Suggest to a Londoner that the highlight of a fun day out in London was riding in a cramped, underground train and they would probably look at you in disbelief.
“But don’t I do that most days?” they would ask.
But London Underground this is not. This is the Mail Rail, the Post Office’s own underground railway and the scene stealer of London’s Postal Museum.
The history of the Mail Rail
Congestion on London’s streets is not a new phenomenon. In 1911, the Royal Mail was worried. Roads clogged with slow-moving horse and carts – the average speed was 6 mph – was causing delays in postal deliveries. Time meant money and they needed a traffic-proof delivery system.
The Mail Rail was a radical solution to this problem. In 1914, construction began on a 6.5-mile underground railway between Paddington and Whitechapel. Temporarily thwarted by World War I, the Rail Mail finally opened for business in December 1927.
This network of narrow tunnels, 70 feet below the surface, linked six sorting offices with mainline stations at Paddington and Liverpool Street. At its peak in the 1930s, the driverless Mail Rail transported four million letters each day, with a train every four minutes, 22 hours a day.
In fact, it was those clever Victorians who first dreamt up a subterranean network. Intermittently from 1863, they dabbled with pneumatic chutes 3 m below the surface but abandoned this idea in 1874.
With the closure of sorting offices and soaring operating costs, against the background of cheaper road transport, the Mail Rail carried its last sack of letters in 2003. Various plans for the decommissioned subterranean labyrinth were then proposed, including an underground mushroom farm and a cycleway. But in 2017, the Mail Rail was reopened for human cargo as part of the Postal Museum.
Riding the Mail Rail
This is not a train ride for those with a fear of small, enclosed spaces.
Five feet high and 65 feet long, this electric train squeezes its passengers in two abreast. With the track a mere 2 m-wide, to say that it’s a snug fit is putting it mildly. Clear plastic windows and roof insulate you from the tunnel atmosphere, adding to the claustrophobic feel
Your disembodied ‘guide’ for the 20-minute train ride is the ex-Royal Mail employee, Ray Middlesworth, who narrates points of interest along the way and supplies anecdotes. Abandoned platforms are brought to life with spectacular projections.
Visiting The Postal Museum
The Mail Rail is part of London’s Postal Museum, and the museum itself should not be missed.
Highlights of The Postal Museum include a sheet of the first stamps, vintage postal carriages, post boxes and a selection of posters and magazines from the 1950s and 60s.
It is a very interactive museum and is, therefore, is great for kids (and for the young at heart). The Mail Rail exhibition allows would-be train drivers to operate the lever frame and race pneumatic cars. Budding postmen can don the flat cap and trench coat of a travelling postal worker.
In the Postal Service exhibition, I had great fun creating a stamp with my head on it. My stamp of approval for the Rail Mail and London’s Postal Museum if you like.