FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Riding the Mail Rail

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on July 8, 2017

One of the more extraordinary feats of engineering in Great Britain has to be the Post Office Railway, a six and a half mile long line on which driver-less mail trains ran beneath the feet of unsuspecting Londoners for 76 years. In its heyday it carried an average of 12 million letters and parcels a day, though this had reduced to four million towards the end of its active life due to the relocation of sorting offices away from the line. It was officially renamed the ‘Mail Rail’ in 1987 to mark its sixtieth anniversary.

One of the narrow tunnels on the Post Office Railway, now re-used for the Mail Rail experience

Standing 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 operation. The tantalising glimpses of the system offered by urban explorers showed that the line, mothballed in 2003, was still in reasonably good condition and only increased that desire to see more.

I could never have imagined that five years on the MailRail would be back up and running, this time as London’s newest and most exciting tourist attraction. At that time any possibility of reviving the system seemed complete fantasy, so hats off to the believers who kept pushing the idea. When the news about the plans first broke in 2013 I was delighted and only too happy to make a small contribution to its revival by sponsoring a sleeper when the opportunity arose. I still hardly dared believe that it would really happen.

Today, I got a chance to take a sneak-peak at the MailRail experience as workmen continued to apply the finishing touches to the new museum buildings. Our day included a ride on the Mail Rail in specially designed new passenger viewing coaches, a look at the new Postal Museum and a walk along the tracks to see the sleepers we had sponsored.

Walking the tunnels – hard hats were a must for the low tunnels on parts of the route

The Mail Rail ride experience takes in a relatively short stretch of line underneath the Mount Pleasant sorting depot. The ride begins in what was the depot and then takes you through two platforms that have apparently been left largely untouched since the last mail train ran on the system (although emptied of the mail trolleys that would once have filled them). Along the way some pretty clever projections bring the history of the Postal Railway to life. It might only take a quarter of an hour before you loop back round to the beginning but they are very satisfying minutes!

It’s worth noting that it could all have been very different. There were a number of commercial proposals on the table around the time of the closure, including the transportation of wine, document exchange and the delivery of high value small goods to retail stores on Oxford Street. I’m thankful that it was the museum curators who won that battle.

The new miniature passenger vehicles, specially commissioned for the museum, are a little bit of an awkward squeeze but then again the system was never intended for the transportation of human beings. That’s not to say that the system is utterly without human touches – rather wonderfully a dartboard still hangs on one of the Mount Pleasant platforms with scores chalked up from the last game.

Looking ahead at the entrance to the tunnel system with one of the two new passenger vehicles in the station

Our walk along the tracks later in the day gave us a bit more space to appreciate the route and just how narrow the tunnels are. It was rather lovely to see the sleeper we sponsored, complete with a plaque, which should have a lifespan of 25 years before it needs replacing. The walk allowed us to get a better look at the stalactites hanging down from the tunnel roof, the graveyard of wagons part-way through and the dummy vehicle used to test the dimensions of the new passenger vehicles in the tunnels.

The final element of our visit was a chance to look around the half-finished Mail Rail exhibition space which shows off the surviving locomotives on the tracks they were built for, rather than languishing in the museum warehouse out of context. It’s a superb historical walk through but it took a locker preserved just as it was left on the last day of operation (complete with 2003 vintage shower gels) to remind me that this is a story of the 21st century as much as of the ingenuity of the first engineers.

A deconstructed engine from the 1930s

The Postal Museum itself is one of the best presented I have seen anywhere, telling the five hundred year long story of the postal system with real verve. It also manages to achieve the near impossible balance of serving up sufficiently engaging stuff to entertain children and plenty of fascinating exhibits/information for adults. Star exhibits included Machin’s ‘Diadem Head’ plaster cast and trial stamps (essays), a display about Edward VIII stamps and an array of rather wonderful postboxes. The pneumatic postal tubes looked fun too.

My absolute favourite had to be the hand-illustrated envelopes that Frederick Tolhurst sent to his children when his marriage ended in 1915. Every one is a marvel, incorporating the address into the design in ever more ingenious ways such as on the side of a barrage-balloon over a search-lit London skyline. You can see some of the wonderful designs on a blogpost from the BPMA at The Mystery of the Tolhurst Envelope: Case Closed.

I learned plenty too – I had no idea that the first postboxes were installed in the Channel Islands, that you could post game with nothing but a neck label in the 1930s (as long as they didn’t leak) or that at one time you could send postcards for a cheaper rate if you only wrote five words!

One of the displays in the Postal Museum

It is safe to say that the combination of the MailRail and the Postal Museum is fabulous – it really deserves to become one of the top attractions in London. The Postal Museum is opening to the public on 28th July 2017 but the Mail Rail exhibitions and ride don’t start until 4th September 2017. Full details are available from the Postal Museum website.

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