LONDON — In 1913, the British Post Office realized that London’s congested traffic was slowing down mail delivery and something needed to be done about it. (They are turning in their graves if watching London’s traffic snarl these days.) That year, Parliament approved building the Post Office Railway, as it was officially known, and construction began two years later. The Great War intervened, however, and although the tunnels were nearly completed full operation began only in December of 1927.
London now had a 6.5-mile long tunnel and train system under its streets, wending all the way from Whitechapel in the east to the Paddington rail station in the west, connecting the city’s various mainline rail stations with mail sorting offices along the way. For 76 years from its completion until, in 2003, when the Post Office decided it was too expensive to operate, Mail Rail, as it was eventually called, sped mail deliveries, operating almost 24 hours a day, with miniature trains shuttling back and forth along the tracks, depositing and picking up letters and packages.
Mail Rail wasn’t the only way that mail was delivered by rail in England at the time. Until 2004, British passenger trains included sorting cars where workers processed mail for delivery as the trains sped up and down the country. A letter or package might arrive at one London train station and need to continue its journey from another station several miles distant. Rail Mail provided a fast link between stations.
In 2003, the Post Office mothballed Mail Rail and its station platforms. But this fall, with the opening of London’s new Post Office Museum nearby, those looking for a truly unusual and memorable experience in London can hop aboard the newly refurbished system.
Mail Rail’s rolling stock could be mistaken for an amusement park ride at a Disney park. The passenger cars are small in order to fit through the narrow tunnels (some are just 7 feet in diameter), so you have to scrunch down a bit if you’re tall, and anyone suffering from claustrophobia might think twice. Riding through these tunnels isn’t anything like traveling on London’s famed Underground.
Once on board, I listened to an audio-visual narration by former Mail Rail engineers and technicians along with some history about the British Post Office. The ride lasts about 20 minutes with stops along the way at several stations, at a top speed of 7.5 miles per hour, although the mail was once delivered at much higher speeds.
Later, I visited the Postal Museum itself, which chronicles the history of the world’s first post office. I learned, among many other things, that in 1512 King Henry VIII appointed the first Master of the Posts to manage royal missives, and that post boys back then, some as young as 11, traveled on horseback between staging “posts” 20 miles apart. Thus the “post” in Post Office.
Before I left, I bought some stamps from a machine and some post cards from the gift shop and mailed them to friends. In this age of email, nothing says “I wish you were here” with quite as much feeling.
IF YOU GO
Reserved tickets for Mail Rail have sold out until early December 2017 at this writing, so it’s best to plan ahead. However, a limited number of walk-up tickets are available each day at 10 a.m. Tickets cost 14.50 pounds per adult and 7.25 pounds for children with discounts for those over 60 and students.
Mail Rail operates from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the Postal Museum from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
15-20 Phoenix Place, London WC1X