A letter to Santa!

Ian Lamb takes a subterranean train ride on London’s former Postal Railway, part of which has now become a popular tourist attraction.

I recall as a child being a fervent reader of Trains Illustrated, and seem to recall it once carrying a feature about the ‘highly secretive’ narrow-gauge underground postal railway that whizzed mail across London between major sorting offices, with Mount Pleasant being at the heart of the operation.

Being the son of a railwayman, and having completed a letter to Santa in Greenland, I asked my dad if he thought it might go via the private subterranean rails!

From then on, I wanted to see the mass of underground tunnels for myself, and learn about the incredible amount of co-ordination that was essential for such a reliable operation – and when the new National Postal Museum opened its doors to the public in July 2017, I realised that the time had come at last.

Greenbat trains like this transported countless millions of letters beneath the streets of central London. Photo courtesy The Postal Museum/Miles Willis.

After the service was deemed uneconomical in 2003, and mail was transferred to road and air, the tracks lay more or less abandoned until it was decided to turn it into a major tourist attraction – and now, for the first time in history, part of the railway complex that once ran totally underground between Paddington and Whitechapel is partially accessible to the public.

London’s streets were so congested by 1909, with mail travelling at less than seven miles an hour, that Post Office controller Robert Bruce proposed a new underground railway to speed
up deliveries.

Unlike the earlier pneumatic system, this railway was all electric and construction began in 1913 after an Act of Parliament had been approved. The tunnels were hand-dug by workers protected by the Greathead Shield process, and as the tunnels progressed, cast-iron segments were bolted together to form a pipe.

This is one of the English Electric Dick Kerr System automatic circuit breakers that operated on the old postal subterranean system. Photo courtesy The Postal Museum/Miles Willis.

Work was halted during the First World War, although the tunnels were used to protect artwork and artefacts from the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and others.

In 1924 the work started again with track-laying and electrification, using 1000 tons of running rail and 160 tons of conductor metal. The Post Office Railway (renamed Mail Rail in 1987) became a 6.5 mile, 2ft (610mm)-gauge automated electric railway that opened in 1927 to move mail speedily beneath central London.

For the full article and to view more images, see the December edition of Modelling – available now!

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