Tag Archives: underground

Sand traps and narrow tunnels: a trip down to Mail Rail

On Tuesday the Creative Design team headed down to Mail Rail for a refresher view of what will be the exhibition space and ride. The Creative Design team is responsible for planning the content and interpretation in The Postal Museum and Mail Rail, including what objects will be on display.

Many people have heard of Mail Rail, AKA the Post Office Railway, the driverless electric railway system that moved post under the streets of London for more than 75 years, but few have had the opportunity to see it. We are working towards conserving its heritage, and opening up a section in Central London as an exhibition and ride.

The Creative Design team consider how to incorporate the hoist (large yellow structure) into the new exhibition space.

The focus of this workshop was to identify key features to preserve and use in the exhibition and ride. Led by Ray Middlesworth, Royal Mail engineer for 27 years (and recent Mail Rail celebrity), we started off in the depot and still operating workshop, which will be transformed into an exhibition. We want to preserve the industrial heritage of the space, incorporating it into the new exhibition space. Right now the biggest safety concern is tripping. A removable floor that sits over the original will solve this and ensure visitors can still see the tracks below.

Walking around the depot space, we identified objects and features we want to stay. The lockers, used by Mail Rail engineers, will hopefully be an interactive in the new exhibition. The lockers have ‘inherited’ much of their contents from when engineers left, including tools and the odd old uniform here and there.

Inside one of the lockers.

Inside one of the lockers.

Next we headed into the tunnel and walked some of the route which will be the actual ride. The tunnels are no larger than 7 ft and walking proved to be quite difficult at times. Calcium deposits measuring a few inches dotted the tunnel walls. During maintenance work, engineers would sometimes come back looking like they had been snowed on as they broke off into their hair and on their clothes Ray told us.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

Entrance to Mail Rail tunnels from Mount Pleasant.

In the tunnels (approaching platform 1) we came across a bay full of sand bags at the end of a track. These weren’t used to stop flooding, but to slow down any trains on the second track.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

Ray telling us about the sand trap by Platform 1.

To get a very rough idea of what the ride will be like, we took a ride on the VIP train, built in 1967. Unlike the electric-powered trains that use to transport mail around the network, the VIP train is powered by a battery locomotive. There isn’t much lighting, but we were able to pick up on features to possibly include from old trains to a dartboard showing the last game ever played before it closed over ten years ago.

Find out more about the history of Mail Rail and how you can support help make it happen!

-Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager

Photographs courtesy of Vicky Parkinson, Head of Archives and Records Management

Mail Rail gets the green light

Last week we received some very exciting news with regard to our plans for the new museum as Islington Borough Council approved our planning application to develop a stretch of the old Post Office Underground Railway – Mail Rail – into a unique subterranean ride.

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Waiting in the Dark ©Jonathan Bradley 

The announcement resulted in a great deal of media coverage for the BPMA including pieces on the TimeOut, Daily Mail, Wired and BBC News websites.

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Staff working on Mail Rail 

The decision means that, as part of a visit to The Postal Museum, due to open in central London in 2016, visitors will be able to explore the hidden world of Mail Rail under Mount Pleasant through an interactive exhibition and a 12-15 minute subterranean ride through 1km of the original tunnels, following the same route that much of the nation’s mail took for nearly 80 years from 1927-2003.

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The BPMA’s vision for Mail Rail 

The Mail Rail ride is part of the BPMA’s project to create the Postal Museum which will reveal the extraordinary stories of British social, communications and design history through the universally iconic postal service. By opening up almost 400 years of records and objects from the reign of King Charles I to the present day, The Postal Museum will reveal unusual and exciting episodes from British history. It will showcase curious items including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, original evidence from the Great Train Robbery trial, a Victoria Cross and flintlock pistols used to defend Mail Coaches in the 19th Century.

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delivering…The Postal Museum 

We are still waiting on the outcome of an application for £4.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a decision on which is expected in May this year, which will allow us to start construction work on the Postal Museum, now including the Mail Rail ride. This is obviously a very exciting time for us here at the BPMA and we look forward to sharing our progress with you over the coming months. 

A visit down to Mail Rail

Many people have heard of Mail Rail, AKA the Post Office Railway, the driverless electric railway system that moved post under the streets of London for more than 75 years, but few have had the opportunity to see it.

Mail Rail was constructed in the 1910s and 1920s, and its six and a half miles of tunnels were built to connect eight different sorting offices and Post Office buildings between Paddington and the East End. Over the years the Post Office and Royal Mail sold some of these buildings, and Mail Rail eventually ceased operations in 2003. While the network is still maintained, BPMA has been undertaking work to conserve some of this unique rail system. As part of this project a group of BPMA staff recently toured the Mail Rail site at Mount Pleasant Sorting Office.

To get to Mail Rail you need to pass through a baffling series of doors and corridors before descending a staircase which takes you to the car depot and workshop. Here engineers serviced and repaired the network’s rolling stock, which once ran 22 hours a day, 7 days a week. While some rolling stock has been removed and conserved as part of our conservation project, some remains where it was when Mail Rail was in operation.

The car depot and workshop.

The car depot and workshop.

A walk through another series of doors, corridors and staircases took us to the station platforms at Mount Pleasant. Mail Rail engineer Ray explained that at its peak Mail Rail ran a “6 minute service”, with a new train of mail arriving every six minutes. Staff worked quickly to remove mail for Mount Pleasant and to load mail destined for other offices.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

1980s Greenbat mail train on the Westbound platform.

There was a great camaraderie between Mail Rail staff said Ray, and most spent their entire careers working on the network. This is evident when you walk along the Mount Pleasant platform: staff have added a dartboard, done paintings on the wall, and even mounted a display of stamps (which presumably fell off items of mail) near one of the mail bag chutes.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Painting on the wall of the Mail Rail eastbound platform, Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Stamps stuck to the trunking near the mail chute, Mail Rail Mount Pleasant.

Visit our website to support our Mail Rail Conservation Project, and to add yourself to the Mail Rail mailing list. See more images from our visit to Mail Rail on Flickr.