It was way ahead of its time, a solution to transport mail more efficiently away from the horses and the street traffic. Opening in 1927 and running for 75 years, the Mail Rail was six miles long and an electric, driverless train system navigating an average of 70 feet below some of the most iconic London landmarks. The trains ran every four minutes every day for 22 hours. The tunnels were dug by hand and were used to distribute mail until 2003. It was a system of tunnels and chutes to deliver mail bags.
First named the Post Office Underground Railway, it was rebranded to the Mail Rail on the 60th anniversary of operations in 1987. In September 2017, London’s Postal Museum opened the Mail Rail exhibit to the public. Tickets are already selling out months in advance, and I was lucky to snatch one up before the trains would start running again; this time to transport humans, not mail.
The Mail Rail Ride and Exhibition
The ride lasts all but 15 minutes and has riders squeezed into small, enclosed trains. Enter during your scheduled timed slot and be ready for the surprises that lay below the city.
The tour navigates over one mile of the old tracks while stopping at old mail platforms for mail distribution. At these stops, learn a brief history and timeline of mail transportation in the United Kingdom and the solutions made to keep up with the volume of letters and packages being shipped.
After the Mail Rail ride, enter the Mail Rail Exhibition and learn more about the postal workers and engineers that are quoted on their work and what it was like. Exhibits also highlight the pneumatic car mechanics on how the trains moved through the tunnels that operated independently from the Post Office from 1863 to 1874, along with Post Office Railway. Spin handles on a model forcing the cars through the tunnels as fans suck air into the tubes creating pneumatic pressure to push the cars along the track.
Herbert Gunton, the chief engineer, oversaw the power distribution behind the electrical systems.The mail cars ran up to 30 mph making it more efficient delivery times throughout the city. At its peak, the mail railway carried 4 million letters each day with a staff of 200 people working shifts around the clock. In 1930, the cars were 8 meters in length with four containers each to hold bags of letters and parcels. A replacement car design replaced the originals in 1980 totaling 180 mail cars over its working life.
Each station had its own switch system until the computerization in the early 1990s. Postmen didn’t only receive the mail by the rail but from the chutes, conveyors and lifts. Some of the mechanics are displayed in the exhibit.
The Postal Museum Exhibits
Not as interactive as the Mail Rail, The Postal Museum is located across the street and has informational plaques, displays, and mail delivery modes (bikes, carriages, vans, airmail, etc.). Walk through the timeline of delivering mail throughout the United Kingdom and the world.
Check out The Postal Museum’s website for the best route.