Mail Rail review: Travel under London on the Royal Mail’s underground railway
We all know about the Victorian origins of the London Underground, which has been transporting commuters since 1863. However, did you know it’s not the capital’s only underground railway in existence? For eight decades, the Post Office ran their own subterranean train system to transport letters and parcels under the city’s streets. Affectionately known as the ‘Mail Rail’, it closed for good in 2003. However, in September 2017, the railway was brought back to life and adapted for human passengers as part of a new experience at the Postal Museum.
Road traffic has been a problem in London for centuries, stemming back to the days of horses and carts. For owners of the Post Office, the impact on their deliveries arriving late was not good for business so something had to be done. In 1909, a committee was set up to devise a traffic-proof delivery system, and by 1911 had settled on the idea of driverless electric trains. Construction began in 1914 with a trial tunnel in Plumstead Marshes, south-east London, with the main 6 1/2 miles of tunnels completed by 1917. By this time, World War I was in full swing so lack of labour and materials meant the project was put on hold. However, the tunnels did find some use during WWI as the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate stored some of their artworks in them for safe-keeping. Following the end of the Great War, costs of materials had risen so much, it wasn’t until 1923 that work could finally resume. Finally, on 5 December 1927, parcels were transported underground between Mount Pleasant and Paddington for the first time.
The trains run in a single 9ft tunnel featuring a double 2ft gauge track. Approaching each station, the tunnel would split into two 7ft tunnels with a single track each. The railway’s deepest point was 70ft, although the stations tended to be slightly closer to street level. By 1930, the original rolling stock were knackered so they were replaced with new trains. These new ones featured a 27ft single car train with each container having a capacity for 15 bags of letters or six bags of parcels. These were used until they were replaced in 1980 by a new fleet. Over the decades, some of the stations came and went, including the Western Parcels Office and Western District Office, with the latter name being reused at a new station at Rathbone Place, which opened in 1965. In 1987, the train system was renamed ‘Mail Rail’ to mark its 60th anniversary. In 1993, the whole system was computerised so the trains could be controlled from a single point. By the end of the 1990s, only the stations at Paddington, Western Delivery Office, Mount Pleasant, and the East District Office were being used, carrying over 6 million bags of mail annually. However, as the system aged, Royal Mail decided it was becoming too costly to run the railway, claiming road transport was cheaper and its death warrant was signed. On 31 May 2003, the Mail Rail was closed for good.
However, now the Mail Rail had been resuscitated as an attraction at the Postal Museum. It took several years to restore the tunnels, convert the trains for passengers and to transform the space into a museum. We arrived 10 minutes before our time slot and headed downstairs to board the small train. The seats are reversible, but narrow so it could be a squeeze getting two adults seated beside each other. You’re protected from the tunnel atmosphere with clear, hard plastic windows and ceiling, although it can distort photography somewhat (admittedly, my accompanying photos aren’t too great). The 15-minute ride is accompanied by an audio tour, with sound effects and visuals and films projected on the walls of the various stations. To many who think the history of Royal Mail may not seem that interesting, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised as the museum curators have done a great job bringing to life the story of our mail system and the Mail Rail. Following your ride, your ticket also covers entrance to the Postal Museum across the road, with many interactive exhibits for adults and children. I’d thoroughly recommend both the Mail Rail and the Postal Museum for families, history buffs or if you’re looking for something a bit different to spend your leisure time.
- Mail Rail, 15-20 Phoenix Place, WC1X 0DA. Nearest station: Angel or Russell Square. Mail Rail is open daily from 10am-5pm (last train departs at 4.30pm). Tickets: Adults £17.05, Children £10.45. For more information and booking, visit the Postal Museum website.
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Posted on 12 February 2018, in Activities, families, History, London, Tourist Attractions and tagged history, london, Mail Rail, Postal Museum, transport, Travel. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.