It is due to Mr. Samuda that I should say that, so far as regards the mere pipe and valve, and other details which may be said to constitute the Atmospheric apparatus, we might long since have commenced. But the engines, although designed without any interference with their plans, and furnished by the best makers of the country, and although differing so slightly from the ordinary construction of steam-engines, have proved sources of continued and most vexatious delays, both in the unexpected length of time occupied originally in their erection, and in subsequent correction of defects in minor parts. While the engines were imperfect, it would not only have been unwise to have commenced working the line, even had it been practicable, but the frequent interruptions to the continuous working of all the engines rendered it impossible to complete and test the different portions of the Atmospheric apparatus. There are still some defects to be remedied in one or two of the engines, and I am using every endeavour, by persuasion and by every other means in my power, to urge on the manufacturers in their work of completion. Within the last week or two only have we been able to work at all continuously between Exeter and Teignmouth, so as to have the opportunity of trying the different parts, and getting the various details requisite for actually working trains tested and brought to sufficient perfection to ensure efficiency and regularity.

Since the beginning of last week, however, four trains per day have been run regularly, stopping at the stations, and keeping their time as if working for traffic. The tube and valve appear in good order, and the whole has worked well, but the running in this manner can alone show the deficiencies which may still exist in the details necessary for stopping, and starting quickly from the stations, and all the other minor operations incidental to working the traffic in the ordinary course; and, until all these arrangements are completed, and the engines in more perfect order, I think it would be much better to defer at least the substitution of the Atmospheric for the locomotive working. Trains, in addition to those now running may perhaps be advantageously worked for the public, after a further short continuance of the present practising.

The two engines completing the number to Newton are nearly ready for trial, and it is to be presumed that, after the experience of the past, the makers will be enabled to put them at once into an efficient state.

The delays and difficulties attending the bringing into operation the Atmospheric System upon this portion of the railway have been beyond all anticipation, and beyond what any previous experience would have justified anybody in anticipating. The difficulties have all been seriously aggravated by the necessity (consequent, certainly, upon the original delays) of working the line with locomotives during the construction and completion of the Atmospheric apparatus. Not only has the constant occupation of the line interfered with the progress of the work, but it has been necessary to devise all the arrangements so as to admit stations, sidings, and line being worked either by locomotive or by Atmospheric in succession, or even at the same time.

These difficulties, added to those always consequent upon the introduction of any new system, have been most wearying and incessant, and I am not surprised that the public and the proprietors should have been impatient. I trust the ultimate result will remove any grounds for disappointment.

The stress of personal anxiety and personal fatigue, experienced by Mr. Brunel and by all who were engaged in the work, was very severe, and continued so to the end. Not only was the progress in the completion of the work slow, but in spite of every exertion the results were incessantly marred by unfortunate contingencies which involved further delay, discouragement, and expenditure. Moreover, the reaction which followed the railway mania had set in; calls were ill responded to, and great difficulty was experienced in raising the money requisite for the completion of the line.

Under these circumstances it was resolved, on September 1, not to incur any new expenses in relation to the Atmospheric System beyond Totness, and to limit any expenditure already contracted for, until its working between Exeter and Totness had been fairly tried, except to provide assistant power up the two inclines.

On September 8 the Atmospheric trains began to take their share in the passenger duty of the line, four trains running each way daily; and, except when occasional mishaps caused delay, the new mode of traction was almost universally approved of. The motion of the train, relieved of the impulsive action of the locomotive, was singularly smooth and agreeable; and the passengers were freed from the annoyance of coke dust and the sulphureous smell from the engine chimney.

In other respects the record of progress is but a chequered one, and exhibits, in spite of great and able efforts and brightening intervals of occasional improvement, indications of growing difficulties deepening into ultimate defeat.

In examining the chronicle of events which correspondence and memoranda supply, it is inevitable that references to failure and disaster should be found relatively in far greater abundance than records of success; and this for the simple reason that there was at that time great use in taking note of the unfavourable incidents that occurred, almost none in mentioning successful work.

There is therefore some danger of falling into a mood of unjust depreciation, such as Mr. Brunel had in energetic terms urged the Directors to guard themselves against. He protested against their requiring (as they once intended to do)—

continuous and detailed reports—if true and honest, of course containing nothing but accounts of mishaps—of a system which (he says) we are struggling to render perfect. Why, a daily account of our locomotive mishaps would ruin the locomotive system, if it were new! I will undertake to say that the mishaps of yesterday or to-day on the Great Western Railway were as great as that of Tuesday on the South Devon.

The Atmospheric System was vaguely credited with every delay which a train had experienced in any part of its journey; though, in point of fact, a large proportion of these delays was really chargeable to that part of the journey which was performed with locomotives. It often happened that time thus lost was made up on the Atmospheric part of the line, as is shown by a record of the working, which is still extant. In the week, September 20-25, 1847, it appears that the Atmospheric trains are chargeable with a delay of 28 minutes in all; while delays due to the late arrival of the locomotive trains, amounting in all to 62 minutes, were made up by the extra speed attainable on the Atmospheric part of the line.

Not unfrequently, however, casualties occurred; due indeed to remediable causes, but yet of discouraging aspect in themselves, and deriving additional weight from the manner in which they reacted on the cost of working. Such, for instance, were the frequent and occasionally very serious breakages in essential parts of the pumping-engines. Again, the cupped leathers of the travelling-piston, which made it air-tight, were often destroyed while it was passing the various inlet and outlet valves. Improvements in the valves were introduced to meet this difficulty; but the remedy could not be applied at once throughout the line, and much inconvenience was thus experienced, and a considerable expense incurred. Another source of inconvenience was the water which at times accumulated within the tube.

In many respects the results which had been calculated on were realised, and the new arrangements necessary to the working of the system were successfully brought into operation.

The speed of the trains corresponded fully with the degree of vacuum obtained; that is to say, the train resistances proved to be what had been anticipated. [1]

After the trial of a great variety of air-pump valves, a form was adopted which was found to answer exceedingly well. [2]

In the Atmospheric tube, the system of self-acting inlet and outlet valves, by which the piston was enabled to leave the tube on approaching a station and enter it again on recommencing its journey, were, on the whole, successfully adapted to their duty.

Again, an arrangement for starting the train rapidly from the station, without the help of horses or of locomotives, had been brought practically into operation. This arrangement consisted of a short auxiliary vacuum tube containing a piston which could be connected with the  train by means of a tow-rope, and thus draw it along till the piston of the piston carriage entered the main Atmospheric tube. Some accidents at first occurred in using this apparatus, but its defects were after a time removed; and it is hardly to be doubted that the various minor difficulties of the Atmospheric System could soon have been effectually mastered.

[1] This appeared with sufficient clearness from the general comparison between vacuum, weight of train, and speed. The exact appropriation of the force employed was shown by some dynamometric experiments made on the line.

The highest speed recorded was 68 miles per hour, with a train of 28 tons, the speed averaging 64 miles per hour for four level miles of the line, the vacuum being 16 inches. This speed should have exhibited a resistance of about 21 lbs. per ton, or 588 lbs., as the running resistance or friction, and 645 lbs. for the resistance of the air; in all 1,233 lbs. Now, the pressure due to 16 inches of vacuum on the piston is 1,390 lbs., which gives 157 lbs. as the friction of the piston; a result which corresponds sufficiently well with a direct dynamometric experiment.

Going to the other extreme, there are numerous records of trains of 100 tons which attained, on a level of four miles in length, average speeds of from 30 to 35 miles per hour, with 16·5 inches of vacuum, one train of 103 tons going 32·4 miles per hour with 16·9 inches of vacuum.

[2] This valve consisted of a number of long delicate blades of spring steel, arranged parallel to each other, as in a musical box, but with wider intervals. These plates rested on a series of truly faced bars, which crossed the end of the air-passage. The slightest pressure outwards lifted the springs; and as the area of opening was large, a very free passage was given to the air. On the current ceasing, the blades instantly, yet without shock, replaced themselves in contact with the bars, clipping them tightly under a very small reverse pressure, and effectually closing the passage. Their merit consisted in their being almost without weight, and thus promptly re-closing the aperture by a delicate elastic reaction.

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