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The undersea electric railway built and abandoned within six years

Jamie Rigg

The seaside town of Brighton sits on the south coast of England, roughly 50 miles from the center of London. Famed for its pebble beaches, piers and cool residents, Brighton remains a popular destination for Londoners wanting a quick fix of fresh air and sea views. The town has been a tourist hotspot for hundreds of years for this very reason. Throughout its lifetime countless attractions have come and gone, but none perhaps as elaborate and bizarre as the short-lived electric railway on stilts, known at the time as "Daddy Long Legs."

(Filmoteca de Catalunya)

Credit: Filmoteca de Catalunya

Engineer Magnus Volk is best known for Volk's Electric Railway, which first opened in 1883 and ferried passengers in small cars along a quarter-mile stretch of Brighton's coastline. The line was extended and rerouted many times, and it still runs in some capacity today. As the 19th century was drawing to a close, however, Volk's expansion plans were impeded by tough terrain. And so he came up with the idea of building a new line to complement the existing one, only this time with the rails running below the waterline.

Construction of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway began in the summer of 1894. Two separate tracks, the outer rails 18 feet apart, were installed along a stretch of Brighton's coast, atop which sat an oversized streetcar on 23-foot-long legs. A similar contraption had actually been operating in France for two decades already, though the journey was much shorter and in calmer waters.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Le pont roulant de Saint-Malo à Saint-Servan

The French equivalent was also pulled by a cable, whereas Volk's version was self-powered, using electricity fed from overhead lines into two, 25-horsepower General Electric motors. The carriage that ran along Volk's Seashore Electric Railway was also much more comfortable. The 45-ton salt water tram featured an on-board saloon and promenade deck, upon which passengers could enjoy the view during a roughly 35-minute journey. The carriage was officially called "Pioneer," though it colloquially became known as "Daddy Long Legs," for obvious reasons.

Pioneer completed its maiden voyage on November 28th, 1896. Being a sea vessel of sorts, a certified captain was required to be on board at all times, as well as life boats and other safety equipment. But problems began to arise almost immediately. Less than a week after opening, a serious storm pulled Pioneer from her moorings, toppling the high-rise streetcar and causing significant damage.

Wikimedia Commons

Pioneer was put back together with legs measuring two feet higher, and the railway was reopened in the summer of 1897. Nearly 45,000 passengers took the railway that year, but all was not well. At high tide, the streetcar would slow to a crawl, but the venture had already become a moneypit and upgrading Pioneer's motors was out of the question. Plans for a second car were also abandoned.

Over the next few years, a number of low concrete walls were built out into the sea along the Brighton coastline. These groynes were put in place to curtail erosion of the beach, but they changed the ebb and flow of the surrounding waters, which in turn caused damage to the railway trackbed. Volk was forced to shut everything down during the busy summer months of 1900 to perform repairs.

Shortly after, in September of 1900, Volk was told the railway would need to be rerouted to allow for the building of new coastal defenses, which would mean moving the line further out from shore. But there was no money left to throw at it.

In January 1901, the coastal defenses began to take shape, and parts of the track were simply ripped up to make way. Pioneer never made another trip, and in the summer of 1902 the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway was officially abandoned, less than six years after opening -- and to think it's been nearly five years since the Hyperloop concept was first published, and that's only just about starting to come to fruition now. The infrastructure and streetcar were left to fall into ruin until 1910, eventually being disassembled and sold for scrap.

(Engadget)

Volk's engineering oddity isn't entirely forgotten, though. At low tide, you can still walk along Brighton's coastline today and see the last concrete remnants of the tracks once known as the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway.

Technological innovation didn't begin with the development of the first integrated circuit in the 1950s. Backlog is a series exploring the era of possibilities: engineering feats that followed the industrial revolution, quirky concepts the future's rendered obsolete, and inventions that paved the way for some of the technology we use today.

Volk's Electric Railway Association, The National Archives

  • This article originally appeared on Engadget.