Retrieval of Post Office underground railway cars

by Chris Taft, Curator

After 85 years underground in a now closed workshop Friday 27May 2011 saw the only known surviving example from the original rolling stock used on the Post Office Railway see the light of day. Shackled to a mini crane and hoisted vertical from the car depot of Royal Mail’s underground railway network the dark green metal rail car was brought to the surface ready to enter the BPMA collection. After much planning, coordinating of dates and a few logistical nightmares the day had finally arrived when two train units were to be removed from the railway.

Chris Taft with the car in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London.

Chris Taft with the car in the Mail Rail yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London.

The now closed underground railway, officially known as Mail Rail, first opened in 1927 to move mail between central London sorting offices and two mainline railway stations, Liverpool Street and Paddington. The line finally ceased operation in 2003 when the levels of use had declined, in part due to the closure of some of the offices and in part also as the mainline stations aboveground were no longer being used as termini of the mainline mail carrying trains.

Since its closure the BPMA have been working closely with Royal Mail to ensure the important aspects of its history are collected and that its story can be told through the BPMA’s collection. The BPMA’s collection relating to Mail Rail was always reasonable, but a notable gap was the original mail carrying vehicle from 1927, which was preserved in the network after some restoration in the 1970s, and a decent example of a 1930 train that replaced this first type of unit.

The operation to hoist the two trains from underground went very smoothly. Professional art freight movers Mtec were employed to carry out the uplift, assisted by the Royal Mail engineers who maintain the network, and me on behalf of the BPMA. The trains were pushed along tracks to the bottom of a shaft providing the only access above ground for any sizable equipment. They were then shackled to a mini crane brought onto site especially for the job and hoisted to the yard at Mount Pleasant. The 1930 train was lifted first, being taken up in three parts and placed on the ground. This was followed by the 1927 car which lifted straight up the access shaft where it would have descended 85 years previously.

The first of two 1930 motive units being lowered in to the yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London

The first of two 1930 motive units being lowered in to the yard at Mount Pleasant Mail Centre, London

From there the two trains, one still in three parts were lifted over a storage building and onto a waiting lorry. This last stage caused a little disruption within the Mail Centre while 40 tonne lorry blocked one of the access roads in Mount Pleasant but the job was quickly accomplished. Everything was then secured in place ready for the journey to the BPMA Museum Store.

Upon arrival at the Museum Store in Debden a HIAB crane was then used lift the trains directly into the store. The 1930 train was then coupled back together with the help of a pallet truck, machine skates and the obligatory couple of bits of wood and was pushed into position within the store. The rigid bodied 1927 car was pushed much more easily into position.

The two trains now join the rest of the BPMA’s collection, including the 1980 stock train which the BPMA now intend to have conserved. It is very important that these important pieces are stabilised to prevent deterioration and allow them to be used and displayed in the future. Our next job is to have a full survey completed. From there we shall have a much better idea of the costs involved and will be able to launch a fundraising campaign to raise the funds necessary to have this important conservation work complete. As this project progresses those interested will be able to monitor progress online, and by visiting the Store will even have opportunity of seeing the trains and any subsequent conservation work.

You can see more images of the Mail Rail retrieval on Flickr.

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