Reopening London’s Mail Rail

The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA) has submitted plans to Islington Council proposing to reopen a section of the Mail Rail beneath Mount Pleasant sorting office, this time for public use.

The scheme forms part of the BPMA’s plan for a major new postal museum and experience in the Mount Pleasant area. The first part of this plan, a new combined museum and archive at Calthorpe House (opposite Mount Pleasant) has already been approved. This will allow the BPMA to fully open up its extensive collections covering over 400 years of postal history to the public – these include photographs, posters, vehicles, pillar boxes, employment records of millions of people and a world-class stamp collection.

Part two of the scheme, however, is perhaps even more ambitious. This involves reopening the aforementioned section of the Mail Rail beneath Mount Pleasant itself.

Moving the Mail

The Mail Rail itself needs little by the way of introduction. In 1909 Sir Robert Bruce, Controller of the London Postal Region, was appointed to investigate whether the sub-surface transmission of mail in London was a matter worth pursuing. Having examined systems to be found elsewhere in the world, he produced a report recommending that the “Post Office (London) Railway” be constructed. Whilst various pneumatic options were considered, his ultimate recommendation was for an electric railway connecting the Eastern District Office with Paddington, passing through six other stations, five sorting offices and Liverpool Street station.

The Post Office itself quickly approved of the scheme, and the Post Office (London) Railway Act was passed by Parliament in 1913 enabling its construction.

That construction was originally intended to take only 15 months, and began shortly after the outbreak of WW1. Initially work proceeded relatively quickly despite the growing conflict. Tunnels were cut by means of a Greathead Shield, with iron ring segments forming the tunnel wall and work proceeded to plan until the tunnels had almost reached Mount Pleasant itself. Here, water began to seep through the tunnel walls and, despite the addition of extra lining, this would remain a problem throughout the life of the system. Indeed like the London Underground itself heavy duty water tight gates were fitted within the tunnel just outside of Mount Pleasant station to lower the risk of the entire network being flooded.

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Post Office Railway tunnels

Construction Pauses

By 1917 the war in Europe – with its demands for both men and materiel – saw work on the Post Office Railway temporarily halted. The tunnels were largely complete, but the railway itself had yet to be fitted out. The tunnels were soon being used to store British Museum treasures safely away from German Zeppelin bombing raids on the Capital whilst serious consideration was given to suspending work completely.

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Storing artwork on the Post Office Railway

In the end, work finally resumed in 1924 and was completed in 1927. The result was a narrow gauge railway over six miles long running from the Eastern District Office to Liverpool Street Station, then the East Central District Office (King Edward Building), Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, West Central District Office at Holborn, Western District Office at Wimpole Street, Western Parcels Office at Baker Street and then finally arriving at Paddington District Office where it connected with the main railway station.

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The narrow gauge track

This route changed slightly in 1965 when the Western Parcels Office, and its station, were closed and the Western District Office was moved to Rathbone Place. For the rest of the railway’s life, Rathbone Place would remain something of the “odd station out” as a result, looking very much like the office block basement it was in opposition to the more tube-like stations elsewhere on the line.

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The westbound platform at Mount Pleasant

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The eastbound platform at Mount Pleasant

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The cross passage between the two platforms

Trains were controlled by a switch system at each station and could be stopped at any station for loading or unloading of mail or could be run straight through. Mail was loaded via bags or trays into special containers which themselves were then loaded onto the trains. Mail was sent down to the platforms from the offices above via chutes and transferred up via conveyor belt or lifts. Indeed at Paddington a lengthy conveyor system was used to get bags of mail from the Post Office Railway directly onto the mainline platforms.

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What remains of the conveyor incline at Mount Pleasant

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The lift up to Mount Pleasant depot

The End of the Line

For the next thirty five years, the Post Office Railway would be used to move mail around London. In 1987 it was refurbished and rebranded as the “Mail Rail” in celebration of its 60th anniversary. Finally, in the nineties, it was upgraded to then-state of the art computer control (indeed it would later be boasted that the system was run by a then-incredible “254 megabyte computer”).

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Original Mail Rail control switches

By the new millenium though it had become clear that the Post Office no longer wished to maintain the system. The network, they claimed, cost five times more to run than the equivalent cost of moving the mail by road. This was a figure that was soon subject to a certain amount of dispute. The Communication Workers Union claimed that, to a certain extent, Royal Mail were cooking the figures – that they had pursued a deliberate policy of running the railway down and only using it at one third of its true capacity. A report by the Greater London Authority also supported its continued use. Despite this, the Royal Mail announced in April 2003 that they would close it down at the end of May, and the railway moved its last parcel in the early hours of 31st May 2003.

Since then the system has remained unused beneath the sorting offices and streets of the capital. Although much of the railway infrastructure has been removed – not least by the BPMA itself – the tunnels, tracks and various elements of the original system do remain in situ and in relatively good condition. Indeed Crossrail briefly investigated the possibility of reusing the tunnels as part of an elaborate system to remove tunnel spoil without recourse to road haulage, although this ultimately proved unworkable. Ultimately, this has been for the best as it has left open the possibility for the BPMA’s proposal today.

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Looking down on the Mount Pleasant depot

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The Mail Rail depot at Mount Pleasant

The Mail Rail Experience

The BPMA’s plan is to take advantage of the fact that the Mail Rail, for the entirety of its operational life, was designed to be a fully self-supporting enclosed system. This means that, lying beneath Mount Pleasant itself, are not just a set of original platforms but also an extensive Workshop space and mail car depot. These can all be seen on the map below.

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A plan of the Mount Pleasant site, with the key museum areas highlighted

If the plans are approved, the Workshop area will be used to house a visitor centre and cafe, whilst the larger depot space will be converted into both an events hall and exhibition space covering various aspects of the system’s history.

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The workshop and depot space (off to the right), showing the track to be overlayed and likely display points

Looking through the supporting documentation, the intention is to try and avoid as much structural change to the system itself as possible, in recognition of its crucial heritage role. Lifted floors with grills and vents to expose the workings beneath will be used throughout the depot, and exhibits set apart from the original fixtures and fittings that still remain, allowing these to be exposed wherever possible.

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An artist’s impression of the view back from the events area

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An artist’s impression of the view back from the station

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An early artist’s impression of the exhibition space

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An early artist’s impression of the platform space

It’s an admirable design goal, and one that should be impressive if achieved. The most interesting element of the plan, however, comes with the tunnels linking the car depot to the original platforms themselves. The intention appears to be to restore this section of line to full operation, running trains carrying visitors from the depot through to the platforms, where more exhibits on the system’s industrial history – and indeed the history of moving mail by rail in general – will be found, and then back again. The rolling stock used will be specially designed replicas of the original battery powered trains used to transport the mail. The network beyond Mount Pleasant will remain physically open, but running will be fixed to the confines of the new museum site.

Although the planning documents make no mention of proposed timescales, it is clear that the BPMA are keen to press forward in line with their work on the wider museum. It is hard not to wish them success with their endeavour.

You can read the full submission, and its supporting documentation, on the Islington Council planning website. It’s worth a look, not least because the supporting documents contain some photos of the current state of the system, although we have included some of the best ones here.

Written by John Bull