It’s not quite commonplace yet to see Amazon parcels whizzing through the air on drones, and the idea still seems a bit like something out of the futuristic show, Jetsons.
And that’s probably what people thought when the idea was first floated to transport London’s post via the London Underground.
I don’t mean postmen on trains rather than bikes: I mean a dedicated underground railway line, with little trains piled with parcels and letters.
READ MORE: The abandoned London Underground station that now heats up North London homes
The idea flickered into being in 1908 when a team of Post Office engineers went to Chicago.
They observed the Chicago Freight subway system and saw no reason why the same idea couldn’t work in London.
Another subterranean network in Germany confirmed it: this wasn’t some fluke, this was the future of mail!
The idea took two decades to go from idea to reality, but with help from the folks at London Underground (who knew a thing or two about digging tunnels) a six-and-a-half-mile tunnel was hand-dug from Whitechapel to Paddington, with stops along the main sorting offices.
The network opened in 1927, in December – a bold move, with the Christmas rush already underway.
Each platform looked like “a miniature version of the Tube”; the trains were big enough for an adult to get into, but it was a squeeze.
But it worked brilliantly – the journey across town was cut from a few hours on the congested roads above to just 30 minutes.
The automated, driverless trains ran almost nonstop for 75 years – at its peak, Mail Rail was running 19 hours a day, 286 days a year, and carried four million letters a day.
Ray Middlesworth, who worked on Mail Rail for 27 years, says, “It was hard work… but we all thought we were part of something important. There was enormous team spirit.”
There would have to be – trainloads of mail arrived at stations every few minutes and there were less than 60 seconds to unload and reload.
But despite the hard work, staff turnover was low – in 2003, the Mount Pleasant controller Amanda Smith said the most junior employee had been there for eight years.
Bruce Willis even visited for the filming of Hudson Hawk.
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But by the early 2000s, the volume of mail had dropped considerably with the advent of email, texting, and instant messaging.
By the early 2000s, Mail Rail was struggling to justify its own cost.
It emerged that using London’s roads would be five times cheaper, so in May 2003, Mail Rail was closed.
In the weeks before the closure, Amanda told the BBC some touching stories about the people who had been secretly working away beneath our streets.
“We used to have big Christmas parties down here for kids from the local children’s home, with the platform decorated like Santa’s Grotto and this secret train for delivering presents,” she said.
“My last shift is on Friday, and then my colleagues on nights will close it down on Saturday morning. I doubt we’ll give the railway a send off this week, as we’ll be too upset to do anything.”
And she finished with the kind of hindsight we all have when something special is ending – wishing we could see it all for the first time again, but this time with the knowledge of what it will come to mean to us.
“I wish I could remember the first time I came down here, but I’m sure I was quite amazed – I’m still amazed by it now. People are so surprised that Royal Mail has a secret railway, and I’ll be one of the few who can say I worked here. I’m proud of that.”
In 2017, The Postal Museum opened to the public and their brilliant virtual tour of Mail Rail can still be found here.
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