A Relic That Hasn't Gone Down the Tubes

By James Drake

To the modern eye, the twisted mass of wheezing, gurgling metal doesn't look much like a historic gem--more like an example of fin-de-siècle plumbing. Which, in a way, is precisely what it is. And if Jiri Hak has anything to do with it, it'll still be making rude noises well into the next century. "Welcome to the last surviving pneumatic postal system in the world," says a beaming Hak, making a proprietorial gesture toward the brass and cast-iron pipes, and the pressure valves that run the length of one wall from floor to ceiling. "This is my domain!"

"This"--a murky, cobwebbed annex to Prague's splendid art deco Central Post Office--is the nerve center of city's antique Tube Post, a network of subterranean pneumatic pipes linking the post office with outlying branches, businesses, and government buildings. Completed in 1899, the 60-kilometer network of pressurized tunnels carries letters, documents, and small parcels at a rate of 30 km an hour.

And Hak isn't quite right: Prague's isn't the the only such service still in use. While most of the world's great population centers have long since shut down their municipal postal metros--New York's, for example, was mothballed in 1952--both Paris and Milan maintain working versions. But theirs were both modernized after World War II, whereas Prague can boast the world's only working historical model.

GEEKY ZEAL. The system's mechanical guts have not changed since the network was extended and lengthened in the 1920s. So obsolete is its infrastructure that each time a part needs fixing or replacing, the system's maintenance crew must rustle it up themselves, since the Berlin factory that tooled the once-common components went out of business 60 years ago.

But now, this proud old lady is herself in danger, because the cost-slashers of the New Economy would like to put her to sleep--permanently. The government is looking to sell its majority stake in the Tube Post's owner, Cesky Telecom, the land-line telecom that lost its monopoly in early 2001. And with Cesky looking to court a high-tech communications giant, the last thing it wants to resemble is a dowdy old maid.

Still, as Hak launches into his spiel, he seems eager to prove that the Tube Post is as hale and hearty as it ever was. "The system consists of several spokes, which all converge on this office, so if you want to send a package from one side of the city to another, it has to go through us," he explains, with all the geeky zeal of a train spotter who gets to drive his own steam locomotive. "Each tube is fitted with green or yellow or red lights that blink different colors to indicate if a canister is coming in, going out, or on its way. Under the tubes, we have these dispatch boxes"--he points at a row of rounded hinged doors, each bearing a brass plate identifying its dedicated client. "An air blower starts blowing at this end, and a vacuum starts at the destination," he continues. "One of our ladies"--he indicates the row of four women hunched over the dispatch hatches--"puts the letter or money or whatever into a container like this"--he flourishes a liter-size steel canister that looks like an artillery shell--"seals the canister, inserts it into the bottom of one of these valves"--clunk, click--"presses a button, and."

He pauses, as if waiting for a round of applause, as the outgoing package whooshes away.

It's hard to imagine now, but once upon a time, this was the last word in B2B solutions, and every metropolis worth its salt had a pneumatic post. In the first half of the 19th century, its principal application was ferrying commercial intelligence to the merchants on the world's stock exchanges. While fortunes could be won by the receipt of advance information, the gain in speed from the invention of the telegraph was worthless if a message took a long time to get from the telegraph office to the bourse.

Later, tube systems were enlarged, and new ones opened not only for the transport of telegrams but also for individual and bulk deliveries of letters and parcels. "Originally, Prague's was for telegrams. After that it was mainly telexes, which had to be centrally controlled so the secret police could inspect everything," recalls Nad'a Valaskova of the Prague Ethnological Institute, which is lobbying to have the Tube Post preserved as a historical monument. "But it really came into its own after the commies took power. The Czech News Agency, based in the same building, used it to distribute wire copy to all the state media outlets, and the secret police had to check every single package. Ridiculous, really."

The heaviest traffic was in the 1970s, when around 1 million deliveries a year passed through the system. Today, estimates Cesky Telecom, the figure is closer to 6,000 packages a month. That's nowhere near enough for the company, which says the service loses $50,000 annually.

"DIG IT UP." Its survival this long in Prague--home of many a living fossil and lost cause--is a tribute to pragmatism, politics, and a distinctly communist work ethic. "It was too much trouble to close it down. We were going to just dig it up, but we realized our tubes run along the gas lines. If we had shut down the gas system, there might have been a buildup and an explosion," explains Cesky Telecom's Vladan Crha. "We decided to leave the decision to whoever ends up buying us from the government."

Oddly enough, the Tube Post's biggest hope for salvation may lie with the very clients one might expect to shun its antiquated technology. Although Hak's men largely stopped hooking up new clients after the fall of communism in 1989, many of the system's most loyal customers are the cutting-edge Western financial outfits that have bought up state companies during the 1990s. Banks and insurance offices value the gravitas the old-world hardware lends, while power-suited yuppies use the tubes to send mash notes to their girlfriends. "I heard of a guy who proposed to his future wife by Tube Post," says Irena Satavova, a spokeswoman for Komercni Banka, the country's second-largest commercial bank, which is majority-owned by France's Société Générale. "Besides, you can't send a contract over for signing by e-mail."

More important, the service is faster and more cost-effective than couriers and bike messengers, and more secure than such higher-tech methods as faxes and e-mail. Tube Post employees are forbidden to open any packages, and must sign a confidentiality agreement promising not to reveal anything they might see inadvertently.

ARMED GUARD. "We had a race once between us, a bicycle courier, and a dispatch van to see who could get an identical parcel to [Czech President Vaclav] Havel up at the castle," recalls Jiri Lilling, one of nine engineers who maintain the pneumatic network. "It was rush hour, so the van took an hour. The bicycle took 25 minutes. But our parcel was there in 4 minutes."

Certainly, Cesky Telecom would be prudent to postpone shutting down the system at least until former anticommunist activist Havel retires next year. "Other heads of state receive their messages by armed guard. He rather likes showing his Tube Post hatch off to visitors," reports Ladislav Spacek, Havel's chief spokesman. "Besides, it has sentimental value." In 1968, when Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the "Prague Spring" reform movement, Havel's fellow dissidents used the Tube Post to send food and messages to cohorts who were holed up in the besieged Czech Radio building.

Now, a proposal is before the Cesky Telecom board to give Hak and his staff a chance to prove it can be a going concern once more. "It'll be difficult, but not impossible, to build new links to new businesses," he claims. "Certainly our rates [currently 25 cents a package, plus an average $100 per month subscription fee] will have to go up. But the clients we have already seem to think it'll be worth it."

Back in the dispatch room, meantime, a blinking red light indicates another incoming missive. As the canister approaches, there's a faint bumblebee drone, then a louder, higher-pitched buzz, then a satisfying thwack as the package drops into its padded receptacle. From the bowels of the earth below comes a drawn-out gurgle, not unlike the flushing of a distant toilet.

Overseen by a beatific Hak, a dispatcher picks up the cylinder, reads the address label, opens the appropriate hatch, and sends it on its way to its ultimate destination. Then she goes back to her knitting.

Drake has lived in Prague for nine years. His native-born wife, like almost all Czechs, had no idea the Tube Post existed until she read the draft of this article.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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