FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Mail Rail

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on April 21, 2012

The story of the Post Office (London) Railway has intrigued me since I was a child, with my initial fascination triggered by a feature on Blue Peter (if I remember correctly). The idea of a ‘secret’ railway under the streets of London operated with driverless electric trains was absolutely compelling. It’s the same sort of appeal that clings to long since disused underground stations across London. Nothing quite has the edge on the Post Office Railway though, or Mail Rail as it was named in 1987.

Mail Rail

Although in reality the Post Office (London) Railway is far from secret, the story of its creation and longevity is nonetheless absolutely remarkable. The construction of an electric railway operated by driverless trains was recommended in a 1911 report and work started in 1914. The much delayed railway finally opened in 1927 and connected Paddington in the west to Liverpool Street in the east (as shown on a line map from wikipedia), speedily transferring mail beneath the congested city streets. Amazingly the system continued to operate until May 2003, when it was mothballed.

The British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) recently recovered some of the surviving rail cars, requiring a complex lifting operation to bring them to the surface (as reported on London Reconnections in October 2011 – see In Pictures: Moving the Mail Rail).

Detail from the switch frame at Mount Pleasant

Today the BPMA put on a mail rail open day at the museum store to showcase the newly retrieved units, with a series of talks to explain the history of the system and explain the conservation efforts to preserve the units for the future. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so I headed off to Debden to take a look.

I have to admit that beyond a basic grasp of its existence and it’s route I didn’t really know much about the history of the system or the stock that it used. The opening talk of the day from BPMA curator Chris Taft was perfect to fill in those gaps in my knowledge. I guess the romantic notion of this hidden railway hadn’t led me to think about its complications and how intense it must have been to work in the system, having to get everything loaded/unloaded ready to send on its way on time to meet the Travelling Post Office trains. Sadly, the logic of its closure in the face of its diminishing importance in today’s world was hard to deny.

The first units built for the system in 1927 were unsuited to the tight curves of the line, causing heavy wear of the rails and were replaced by a new design of stock built in 1930s/1936. There is something of a mystery about the fate of the 90 units built in 1927 with only one complete example known to exist, now safely recovered and on display at the BPMA museum store.

After a flirtation with some prototypes in the 1960s new rolling stock was introduced in the 1980s (alongside some 1930s survivors) which lasted until the closure of the system in 2003.

Example of 1980 Stock in the BPMA museum store

It was great to see these survivors, even if they did look a little out of place in a warehouse. It would have been great to see them in-situ at the Mount Pleasant station/maintenance depot. The complex was sometimes opened to groups and I was rather surprised to learn that my mother had visited on a school trip to Mount Pleasant in 1958! Last year a group managed to find their way into the system and took a series of fascinating photographs which just serves to whet my appetite even more (take a look at http://www.silentuk.com/?p=2792). Here’s hoping that the mothballed system will someday echo to the sound of visitors (on a more official basis) once again…

Detail from 1980 Stock in the BPMA museum store

If you are interested in finding out more about the Post Office (London) Railway, there are plenty of fascinating websites and photograph collections to explore. I found the following sites really helpful:

Mail Rail (British Postal Museum & Archive)
The unofficial MailRail website
Mail Rail posts on the BPMA blog

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  1. […] in front of the electric units used on the line at a MailRail themed open day at the BPMA Museum Store at Debden, Essex in April 2012 I lamented the demise of such a remarkable system and wished I could have seen it in […]


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