Changing London

The secret is out: On board London’s underground Mail Rail

All board, the Mail Rail is ready to leave! There has been quite a buzz surrounding the opening of the London’s newest underground passenger line. Initial timed weekend tickets sold out months in advance when they were first released, but after a patient wait I have now finally been able to get on board.

Opened in 1927 and stretching six-and-a-half miles from Paddington to Whitechapel, the little-known Mail Rail carried up to four million letters a day between post offices along the route. But in 2003 it was closed down and until it re-opened this year as a passenger tourist attraction, the narrow tunnels were left unused.

Passenger Mail Rail train

Before getting too excited, it isn’t the full six-and-a-half miles that has been opened to passengers; the journey from the old Mail Rail engineering depot, 70ft below Mount Pleasant, lasts around 20 minutes. Nevertheless, the short journey provides a fascinating insight into line’s past thanks to audio-visual displays charting its history along the way. Some of the recorded commentary is a little underwhelming, with engineer ‘Ray’ being asked to described everything from what happened during a power cut to how the points worked.

The attraction features new driver-operated (previously they were driverless and only carried mail) electric trains, with transparent roofs so you get a clear view of the dirty-looking the tunnels, the platforms where mail was loaded and unloaded by hand – and transferred to main line stations above ground – and surviving old rolling stock. But given the narrow space, the trains need to be compact and I found little leg room in the seating compartment. At the end of your journey, you can see the lockers where engineers stored their personal items when they were on shift – left just as they were when the Mail Rail was mothballed in 2003.

Express mail 

In the early 20th century London’s streets were busy with traffic and so the Mail Rail was an attempt to speed up the delivery of mail – and ease congestion. There were originally eight stops, but by the late 1990s only four remained and there was no longer a connection to the mainline railway (traces of the stations can be seen above ground).

As there weren’t any drivers on board, the route of trains was controlled by switching the points and altering the power supply, while engineers were on-site 24 hours a day to quickly resolve any problems. Any delays would lead to the rolling stock backing up and letters ending up late. In the early 1990s computerisation was introduced to the system.

Things needed to move quickly on the Mail Rail.

“In the busy period a train remains at the station for only one minute, and in this period the containers have to be withdrawn and the others for dispatch placed on the cars,” reported the Post magazine in 1949. “Postmen also receive the mail bags from the chutes, conveyors and lifts, and divide the bags for dispatch by the train for their various destinations…. The work is extremely heavy, arduous and intense… Also the work is carried out under exceptional conditions, which vary from station to station and from one part of a station to another.. The physical discomfort is appreciable.”

But the Mail Rail was by no means the first attempt at being able to carry mail more quickly across London. In 1855 there was a proposal to use an pneumatic (air-driven) system of underground tubes for transporting packages at speed. It was deemed costly, but between 1863 and 1874 the Post Office did make use of a pneumatic railway where letters were carried at a speed of 35 mph. Other proposed schemes included an underground conveyor of carriages for carrying mail from post boxes.

Lining up to get on board

Work on the Mail Rail began after the creation in 1913 of the Post Office (London) Railway by Act of Parliament, but construction was suspended in 1915 when the tunnels containing labourers became filled with water. And in 1917 work was again suspended on account of the First World War and the tunnels were used as a store for keeping safe valuable objects from a number of London museums. Construction resumed in 1924 and it finally opened in 1927, two times over budget.

Surviving Mail Rail engine

Postal history

The Mail Rail attraction was launched as part of the re-opening this year of the Postal Museum, which traces 500 years of British postal history. It all started with Henry VIII who in around 1512 appointed a Master of Posts to deal with his correspondence, before the network was expanded under Charles I in 1635.

John Palmer, an owner of theatres in Bristol and Bath, revolutionised the postal service in 1782 through the invention of the mail coach. The vehicles were a replacement for postal boys who travelled on horseback and were a target for highwaymen. Armed guards rode on the outside of the coaches and journey times were speeded up – the 16 hours it took to connect Bristol and London was an improvement of around a day. There is an early mail coach used on that route on display at the Postal Museum.

Mail coach

While the world’s first postmark was introduced in 1661, it wasn’t until Postal Reform in 1840 brought the universally-priced Penny Black that the receiver paid for the price of the letter. Since then countless special edition stamps, encompassing an array of colourful designs and themes, have been introduced by postal systems around the world. At the Postal Museum, you can even use a computer to create your own, with your picture on the front, and have it sent to you via email.

There’s a lot packed into what is a fairly compact exhibition including an overview of the evolution of post boxes – the first being introduced in Carlisle in 1853. You can find out why they were originally green, but later became default red. There is discussion of the various vehicle used to deliver mail over the years (with a post bus on display that looks straight out of the TV series Postman Pat). And you can discover why postcodes were first introduced in 1857.

Letter writing helped transform literacy in the 19th century and during the times of war and peace that followed sending mail has been a big part of many people’s lives. There is much discussion in the exhibition about how sending letters to and from the Home Front during the First World War boosted morale amongst troops. And over the years the postal system has been used for sending countless love letters, particularly on Valentine’s Day, and in 1843 the world’s first Christmas card went on sale. But with the rise of email and other forms of electronic communication, the number of letters being carried each year is falling.

As for the Mail Rail, it was closed in 2003 because it was deemed to be unsustainable. Mount Pleasant, where you board the attraction, is now the only processing centre in central London – the others along the old route have now all been closed. While I think it is fantastic that the line has been opened for tourists (and I hope more of the 6.5 miles of the route is opened up), I also see a missed opportunity. Just as when the Mail Rail was first opened in 1927, the streets of London are today clogged up with traffic, notably with couriers delivering parcels from Amazon and the like. Couldn’t the line be used to help ease congestion in our capital caused by the popularity for internet shopping?

Mount Pleasant today

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