What To Expect From The Mail Rail
Londoners now have a chance to ride a tiny, cramped, train under central London!
“But… I do that every weekday?!” I hear you say.
Not like this you don’t, welcome to the Mail Rail! A secret tunnel network that used to carry London’s post 22 hours a day.
A Quick History
In 1911, facing congested roads and unacceptable delays, the Royal Mail had a radical idea. They built a 6.5 mile underground railway between Paddington and Whitechapel to carry letters.
The route had platforms just like the tube today, serving major sorting offices through central London.
Post would be loaded into tiny (2ft wide) carriages to be shuttled through the city, an efficient system which carried over 4 million letters a day in their 1930s peak!
This all lasted until 2003, when Royal Mail announced using the service was round 5 times more expensive than trucks (though workers disputed this). Mail Rail, as it was known since 1987, was mothballed and the tunnels lay unused.
Image © The Postal Museum – Miles Willis
The Postal Museum opened in July 2017 and launched the Mail Rail experience in September, meaning you can now traverse the secret underground system!
The trains are pretty cramped, two can just about squeeze next to each other, but there’s no leaning on the doors. Like the tube today, you’ll stop the train and get a driver announcement, much to the ire of your fellow passengers!
Off We Go!
Along the 20 minute ride, there’s a wealth of interesting things to spot, all pointed out by your guide and ex-mail rail employee; Ray Middlesworth.
A surprise was the fantastic projections.
They bring the abandoned platforms to life with stories through the ages; anecdotes of power failures, when the River Fleet burst into the tunnels and the 1943 bomb that crashed onto the tracks. Our disembodied guide Ray proudly tells us that the Mail Rail was up and running the very next day!
The idea for a subterranean network was first dreamt up by the Victorians. From 1863, mail travelled around 3m underground propelled by air pressure in self-driving metal cars along rails. It ran until 1866 then again between 1873 – 74, but was later abandoned.
The system was only for mail, but that didn’t stop some daredevil Victorians…
In 1863 The London Journal reported that a lady “whose courage or rashness – we know not which to call it – astonished all spectators, was actually shot the whole length of the tube without injury to person or petticoat!”
Even after your ride, there’s still loads to explore…
The Postal Museum
A museum showcasing the ‘first social network’, the museum’s highlights include a sheet of the first stamps; The Penny Black and plenty of other postal trivia.
Queen Victoria ‘London Ornate’ Pillar Box 1857-59
Visiting The Postal Museum and Mail Rail
You can pre book a timed slot for the Mail Rail on the museum website here, but there’s also a few left available on the day. Tickets cost £16 and include entrance to the museum (museum only tickets are £11). There’s also concession rates available.
More London Inspiration
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....