Subterranean mail

MailRail had a bumpy but exciting track record over its 150-year existence, including a part alongside Bruce Willis in a Hollywood action film. E&T reminisces.

In the notorious 1991 flop movie 'Hudson Hawk', the acting honours go to a miniature underground railway. This runs below the Vatican, delivering the Papal post - which includes a carefully wrapped Bruce Willis.

"No wonder the film lost money", you'd be forgiven for thinking. They built a pocket rail system for this?

Except that it wasn't constructed for 'Hudson Hawk', nor did it lie beneath Vatican City. It was a real live mail train that was built in London after the First World War and for 75 years carried letters and parcels between Whitechapel and Paddington.

After rebranding in the 1980s, it became known as MailRail, but was more commonly called the Secret Railway.

Going underground

The need for an underground system of transporting mail became apparent in the late 19th century for a reason familiar today: congestion on the capital's streets. Not that trains, as we generally picture them, were the first solution that came to mind. Initial proposals centred on what's now known as a Lamson Tube, a delivery system that used pressurised air tubes. One such, 200m long, was built for transporting letters inside a Post Office building in 1853, and its success led to the founding of the Pneumatic Dispatch Company, whose chairman was the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

This company oversaw the construction, in the early 1860s, of an underground line between the North Western District Office and nearby Euston Station. On this line, cars ran along a 2ft-wide track inside an air-tight tube, their movement controlled by a large fan, which either sucked air out of the tube (to draw the vehicle towards it) or blew air through it (to propel the vehicle forwards). Although designed for parcels, the inauguration ceremony saw the Duke of Buckingham blown through the tube. He suffered no ill effects from his five-minute trip.

But despite this proven ability to redistribute members of the aristocracy, the Post Office was unconvinced that the future of the Royal Mail lay with a pneumatic railway system. The four-minute saving on the same journey by road didn't seem to warrant further investment. Without Post Office support, the Pneumatic Dispatch Company ran out of funds and was dissolved in 1874.

A successor - the London Dispatch Company - hoped to make use of the abandoned lines, but was equally short-lived. The tunnels themselves later proved useful in carrying electricity and telephone cables.

Electric avenue

But the seeds had been sown. If pneumatic railways weren't the answer, electric lines were. Underground was definitely the way to go - Chicago already had an underground mail-freight system, as did Berlin. Post Office engineers visited both in 1908.

The following year, a committee was established to consider various proposals, and its eventual recommendation was a 2ft gauge line, 70ft below street-level, to run between Paddington District Office in the west to the Eastern District Office in Whitechapel Road - an actual distance of some 6½ miles, but which, once all sidings and station loops were accounted for, would amount to 23 miles of track.

Slow train coming

Work on the lines began in 1915. Tunneling continued throughout the war, during which completed sections were used to shelter treasures from the Tate and National Portrait Galleries, though lack of materials meant that station-building had to wait until hostilities ceased. In fact, it was 1920 before this work could be resumed, and track-laying didn't commence until 1924.

The first section to be completed connected Paddington and the West Central District Office, in Oxford Street. Trains began using this stretch in January 1927, and by the end of the year were running as far as Mount Pleasant, which at that time was probably the world's largest sorting office. The following year the line was complete, though teething problems persisted for some time. Nevertheless, by 1932 the system was operating as it was designed to.

Station to station

Though described as a 'robot railway', the line wasn't entirely automatic. The trains had no driver, but were under the partial control of engineers.

Upon nearing a station - all of which were closer to street level, meaning that the approaches were on a 1-in-20 gradient - the train entered a dead section of track, and came to a halt. The engineer would then operate the 'receive lever', clearing the route to the next vacant station berth, and the train would be automatically restarted by a cam-shaft device. It then made its way into the station, where a further dead section of track ensured that it came to a standstill.

Each station's westbound and eastbound platforms had three berths, allowing for three trains to be loaded or unloaded at any one time. Upon a train's arrival, a hinged metal ramp swung into place between car and platform. Mail was then loaded and unloaded by hand, though it made its way to and from the sorting offices above via a system of lifts and spiral chutes.

Station stops lasted one minute, except at Mount Pleasant, where they were two-and-a-half minutes. Once the train was ready to leave, the engineer reactivated the rail leading out of the station, upon which the train would resume its automatic journey until its next station approach.

The track was divided into sections. As a train passed from one to the other, the current on the section it was leaving would cut out, to be reactivated when it reached the next section along. Thus, no adjacent sections of rail were live at the same time, reducing the possibility of accidents.

Return to sender

By the time the line was rechristened MailRail in 1987, the rolling stock had been replaced twice. But, if the name-change was intended to breathe new life into the line, the Information Age would choke it back out again.

The chief advantage of an underground railway remained that it reduced congestion, with some estimates calculating that MailRail kept 80 vanloads of post off the roads every day. But for speed it couldn't compete with emerging technologies - information delivery systems had progressed far beyond the envelope since the Secret Railway was built.

By 2002, the line was running at only one-third of capacity, and only four of its original stations were open (some of the post offices it was built to serve have changed location over the previous three-quarters of a century).

Official figures indicated that MailRail was costing five times as much as road haulage, making a daily loss estimated at £1.2m. To the regret of all who worked on it, the system was closed on 31 May 2003.

The line still exists, however, and is still maintained. It's thought to be worth in excess of £15m - and for anyone with the cash to spare, it could be up and running once more overnight.

Anyone wanting a comprehensive account of how MailRail worked in its heyday will find it at: http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r023.html [new window].

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