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Whilst we tend to concentrate on the movement of people and freight, there are other uses to which rail has been put in London – notably the movement of mail.

Earlier this year the British Postal Museum & Archive began work on the preservation of some early rolling stock elements of the now-disused Post Office Railway. The last remaining unit of the original 1927 rolling stock – a green mail car, and an example of the 1930 motive stock were brought to the surface at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre and moved by road to the museum store in Debden where work can now begin on its preservation.

It appears to have been an interesting – and complex – lift. The units were pushed from the car depot beneath Mount Pleasant to the access shaft, and from there were brought to the surface by a mini-crane into the depot’s yard. The 1930s motive unit was seperated into three parts for this, with both being lifted independently. They were then followed by the green metal 1927 car.

Once on the surface, all three units had to be lifted over a storage building onto a flatbed for transportation to the museum store.

Both the motive unit and the mail car are now at the store in Debden, with preservation and restoration work likely in future.

Pictures of the move can be found below, all of which come courtesy of the British Postal Museum & Archive. The museum store is occasionally open for public tours, which are well worth taking when the chance arises. Details of dates can be found on their website here. A few more pictures can be found in the Archive’s photostream.

The first 1930 unit in the shaft

The first 1930 motive unit in the shaft

The first unit is hoisted

The first motive unit is hoisted

The shaft is cleared

The shaft is cleared

The first unit close up

The first motive unit close up

Raising the second motive unit

Raising the second motive unit

The mini-crane used, with the second unit

The mini-crane used, with the second motive unit

Curator Chris Taft waits with the 1927 car

Curator Chris Taft waits with the 1927 car

The 1927 car is raised

The 1927 car is raised

The 1927 unit close up

The 1927 unit close up

Destination Labels on the 1027 car

Destination Labels on the 1027 car

Lifting the 1927 unit over the surrounding buildings

Lifting the 1927 unit over the surrounding buildings

Loading the motive units

Loading the motive units

Motive units on the lorry

Motive units on the lorry at Mount Pleasant

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There are 34 comments on this article
  1. Greg Tingey says:

    The now deliberately-closed PORly
    By the then breief chief of the GPO who was so corrupt it wasn’t true.
    He wanted everything going by lorry.
    He had commercial interests in that feld.
    He was detected, and quietly asked to leave, but, by then, the damage had been done.
    As fo re-opening the PO Rly – can’t be done, as “It would cost too much”

    AAAARRRGGGH!

    Very interesting suff.
    I have a glossy 1967 (?) official booklet about said enterprise.
    If you like, I can scan this and send you a copy for pub.
    Please e-mail me directly if you would like this?

  2. Slugabed says:

    Greg is right.The closure of the PO Railway….in fact the planned move of postal transportation from rail to road ihas been a scandal.However,given the closure of rail-served sorting and distribution centres,and the building of new ones close to motorways etc,the rationale for the PO Railway has been sabotaged,and changing the network back to rail-based will have to wait until the current system comes up for renewal.Fortunately,given the shoddy building standards emloyed,we might not have long to wait….

  3. timbeau says:

    The present infrastructure, in particular the Willesden Hub, and indeed the squandered resource which is the mothballed Class 325 fleet, was designed around bulk haulage by rail.

  4. Fandroid says:

    Does anyone know if the right of way has been flogged for HV cable or Optical Fibre or whatever ?

    One of the strangenesses of the Post Office Railway was that it wasn’t particularly well connected to the surface rail network at all. It started at Paddington but then ignored the big rail termini on the Euston Road, preferring a southerly route with a kink northwards to Mount Pleasant (just north of Faringdon) then back to the east-west alignment to Liverpool Street and Whitechapel. It ignored every Southern terminus as well as LMS and LNER (at Kings Cross). Presumably they used lorries, even in those days, to get the mail from the sorting offices to the railway stations. The POR seems to have been mainly used for shifting mail around within London.

  5. EW says:

    There is a group of urban explorers who recently managed to get down and walk the tunnels and stations . Their account makes interesting reading and they have superb array of pictures.

    you can find it at this web site – http://www.silentuk.com/?p=2792

  6. Fandroid says:

    Thanks EW, I checked out the urban explorers account. It truly is a fantastic piece, with great photos (taken earlier in 2011). Some of the stations look as if they were still in use the previous day! No mean hike to manage 14 miles in total with restricted height in places. Coming back could have been no less gruelling than the outward journey, with a nagging fear of discovery always present. The rails are still shiny, and there’s no sign of fibre-optics or HV Power cables. It’s in such good nick that perhaps the Romney Hythe & Dymchurch could take it over for tourist runs!

  7. EW says:

    Fandroid,

    Unfortunately the guy who writes that web site got arrested “exploring” in June and still awaits the outcome. It seems to have knocked the confidence out of him and he has given up urban exploration (in the UK at least).

    I don’t think there are enough steam locos down there to interest the RH&D guys. Maybe a modern day eccentric will buy it up as his own personal Crossrail model train set.

  8. John Bull says:

    They are indeed cracking exploration photos. I remember when they first surfaced I was in two minds about running them here, but ultimately decided not to. In “official policy” terms, LR can’t really condemn track trespass with one hand, whilst running the results of it with the other. I’m glad someone else has finally highlighted them though.

    Mention of Crossrail reminds me of something that I’ve heard from several sources now but never actually managed to prove – that serious thought was paid by Crossrail to the possibility of using the Mail Rail (or at the least its tunnels) to dispose of soil from the Crossrail site at Liverpool Street.

    Would certainly have been interesting.

  9. Pedantic says:

    Funnily enough, I heard that too. I am pretty sure the idea was the guy in charge at the time – Douglas Oakervee. He hinted at innovative ways to remove the soil without creating lots of lorry journeys in central London. The comments were all a bit vague but I got the impression it was MailRail tunnels he was talking about and it was technically feasible but more expensive than using lorries and they were under more pressure to keep costs down that they were to avoid lorry movements so that board voted against it.

  10. Fandroid says:

    I too heard that, from a team member. Mail Rail and the Crossrail central tunnel are so close in alignment that, not only was it worthy of consideration for use during construction, but it must be a flaming nuisance having to design the tunnel alignment to actually avoid it!

    The RH&D mention was in jest, but it’s conceivable to imagine that (at least in part) it could be a viable tourist attraction. Imagine popping through a hole in the wall at the Paddington Crossrail station, to emerge after a thrilling train ride clad in hard hats with head-lights at a similar hatch at Oxford Street. (or into Santa’s Grotto in the basement of John Lewis!)

  11. Greg Tingey says:

    I have sent (last week) copies of the 1970’s pamphlet.

    Might it be possible for other readers to see them, do you think, please?

  12. Anonymous says:

    Surely an obvious use for these tunnels is for ventilation for Crossrail or indeed the ordinary tube tunnels, which are seemingly in trouble in this respect. I claim the £10,000 prize, Boris!

  13. Long Branch Mike says:

    Wikipedia’s PORy page notes that:

    “In 1910 a tunnel railway merely 450m long, opened in Munich, Germany as a connection between the Munich Main Station and the nearby Post office. The tunnels were damaged in World War II, restored in 1948 and partially rebuilt in 1966 to allow for the first Munich S-Bahn tunnel.”

  14. Fandroid says:

    I fear that the Post Office Railway is too close to the Central Line and to Crossrail for it ever to be seriously considered for a new tube line. I cannot even see that its tunnels (expanded) would be useful in short lengths for getting foot passengers to and from any existing stations.

    The Munich tunnel happened to right on a line that would prove to be extremely useful, ie connecting the railway in the west via a city centre station or two to the railway in the east.

    I suspect that the PORy will eventually be used for power lines or for communications cables. With relatively short new links it could connect to the redundant Thameslink right of way between Farringdon and Moorgate so providing a cable route from the City to Paddington.

  15. russ says:

    I worked on MailRail for 6yrs, 90/96,and I feel privileged to have worked on such a unique system…. Fond memories

  16. Dr Richards Beeching says:

    @ Mr L B Mike

    I spoke to my postman just a week ago about this, and the amount of mail he carries each day that actually has a ‘real’ postage stamp affixed to it.

    He said that apart from birthday cards, he generally only has about four ordinary letters bearing stamps, on his entire round these days. Everything else is junk mail, pre-printed, or post office type gold package labels

  17. Edward Goodwin says:

    I was an engineer on this system 1963-69.Fabulous & exciting environment for a 16 year old onward. Massive skills -learning base & one of 200 + other engineering apprentices in Post Office Engineering London-wide. This starting point served the nation as a superb springboard into other branches of engineering .Many went into the computer industries as a result.Edward.

  18. Mr Beckton says:

    Could you ride a bicycle inside the tunnels?

    [I’ve snipped the rest as we really don’t want to burrow down that tunnel of discussion. I understand that the track is still in place throughout the system, so no, bike riding would not be possible. LBM]

  19. Walthamstow Writer says:

    @ LBM – track definitely still there. There was a recent excellent BBC4 programme by Alan Johnson MP about the Post Office. It included a visit to Mail Rail and he had a ride down the tunnels for the first time. Unfortunately it’s just gone off I-Player but I dare say it will get repeated – everything does these days.

    By sheer coincidence I was rooting through my photo archive ealier today for some stuff to scan and found some slides from my one visit to Mail Rail back in the 1980s. I’ll put them in the LR Flickr Group when scanned – may take a while tho’.

  20. timbeau says:

    @Mr beckton
    Some of the tunnels have a diameter of only 7 feet. To get sufficient floor width for a 2ft gauge track, the floor-to-ceiling height is somewhat less. Mind your head!

  21. Greg Tingey says:

    Dr R B
    However, there is a huge volume of parcels – much bigger than there used to be.
    IF it could be extended to Willesden, as was once proposed – would it be economic to re-open it?
    Um, err ….

  22. Walthamstow Writer says:

    First two photos on line on the LR Flickr group, 3 more to follow later today. From a visit / open day in March 1989.

  23. Southern Heights (Light Railway) says:

    @Greg: perhaps it could be used to remove all the construction spoil as well? Have tipper trucks only run from work site to nearest sorting office, Spoil Rail then takes it out (e.g. Silvertown, near the dangleway) where it is transfered to barges and carried away by river…

  24. Graham Feakins says:

    Since the mail rail topic has been revived, this link is a useful reminder of operation in 1993 as filmed by Fred Ivey, a well-known observer of matters LT:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwRBrUwhdio

    Listen especially to the narrative recorded from 3 min onwards. As best described in the link but to remind: ” Fred took his video camera with him on a visit organised by the London Underground Railway Society to the Post Office Railway at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre in 1993. This automatic railway ran between Paddington and Whitechapel sorting offices with stops at Bird Street, Wimpole Street, Rathbone Place, New Oxford Street, Mount Pleasant, King Edward Street and Liverpool Street. The railway closed on 30 May 2003.

  25. Mark Townend says:

    @Southern Heights (Light Railway), 7 November 2015 at 14:59
    perhaps it could be used to remove all the construction spoil
    A Rail-Veyor system could be just the job: https://youtu.be/1XkioFHJgDA

  26. @MT

    Good ole Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Outside the town are many nickel mines, which left such desolate, vegetation-free slag heaps that they were used to train NASA astronauts for their moon walks in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

  27. Graham H says:

    @LBM – but presumably,like the slag heaps in Joburg, re-mined in the ’90s because the price of metal had risen so far?

    [Not that I know of, but as this mineral mining is continents off-piste, we can pick this up off-line… LBM]

  28. Anonymous says:

    @Southern Heights (Light Railway) Better still convert the dangleway into a spoil removal facility!:-)

  29. George Crawford says:

    I was lucky enough to work on the Post Office Railway from 1970 to 1973 , starting as an improver on the engineering staff . Supberb training system for apprentices in those days . Such a varied working environment, from the automatic railway , accommodation services , not to mention the state of the art ,in those days, automatic letter franking machines above ground . Fantastic experience , loved it .

  30. @George Crawford

    Great to hear of your experience on Mail Rail. I’m looking forward to the Postal Museum opening this year, which will have new Mail Rail trains that the public will be able to take a short ride in.

  31. JohnM says:

    I heard that Crossrail had managed to damage / destroy the mailrail tunnel somewhere around Paddington due to it being missing on their site investigation drawings. Can anyone confirm this and was the damage repaired ?

  32. @JohnM

    I did a quick Google for this but didn’t find any confirmation. However I did find this interesting article from December 2016 describing the system, the modern incarnation, with a brief mention of the Crossrail tunnels having to work around Mail Rail.

  33. 100andthirty says:

    I know that LU/Crossrail accessed the Mail Rail tunnels somewhere quite near the depot (rather than the other end) to do some advance ground consolidation/grouting. As a Quid Pro Quo, LU gave some consultancy to the museum planners on how they might get the Mail Rail attraction working.

  34. Anonymous says:

    If anyone is interested, the Postal Museum is now recruiting for Driver Operators for the Mail Rail http://postalmuseum.org/connect/about/work-with-us/ !

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