Rail Mail

01 August 2017

A new museum has just opened celebrating the Mail Rail under London which, at its peak, moved 4 million items every day. 

At the back of the huge Royal Mail centre at Mount Pleasant, a short bus ride south of King’s Cross, a new tourist attraction opened on 28 July. On one side of the road is a postal museum, telling the story of the mail since the days of horse-drawn coaches and showing its rise to become the most vital communication system in the country. Across Phoenix Place, another part of the exhibition houses the Royal Mail’s decommissioned mail train – its underground railway that began service in 1927 and has been mothballed since 2003.

Rail mail 1Hacked out by hand, the tunnel looks like something from Gulliver’s Travels; a perfect miniature model of the Underground – and a Tube spotter’s dream! Its 6.5 miles criss-cross the Tube lines under London. It was hidden from everyone except the 220 postal workers who moved the subterranean mail at its peak; so clandestine that during the First World War the Rosetta Stone was hidden in its deep reaches.

At its height, the Mail Train moved 4 million items of post along its 2ft gauge line each day. Letters were hurried along the narrow tunnel from Paddington in the west to Whitechapel and Liverpool Street in the east. At its peak, the service operated for 22 hours a day.

Why was it necessary? In a word, congestion. The streets of the capital in the early 1920s were blocked by horse-drawn, rather than internal combustion vehicles, but the problem was the same then as now.

The solution was to build Mail Rail, the world’s first – and, sadly for ASLEF, driverless – electric railway. The original, pneumatic, attempt ran the short distance between Euston station and Eversholt Street. Innovating engineers later developed the network we can see today, including a battery-powered locomotive that could come to the aid of broken-down engines and could haul tools, equipment and even whole trains. Some of the later rolling stock could crank up to speeds of 40mph.

Below the track at one stage of the single-kilometre ride modern tourists can take on the mini-Tube is the sight, on a lower level, of a ‘graveyard’ for the old traction and wagons. Although a few of our members would doubtless see it as more of a treasure-trove of traction than a locomotive graveyard!

The journey on the specially-made passenger train that rumbles for a quarter of an hour along the narrow track and through the original platforms is fascinating. Audio visual technology and projection mapping beamed onto the curving walls recreates the frantic activity of the old days on these stations, displaying a vivid picture of a lost era: some, like the Blitz years, happily so.

Rail mailThe days when the post stood alone as the most important tool of modern communication has waned, and with it the volume of mail passing though the capital. In 2003 the entire operation was mothballed, leaving just three engineers to prevent its total decline. The Communication Workers’ Union argued at the time that it could be used as an environmentally-friendly method of moving stock for the retail shops it runs beneath in the over-crowded city centre but the initiative was never followed up.

Tony Clarke, the Labour peer and former postal union leader, tells me that my assertion that the train never carried passengers isn’t quite true. ‘When I started work here, it was considered part of your initiation to be – albeit unwillingly – dropped into one of the canvas-covered wagons and dispatched to the far end of the city,’ he tells me. ‘And once or twice a postman might have used it to get home after a thirsty night out!’

There is plenty here to interest rail and mail enthusiasts. Next to the departure area for the Mail Train stands the original car depot where engineers maintained and repaired engines and wagons around the clock: now it houses an interactive exhibition space revelling in the ingenious ways our ancestors devised to move letters and parcels.

Over the road the broader Postal Museum tells the history of the service in four zones describing the beginnings, popularity, difficulties and social and artistic contribution of the Royal Mail.

It’s often sad to see a place that employed hundreds of workers transformed into a tourist attraction; but at least it is preserved for the future. And it serves both as a monument to the ingenuity and vision of the engineers of their day – and a fruitful pleasure for the interested idler of our own age.

The Postal Museum is at Phoenix Place, Mount Pleasant, London, WC1X 0DA. For details visit www.postalmuseum.org




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