Mail Rail – The Last Post?

Posted by admin | October 2, 2009 0

It may well be the Last Post next year for London’s unique other underground which was closed and mothballed in 2003. The Post Office Railway, also known as Mail Rail, was a narrow gauge driverless private underground railway in London built by the Post Office to move mail between sorting offices. This 2 foot gauge 6.5mile railway was opened in 1927 and at its peak run between Paddington Sorting Office and Whitechapel Eastern Delivery Office. The trains are driverless and are controlled by switching the 440 volt DC traction voltage. Inspired by the Chicago Tunnel Company, it was in operation from 1927 until 2003

It ran east-west from Paddington Head District Sorting Office in the west to the Eastern Head District Sorting Office at Whitechapel in the east, a distance of 6.5 miles (10.5 km). It had eight stations, but by 2003 only three stations remained in use because the sorting offices above the other stations had been relocated.

A Royal Mail press release in April 2003 revealed that the system would be closed and “mothballed” (i.e. removed from active service) at the end of May that year. Royal Mail had earlier stated that using the Post Office Railway was five times more expensive than using road transport for the same task. The Communication Workers Union claimed the actual figure was closer to three times more expensive but argued that this was the result of a deliberate policy of running the system down and using it at only one-third of its capacity. Despite a report by the Greater London Authority in support of the continued use of Mail Rail, the system was taken out of use in the early hours of 31 May 2003.

Since then no viable alternative use has been found for the railway which being designed for freight only would not easily adapt to passenger use, presuming the passengers were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs! Obviously there is a limit to what can be done to a mothballed railway and the tracks are not live, the only maintenance services are by battery locos. Also next year the Royal Mail is closing down Paddington Sorting Office which is the Western terminus of Mail Rail. All in all, it seems that soon the last person out will be switching off the lights for the last time?

Battery Loco

As MAIL RAIL says on their excellent site;

“The options are limited; I think it would be unlikely that it could be turned into a Heritage Centre. Remembering that the system was built solely to transport mail across the Capital, the costs involved converting the system, or a part of it, to allow public access in the numbers required to break even, would be horrendous.

Another option would be to adapt the present system to allow transport of other goods, perhaps delivering to shops and other businesses along its route. Perhaps the system could be opened up to outside Courier companies, which would have the added bonus of helping to remove a few more of those delivery vans from the crowded City streets. Again this would involve more expense as the current trains are designed to carry mail and small parcels, and would probably require major work to enable them to carry other types of goods.

Perhaps, another option would be for us, to stop using email, and revert back to using letters boxes. I think this is unlikely. If the system does ever have to close down completely, I suspect that the tunnels will be taken over by some telecom company and crammed full of cables. What an indignant end to a great piece of English heritage. “

Redundant 1962 Stock stored in unused tunnels

No more orders were placed for new stock until 1962, when two new prototype units were ordered from English Electric (3334-5). These two units featured improvements such as disk brakes, redesigned loading ramps and a new design of traction motor, to give better acceleration. One of these was withdrawn after only 5 years in 1967, the other surviving until 1980. This was later repaired using parts from the previously scrapped car and renumbered 66.

Original Paddington Head District Sorting Office (completed 1907), London Road W2, Paddington, London. Now part of the larger West London Mail Centre. This was the western terminus of the Post Office Underground Railway (mail rail) from 1927 until 2003. It is now scheduled for closure in 2010
This is the Rail Mail VIP carrier. Based on the 1929 bogie unit, this unit had 18 tip-up seats, Perspex roof and had the monograms of the four British monarchs from King George V to Queen Elizabeth II, painted on the side doors. This Unit had to rely on a battery loco as it had no traction equipment.
The former GPO West Central District Office (1960s), sorting office, New Oxford Street / High Holborn, Holborn WC1, London. This is one of the stops on the Post Office Underground Railway and is used these days for various media events, fashion shows, product launches etc.

For a full history of Mail Rail see my post below, originally from 7th August 2008.

London’s Other Underground

Old fashioned electric Automatic Train
Beautiful Diesel Truck

Deep down beneath the choked streets of London was a railway which once ran busily for nineteen hours a day. It carried no passengers and its trains had no drivers or guards. Yet this seemingly strange system was one of the most successful railways in the world.

Mail Rail – the little known electric rail system running for 6.5 miles under the centre of the capital – closed on 30th May 2003. Royal Mail says the Mail Rail service which ran from west to east London is no longer proving viable. In its heyday the “unique” service, the only one of its kind in England, served nine stations, carrying four million letters per day. At closure Mail Rail runs along a 37km route between Paddington in west London and Whitechapel in the East End, and is staffed by 76 postal workers.

Liverpool street Mail platforms

Royal Mail says it recognises the heritage value of the service. But a massive drop in postage in the city, plus changes in how mail is distributed, mean the service has become too expensive, say its owners. With just four stations in operation on the route in 2002 and only three by the time of closure Royal Mail announced in April 2003 that the system would be closed and “mothballed” (i.e. removed from active service) at the end of May 2003. Royal Mail had earlier stated that using the Post Office Railway was five times more expensive than using road transport for the same task. The Communication Workers Union claimed the actual figure was closer to three times more expensive but argued that this was the result of a deliberate policy of running the system down and using it at only one-third of its capacity. Despite a report by the Greater London Authority in support of the continued use of Mail Rail, the system was taken out of use in the early hours of 31 May 2003.

Trains are 8.4m long
• They carry loads of 980kg of mail
• The tunnels are 21m (70ft) underground
• Trains run on a 610mm electrified track (2 foot gauge)
• Operated 19 hours a day, 286 days a year.
• Paddington to Whitechapel, with all stops, in 26 minutes.

Cash-strapped owners, the Royal Mail, said the automated mail delivery system costs too much to run. But post bosses revealed they were in talks “with a number of organisations” about possible alternative uses. Royal Mail said the system would be “mothballed” until a partner can be found to help run it. But it declined to name the organisations that have allegedly shown an interest – or to what use Rail Mail could be put in the future. Five years on there have been no takers.

System Map

Among the ideas suggested in a recent London Assembly report were transporting:

High-value items to shops in Oxford Street
• Same-day document delivery
• Precious metals to Mayfair’s jewellers
• Wine to the capital’s vintners.

The Royal Mail has not ruled out selling Mail Rail, raising the prospect of rail enthusiasts – or even a private individual – taking it over. Mothballing Mail Rail will lead to 80 extra van journeys per week, potentially putting the postal service at odds with its commitment to cut carbon dioxide emissions. But the Royal Mail insisted it would make little difference to overall pollution levels.

The idea of an underground rail service for London was first mooted in 1855 by the then secretary to the Post Office, Rowland Hill.

Trains travelled at 40mph in tunnels separate to The Tube. Although trials were conducted in small tunnels, the Post Office abandoned the scheme until early in the next century. It was eventually given the go-ahead by the government in 1913. The outbreak of World War One halted construction and the little tunnels were used to store art treasures from major London galleries, such as the Tate and the National Portrait Galleries. Work began on the tunnels again in 1923 and the first trains started delivery four years later – under the banner of the Post Office Underground Railway. It became Mail Rail on the service’s 60th anniversary, shortly after the old stock was replaced with 34 new trains.

Track Diagram – Western District Office

The main line consisted of a single tube, 9 foot in diameter. The base of the tube was filled with loose ballast, on which a concrete raft, 12 inches thick was laid. Onto this was laid the track. The tunnels diverge using a step-plate junction just before the stations, into 2 single line tunnels at 7 foot in diameter. These then connect to 2 parallel station tunnels, which are around 25 foot in diameter. The platforms are built on a ‘First floor level’ within the tunnels, the area beneath, used to house the electrical control equipment.

Although the main tube is at a depth of around 70 foot, the stations are constructed at a much shallower depth, giving a 1 in 20 rise and fall, into and out of the station. This served two purposes; the first is that the mail had less distance to travel from the platforms to the surface. Secondly the gradient on the line, to and from the station, served to help slow the trains on their approach to the stations, and assists with the acceleration away from the stations.

When the system was first designed, it was planned that further extensions would be built at a later date. The proposal was that after a few years of operation of the first section, testing out the various systems and stock used, that 3 extensions would be built. Although nothing ever came of these proposed extensions, they were kept in mind for a surprisingly long time. Short sections of the extension were started whilst the main section was being built, most notably at Mount Pleasant, but only extended a few yards. Even in recent times, proposals were made to extend the line to the new central sorting hub at Willesden. Needless to say this was abandoned due to the estimated cost of the extension. At the time, it cost over a million pounds per mile to excavate a deep level tube tunnel.

Proposed Extensions

The Post Office Railway features in the novel The Horn of Mortal Danger (1980). In it, there is a connecting tunnel between the Railway and the secret railway of the North London System. The only other known connection is in the disused tunnel between Highgate and the disused Cranley Gardens. The railway appears in the film Hudson Hawk, but rebadged as ‘Vatican Post’. Bruce Willis (as Hudson Hawk) stows away in one of the mail containers.

Train location indicator panel

As for the future of this unique freight transport link in a congested and polluted Central London we cannot expect initiative from a Royal Mail which has been robbed of funds bu central government for years, left in a commercially unviable position by short sighted policies dictated by ministers and run by a team recruited to shrink the business. As the following exchange in Hansard indicates at the time of closure in 2003 HM Government would rather grow a GM Boil on its collective Bum than do anything to help, obviously “Green Guff” sound bites are cheaper than using an asset which is already built and paid for;

Lord Sainsbury of Turville (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry; Labour)

“My Lords, as regards transport it makes very little difference. The company envisages using only a handful of extra vehicles after MailRail is taken out of service because a huge proportion of the mail it now carries will be transported on existing vehicle routes. As regards extension, MailRail used to connect nine different stations but, with the movement of sorting offices to new areas of population, it now covers only four. Extending it would make no economic sense at all.”

Lord Razzall (Liberal Democrat)

“My Lords, does the Minister agree that this is a moment for proactivity on behalf of his department? It is not for your Lordships’ House to come up with ideas following the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, but, for example, would not this be a perfect avenue for use by the retail distribution trade within London? Alternatively, what possibilities does it offer for CrossRail?”

Lord Sainsbury of Turville (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Science and Innovation), Department of Trade and Industry; Labour)

“My Lords, it is not for the House or the Government to look for opportunities. The situation requires the Royal Mail to take a commercial decision. A consortium called Metrofreight was established to look at a proposal for using MailRail tunnels to deliver goods underground to retailers in Oxford Street. It became clear that this would cost in the region of £100 million, without a proper commercial return. It looks unlikely therefore that that scheme will go ahead. But there are other commercial possibilities and it is for the Royal Mail, which is seized of the issue, to consider them.”

If this is the Minister for Science and Innovation then I’d hate to see the Minister for Ignorance and Inertia! Later the same year (September 2003) Royal Mail after 173 years, ended the carriage of mail by train and decided to carry all its post by air and road. The minister responsible for the post office, Stephen Timms, refused to comment on the change, describing it as a commercial decision for Royal Mail’s board. However, in a letter to the RMT rail union, Lord Whitty broke ranks, writing: “I personally and this department also have grave concerns about the Royal Mail decision, which seems to be heading in the opposite direction from the aim of a more balanced, environmentally friendly and integrated transport system.” The government’s 10-year plan for transport aims to increase the amount of freight on Britain’s railways by 80%, taking a billion lorry journeys off the roads by 2010 to cut congestion and pollution. On this, as in so many other areas, there appears to be little joined up thinking.

Running Tunnel

It is clear that there is no rhyme or reason to the Government’s so called “Green” transport strategy – the £4 Bn in “Green Taxes” are just a further tax grab which have been dishonestly “green washed” to catch the environmental zeitgeist. The recent changes in VED (Vehicle Excise Duty) on “high polluting cars” have been shown to be dishonest, for unlike for all the other main green tax changes unveiled in the last budget – the Treasury did not list the likely impact of its new “showroom tax” on reducing carbon emissions. Critics said it proved that the VED would have a minimal impact on CO2 cuts. Underneath congested and polluted London there lies a unique asset in the Mail Rail system lying fallow and unused whilst above there is a government engaging in token gestures of keeping its “energy efficient” light onto midnight and ordering one or two electric vehicles. Of course 50 years ago, before we discovered “De Environment” we had thousands of electric vehicles on the streets of London not to mention trams and whirring underneath we had an ingenious post office railway connected to train stations where 18 overnight TPO’s (Travelling Post Offices) delivered mail reliably to all corners of the land without cluttering up the roads. Isn’t progress wonderful?

In researching this item I’ve liberally used information on this excellent enthusiast’s site;


Here is the GLA’s report on the closure of Mail Rail;

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