Published: 30th October 2016
Carriages for The Postal Museum’s new Rail Mail passenger trains started to arrive at Mount Pleasant in the last week in October. The vehicles, constructed by Severn Lamb, were lowered in semi-dismantled form into the tunnels through the original 100-year old Mail Rail shaft. The original mail containers used in the original trains were built by Howards of Bedford un 1927.
The trains will be assembled in the underground engineering depot at Mount Pleasant which originally served the old post-carrying Rail Mail network which operated 22 hours a day. The depot will form the start point for the new passenger ride, as well as an exhibition and hire space when the new Mail Rail attraction opens in spring 2017.
Severn Lamb have supplied two three-carriage trains, one painted red, the other green. Each set has driving positions and motorised bogies at both ends. In general concept, the vehicles follow the design of the original driverless post-carrying trains, with ‘tweaks’ appropriate to modern passenger use. The floors are lower to increase passenger comfort while travelling through the tunnels used by the old system and glass doors/canopies are employed to provide passengers with a complete view of the old tunnels.
The Post Office Underground Railway (‘Mail Rail’) electric line - the world’s first driverless electric railway - opened in 1927. The first idea for such a line dated back to 1855 and trials were held in small tunnels between 1863-1873. The idea was revived in 1909 and construction started in 1914, but was interrupted during the first world war.
Work restarted in 1923. On opening in 1927 it initially served eight stations, with a ninth subsequently being added. The 6.5 miles of 2ft (610mm) gauge line, mainly double-tracked but running in a single 9ft bore tunnel, carried mail between sorting offices under London between Paddington and Whitechaple via Mount Pleasant. In 1981/82, 34 new trains entered service to replace the 1930s stock. The driverless trains could reach speeds of up to 35 m.p.h.
By late 2002 the locations served had reduced to four: East London Mail Centre at Whitechapel, Mount Pleasant, West End Delivery Office and London West Mail Centre at Paddington. With Whitechapel due to close in March 20013 a review of the system was announced in November 2002.
Restructuring of London’s mail services had included construction of new mail centres at Greenford, Feltham and Bromley-by-Bow and the importance of the underground railway was viewed as being substantially reduced. A Royal Mail spokesman at the time commented that the system, “serves fewer stations than originally intended and it costs us five times as much as moving mail by road. For a business losing £1.2million a day that is clearly not sustainable.”
When operations ceased on May 31 2003 the rail system was essentially left as it stood, Royal Mail saying it recognised the historical and heritage value of the line and inviting approaches from heritage and other groups that might have realistic proposals.
What eventually emerged was construction of a new Postal Museum on the site of Calthorpe House, a former factory, office building and construction base, with an ungraded railway through some of the original tunnels, complete with a theatrical audio-visual show, to provide an addition visitor experience.
Funding secured for the total project by The British Postal Museum & Archive included a £4,499,300 Heritage Lottery Fund grant supplemented by grants from Viridor Credits and AIM Biffa Award.
The new attraction is scheduled to open in spring 2017.