It is there that the remains of something the locals called Mail Rail rest, a deserted reminder of the days when the demand for expedient and efficient paper mail delivery was high enough a network was built underground to ensure grandma’s birthday cards would always find their way to her favourite grandkid.
Since foggy London’s street traffic in the early 1900s was about as chaotic and unorganized as you were to find anywhere in the developed world at that point, the decision was made to shift the shuttling of mail away from the surface and bury it below ground instead.
Initially christened as the Post Office Underground Railway and operated by the Royal Mail, the 6.5 mile (10.5km) route between Paddington in west London, and the East End’s Whitechapel was officially opened in 1927 after 14 war-interrupted years of on again, off again construction. Despite building starting in 1913, England’s involvement in World War I made finding manpower to assemble the nine-foot diameter tunnels and the nearly 22 miles (36 kilometres) of track that filled them at times nearly impossible. The price of building materials skyrocketed post-war, and as a result it wasn’t until 1923 that a full-time construction effort could be put forth.
Sandwiched in-between all of this were the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Gallery, who used portions of the tunnel that had managed to be completed before the war as safe storage areas from German bombing raids for their priceless collections. When it finally did become operational the goal of the electric-powered Railway was simple: improve the distribution of anything in London that had a stamp stuck on it.
Mail was hauled between eight underground stations constructed along a solitary track line that split into two as it approached each stop by 27-foot (8 metre) long driverless engines hitting speeds of 40 miles (64 kilometres) per hour. Imagine if you would Hobbit-sized single-car trains whizzing past, packed with Post Office Underground Railway bags. These thankfully orc-free delivery hubs, whose appearance resembled what you might expect to find in the more traditional passenger underground stations of the era were strategically placed to service major distribution centres aboveground.
Over the 76 year lifespan of the Railway an initial roster of 90 single-car trains had to be completely replaced in 1930 (due more to the damage the wheels of the trains were doing to the track than wear on the trains), followed by a partial swap out of those cars in 1960. A brand new fleet was introduced in 1980 that lasted until the network finally closed its tunnel doors in 2003.
During its peak operational years the Post Office Underground Railway, which had its named funkified slightly to Mail Rail in 1987 in honour of the system’s 60th anniversary, was delivering four million letters and parcels a day. That’s roughly six million bags of paper cuts waiting to happen per year, and with the exception of the occasional on-track breakdown of the odd train it was a tightly run ship. Or at least the scheduling side of things was tightly run, with trains arriving at the various sorting stations every six minutes to be unloaded and re-loaded by NASCAR-style pit crews.
The cost-effectiveness of it all, well, not so much. The Royal Mail announced Mail Rail, although arguably a lot more impressive, was five times more expensive than doing the same duties by truck. On May 31, 2003, with only three of the original eight stations still in use, the majority of the remaining 200 workers on the Mail Rail payroll left the tunnels for the final time. After their departure most of the access points to the once flourishing underground industry were permanently sealed, and only a handful of engineers remained on the job to kick out the occasional crafty trespasser and babysit what was now just a skeleton of a system.
Starting in 2017 a short loop of track with be opened as a heritage site to visitors curious to see how the Mail Rail operated when the tunnels were running for 22 hours a day, five days a week. The trains won’t be motoring at their glory day speeds of 40mph, but people will still be able to get a hands-on feel for what life was once like for a letter needing to be delivered in London.
- Clark, H., 2015. All aboard London’s subterranean Mail Rail
- Dangerfield, A., 2014.Mail Rail: What is it like on the ‘secret’ Tube?
- Shute, J., 2016. Mail Rail: Riding on London’s Post Office Underground Railway
- Karslake, C., Speeding London’s Mail
- Meiadeleite, A., 2013. The Underground Worlds of Rail Mail