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The Post Office Railway

It's like the tube, but smaller.

Story by passing.by April 1st, 2015

the post office railway . . .

Or “Mail Rail” as it is more commonly known is a narrow gauge underground railway that was used by the Post office to move letters and parcels between their major sorting offices. Genius, avoid all the congestion on the streets above by sending the mail underground. It operated from 1927 until 2003 when it was deemed uneconomic, mothballed and subsequently decommissioned.

The route runs from Whitechapel in the East to Padington in the west, and goes via several other sorting offices including the Mount Pleasant sorting office which is the largest in London. At one point the route was changed when a new western district office was opened at Rathbone Place, which has left a couple of kilometers of disused tunnel that were used as storage sidings.

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This is another one of those places where you have to seize the opportunity or it just passes you by, so when I got an excited phone call from Frosty as I was on my way home from Wales with a car full of other explorers, I knew we had to act fast. Initially (like a fool) I said no as I had to work the next day. After a couple of hours with that little devil sitting on my shoulder whispering in my ear encouraging me to go, I realised this would probably be the one and only chance I’d have to see this, so a few hours later I found myself back in London about to em barque on a great adventure.

A majority of the railway consists of a single 9ft diameter tunnel with twin tracks, as pictured above. Before the stations, the tracks split into two single 7ft diameter tunnels which split to go either side of the platform at the stations, as pictured below. The stations are based on a 25ft diameter tunnel with a track down each side and a central platform.

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The older stations are pretty similar to each other, although in different states of repair and modernisation. Mount Pleasant station was the busiest on the network and had an underground workshop area for working on the locomotives which sadly we were unable to see on this visit. Rathbone Place, being built later, was more boxy rather than tube shaped, but essentially had the same layout as the others. All the stations feature two pairs of tracks on each side which allowed trains to pass through the station while others were being loaded or unloaded.

Top left is Rathbone Place station, top right is the western central district post office (Oxford Street) station. The bottom two are Mount Pleasant. We didn’t see any more of the stations on our brief visit here, there was simply too much to walk in the time we had.

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The locomotives in use on this railway were all electrically driven at a voltage of 440v DC on a third rail system. they were all driver-less trains and ran largely automatically except for where they entered the stations where they were under the control of a station controller who manually admitted each train into the station. Around 1993 the whole thing was computerised and run from a central control room.

The locomotives pictured below are stock from the early 1980’s which was pretty much the newest in operation on the network. There were still a few older units in operation when the system closed in 2003, mainly used for maintenance.

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The photos below show a few of the more interesting features on the track.

Top left is the “abandoned” tunnel that lead to the old western district office. There was still track in this as it was used for parking up locomotives. Top right looking back where the track splits apart coming up to a station.

The bottom two photos here show the track leading up to Mount Pleasant station. The big ‘blast door’ I am told was a flood prevention measure that allowed Mount Pleasant station to be shut off in the event that any of the tunnels were breached with water.

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My only regret here is that I didn’t push on and see the rest of the place while I had the chance. I left early because I really needed to get home to at least grab some sleep before work the next day. I mugged off work anyway so that was a bit stupid. Try though we might, we have not been able to gain access back into the network again since, although we have got very very close.

Who knows, one day another window of opportunity may present its self.