THE great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel would undoubtedly approve of the introduction of electric trains to Didcot.

He always embraced the newest technology – we have an example of one of Brunel’s pioneering innovations at Didcot Railway Centre.

The electric train gets its energy from a remote power station. The train is quieter and almost pollution-free compared with diesel. The power station generates electricity using gas, oil, coal or nuclear power, or takes renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines.

In the 1840s, railway engineers were also looking at ways to make power generation remote from the train. Steam locomotives were new technology – inefficient and liable to break down. Many passengers travelled in open trucks and the engine’s chimney showered them with soot and cinders.

Victorian engineers knew all about the atmosphere: the air above us has a weight of 15 pounds on every square inch of the earth’s surface and the engineers figured that if you laid an airtight tube between the rails and pumped the air out of it to create a vacuum, then the air pressure behind a piston in the tube would be powerful enough to drive a train! They called it the Atmospheric Railway.

The vacuum in the tube was created by stationary steam engines in pumping stations every few miles alongside the line.

Brunel decided to adopt the atmospheric principle for the 20 miles between Exeter and Newton Abbot in Devon. The tube between the rails was 15 inches in diameter and had a slot in the top sealed by a continuous flap of leather and iron plates. The leading carriage of the train had a piston which fitted into the tube, and a bracket connecting the piston to the carriage lifted the flap, allowing air into the tube to push the piston along.

It all worked tolerably well at first when the Atmospheric Railway was introduced in 1847. Passengers liked the silence and the lack of soot and cinders falling on them. The trains achieved speeds up to 60mph, but things began to go wrong. The leather flap became brittle and an army of men was employed to paint tallow on it to keep it airtight. The lineside pumping stations were overworked through air leaks and began to break down.

After six months the company gave up and introduced steam locomotives. Some of the redundant tubes were used as a sewage outlet at Goodrington Sands. A few years ago they were preserved and set up in a length of track at Didcot to remind visitors of what became known as ‘Brunel’s Atmospheric Caper’. The equivalent of railway electrification, 170 years ago!