Prague pneumatic post
The Prague pneumatic post (Czech: Pražská potrubní pošta) is the world's last preserved municipal pneumatic post system. It is an underground system of metal tubes under the wider centre of Prague, totaling about 55 kilometres (34 mi) in length. The system started service in 1889 and remained in use by the government, banks and the media until it was rendered inoperative by the August 2002 European floods.
Sold on by former owner Telefónica O2 Czech Republic after some limited attempts to make repairs, the system now belongs to businessman Zdeněk Dražil, who has announced plans to repair and reopen it as a working tourist attraction. As of 2012, however, it remains closed.
The Prague pneumatic post entered public service on March 4, 1889. The first lane had been constructed as early as 1887, but at first it only served internal purposes. It ran from the main post office in Jindřišská st. (next to the Wenceslas Square) to the post bureau at Malé náměstí square (next to the Old Town Square) in the Old Town. (This bureau was situated in a corner house with Linhartská st., belonging to the V. J. Rott company, next to a house that is called 'U Rotta' today.) The first lane was later extended as far as the Prague Castle, making it over 5 km long. Prague was the fifth city in the world to receive a pneumatic post system after London, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, which was considered a major achievement for Prague.
The system was established for those desiring to send a document quickly. The document would be taken to the post office and rolled up into a metal capsule. The clerk would then drop the metal capsule down a hatch leading to a predestined location. After the clerk pressed a button, the capsule would be moved by compressed air along a network of tubes beneath the pavement.
The main growth of the network dates to the economically prosperous era of 1927–1932. In those years, new lanes were constructed and tens of thousands of capsules transported per month. During the Prague Uprising the pneumatic post played a role in supplying the besieged building of the Czech radio.
In the late 1990s, the system was used by over 20 subscribers and operating at a loss, so kept rather for prestigious reasons. The traffic weakened gradually and the 2002 floods seriously damaged it, flooding 5 of the 11 underground engine rooms.
The lanes consist of steel pipes of 65 mm bore and wall thickness of 2.5–3 mm. The pipes are connected with tight couplers 14 cm long to ensure perfect coaxial alignment and then welded together, ensuring air-tightness. To prevent stray voltage from causing excess corrosion, ceramic insulators are inserted between the pipe segments at some places. Pipes buried underground are protected from the outside by a layer of fiberglass, wound around at increased temperature and coated with hot asphalt. The pipeline is typically buried under the Prague sidewalks 80–120 cm deep. Inside buildings and in the Prague trunk conduit network the pipes simply are coated with anti-corrosive paint.
The minimum bend radius is 250 cm for underground pipes, but 300 cm is the most commonly used radius. Inside buildings a bend radius as low as 200 cm is allowed. The bends are made of special annealed pipes at normal temperature, using a custom-made bender.
A signaling cable is laid along with the pipe, enabling communication with the track components.
The lane segments are equipped with dumb wells, where the pipeline can be opened and inspected, or a stuck capsule removed. For this purpose a heavier capsule can be sent at a pressure of up to 30 atm, knocking the stuck capsule out.
The system uses aluminium capsules measuring 48 mm in outer-diameter and 200 mm in length. On the rear end they are fitted with a plastic circlet, preventing friction against walls of the pipe and a soft plastic skirt, sealing air behind the capsule. The diameter of the rear circlet is 57 mm. The remaining 8 millimeters of the bore are sealed just by the skirt, allowing for excellent airtightness and low friction at the same time.
Each lane is equipped with a dedicated propulsion unit, consisting of an electrically-powered air pump. One pump can service at most 3 kilometers of pipeline, so it's necessary to use several pumps on longer lanes.
The pumps must be reversible, creating either pressure or vacuum. The pumps are connected to the pipes with tee-fittings. On both sides of the tee the pipe is equipped with switches activated by a passing capsule.
At first the pump is set to intake mode, pulling the capsule towards the tee. Before reaching it, the capsule hits the first switch, causing the pump to start reversing. Meanwhile, the capsule reaches the tee-fitting. As it passes the tee, the pump is already fully reversed and starts to push the capsule away.
The capsules can be loaded with packages up to 5 cm in diameter and 30 cm in length. Their weight can be up to 3 kg. Generally these were rolled-up telegrams, but any package within the set limits could be transported.
For obvious reasons, dangerous and corrosive substances, which could damage the pipeline, were banned. On the other hand, the travel speed could be adjusted, allowing for transporting fragile packages.
Lanes and stations
The Prague pneumatic post network consists of five main lanes arranged in a star topology, fitted with switches and concentrators, and of subscriber's lines. The total length of the lanes is about 55 kilometers. Some of the most frequented segments have two pipes (one for each direction), but the majority of the lanes use a single pipe and the direction is determined by setting up the pumps to run in the desired direction. The main lanes connect the following post offices and bureaus:
- Jindřišská st. – Prague 2, Prague 3, Prague 10
- Jindřišská st. – Prague 1, Prague 2
- Jindřišská st. – Prague 5
- Jindřišská st. – Prague 6
- Jindřišská st. – Prague 7
Originally there were 16 subscriber's lines, but only 7 have been preserved up till today. A total of 24 pneumatic post stations remain today.
All the lanes converge to the main post office in Jindřišská St. Here all the packages were carefully recorded and from here the network was controlled and monitored. This is also the place where the packages were forwarded from one lane to another. The capsule was picked up from a receiving pocket by a member of the staff, recorded and inserted into the inlet of another lane.
The current lane state was indicated by indicator lights on the lane's controller. Up to 10 packages in 30-second intervals could be sent on the same lane at once, although this was rarely used in practice.
When sending capsules to switched lanes, the capsules had to be sent out in a predefined order, as the switches could only be activated before commencing the transfer. The first capsule would be diverted, after which the switch would automatically slide back to its neutral position, sending the remaining capsules in the straight direction. Therefore, the capsule that was meant to branch off had to be sent first.
- Wertheim, Margaret. Bones to phones, New Scientist October 23, 1999; Volume 164; Issue 2209; Section: Features; Page 40
- Lazarová, Daniela. Magazine 11-10-2003 Radio Prague 10 November 2003.
- Pražská potrubní pošta letos slaví 120 let, iDNES 6 March 2007 (in Czech)
- Richter, Jan. "New owner promises bright future for world’s largest pneumatic post system". radio.cz. Radio Praha. Retrieved 9 January 2014.
- Forbes, Wentworth. (1901) House of Commons Sessional Papers. (1902) Report on the trade of the Kingdom of Bohemia for 1901
- Potrubní pošta - technický unikát pod ulicemi Prahy, iDNES 17 May 2004 (in Czech)
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