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I'm building a steampunk city, and I wanted to include an underground subway system, where things like goods and people might be transported to different parts of the city. But the logistics of building a steam-powered railway system underground are a bit tricky.

What is the best way to deal with the excess steam? Will there be lines of chimneys rising from the ground above the train tunnels? Is soot from the burning coal going to become a problem eventually? What would the ideal light source be, since electricity hasn't been properly utilized?

Also, assuming late 19th-century steam engines, would the subway system be efficient enough to be practical, taking into account the speed of the trains? Would it be more practical to use it for cargo transport or simply for longer distance travel?

I hope this question isn't too broad to be answered. Thank you!

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    $\begingroup$ How would it need to be in any way different from when the steam-powered trains which were running in subways in say, Victorian England or New York, Paris France? $\endgroup$ Feb 4 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ You should look into the Glasgow subway which dates from the end of the 19th century $\endgroup$
    – Ian Turton
    Feb 5 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ Vote to close because this is purely about history and not at all about worldbuilding, and hence is off-topic for the forum. Steampunk as a genre requires knowledge of the technologies available around the Victorian era. It is blindingly clear from your question that you have done no research into this - not just a small amount, but literally nothing. You would have found enough details within the first dozen pages of almost any book about steam railways, and certainly within the first dozen pages of any book at all about underground railways. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Feb 5 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Also note that there seems to be an excess of technical ignorance here. A well-designed steam engine doesn't vent steam (or other working fluid), it uses it in a closed cycle with a radiator to cool it. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Feb 5 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ Down vote for lack of research plenty of real world steam powered subways existed. If you can't even be bothered to google it why should we put in the time to help. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Feb 7 at 17:45
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Make it steam-powered, but not in the way you're thinking.

Cable-Car Subways

In your steampunk world, clever inventors are going to realize that inhaling the effluvia from coalsmoke and being rained upon by condensed steam is going to be unpleasant for travellers - so why not do away with the locomotive?

Cable cars allow you to move the generation of motive force aboveground, to "cable stations" which could vent their steam and smoke normally, while people underground cruise along in easy-breathing (and quiet!) comfort.

It's not even that steampunk - Glasgow did it, after all!


Also, considering @user535733's answer - while many subways switched to electrification as soon as it was feasible, the Glaswegian subway stayed cable-driven 'til 1935, so as I said above, all of the unpleasantness of a steam engine in a tunnel was avoided!

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    $\begingroup$ Best answer so far! The whole idea behind steampunk is to actually utilise steam, not wait for electricity. This way you can have gigantic steam engines in the heart of the city that can not only provide motive power underground, but above as well! Perhaps not only trams but also lorries. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Feb 5 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ Was going to suggest exactly the same thing. The only issues would be cable breakages. Which could be readily repaired by leaving placing sections of rolled cable at regular intervals along the track and engineering a reliable coupling/decoupling mechanism for the trams so they could stop as required while the cable itself maintained a constant speed. It wouldn't be fast but certainly quicker than running. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Feb 5 at 3:04
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    $\begingroup$ Added bonus content: an article with pictures of the original equipment. $\endgroup$
    – jdunlop
    Feb 5 at 3:06
  • $\begingroup$ Or if you want something more fictional - you can use kind of conveyor belt with hooks, or something similar to steam sled used for launching planes on a carrier. Only instead of short powerful burst, you would have slower, but steady and longer lasting push. You would need only one long pipe, with series of valves, each closing after car has passed, and injecting fresh stream of steam into the pipe to push piston and car further on. It could be completely mechanical, similar to combustion engines valve control. $\endgroup$ Feb 5 at 9:24
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Let's see what Wikipedia has to say about the real-life steampunk subway: The London Underground.

While steam locomotives were in use on the Underground there were contrasting health reports. There were many instances of passengers collapsing whilst travelling, due to heat and pollution, leading for calls to clean the air through the installation of garden plants. The Metropolitan even encouraged beards for staff to act as an air filter.

Subway construction exploded in London, New York, Paris, and other places immediately after the availability of electric traction.

That's how awful steam-powered subways were.

As an alternative, consider working with cable railways or pneumatic railways, both of which are centrally-powered (avoiding the pollution problem) and were available before electrification. Neither will give you classic, heavy 8-car long trainsets. Both are more suited to smaller, lighter sets (like trams) that must, in turn, run very frequently to achieve much capacity.

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    $\begingroup$ To add to that. London had to have open to the air sections every so often to cope with the problems noted. ie. Leinster Gardens facades $\endgroup$ Feb 5 at 2:00
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Wikipedia describes mine railways with steam locomotives. The technology is certainly doable, but of course, coal powered locomotives are notoriously filthy. Wikipedia describes condensers to recover steam as water, which seems practical. If you go this route, you are basically doing historical fiction.

If you want a distinctive subway, I'd suggest instead pneumatic tubes. These could be steam powered, somewhere, but rely on pressurized air as the immediate power source to move the people and freight. It seems a system prone to frequent and amusing mishap, especially when guys with steam hammers implanted in their ulnas start elbowing each other in a cramped capsule.

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As others have pointed out, this is more about history than fiction.

would the subway system be efficient enough to be practical


Right from the beginning there were passengers.

Trial Trip on the Underground Railway, 1863

enter image description here

What is the best way to deal with the excess steam?

There was a lot of work on reducing the pollution underground, for example:

"Fowler's Ghost" is the nickname given to an experimental fireless 2-4-0 steam locomotive designed by John Fowler and built in 1861 for use on the Metropolitan Railway, London's first underground railway. The broad gauge locomotive used exhaust recondensing techniques and a large quantity of fire bricks to retain heat and prevent the emission of smoke and steam in tunnels. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fowler%27s_Ghost

enter image description here

What would the ideal light source be

Oil lamps were used on the engines and wagons and gaslights were used in the stations.

enter image description here

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this question reminds of the Ely Beach Pneumatic Transit device, designed by Alfred Ely Beach and was the first subway in New york. it had cylindrical "trains" which would be pushed by air pressure produced from fans (yes really) and would direct the trains by opening and closing valves of the same diameter that the trains would move through. if your subway used a similar network of valves to move trains but by using steam to create air pressure through togglable ducts that would switch between only letting in air or only letting out, you could precisely control interior air pressure, and by having other ducts in other chambers switch to decrease pressure while also closing up any paths the trains could go through other than the intended one, the mobile cylinder that the passengers ride would move through quite efficiently, assuming the number of trains is less than half the number of valves as two trains cant be sent to the same valve at the same time. this can be solved by having multiple redundant paths that run to the same or similar destinations, while sharing much fewer intersections.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's a very steampunk solution. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Feb 5 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ why thank you! its mostly just a redesign of the BPT to use steam pressure instead of wind pressure. though it does now go from using two fans for all thrust power to many small duct systems for releasing and pulling in steam for pressure control $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Feb 5 at 22:25
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Consider a Fireless Locomotive, using stored steam. Basically, take a steam locomotive and replace the firebox and boiler with a big, insulated pressure vessel. Fill the pressure vessel with steam every couple hours.

These existed, and some were used in urban transit. A few are still being used -- and occasionally, new ones are made! -- for special purpose applications. They need a source of high pressure steam, but they can go into buildings without polluting the air, and they won't ignite flammable gasses.

You'd still need to deal with the waste steam. A condenser would work -- most steam locomotives don't have them because water is cheap and condensers are heavy and bulky. In a subway context, you might be able to build it into the tunnel. Maybe you could have a C-shaped channel next to the tracks, cooled by piped water. Discharge the steam into it and most of it condenses.

A cable-car system is probably more practical, but that may not be a consideration.

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