Category Archives: Mail Rail

Capturing Mail Rail in 3D: The Next Steps

Imagine a place frozen in time, left exactly as it was the day that everyone left it. That is what it’s like in Mail Rail today. After it was mothballed in 2003, everything was left as it was that day, down to the newspapers, rota and personal belongings. This time capsule effect is part of what makes Mail Rail unique and exciting; however when we start construction later this year to convert it into a ride and visitor attraction we’ll have to make a few changes to ensure it’s safe and accessible for visitors. We are keen that the space remains as true to how it is now as possible, but these changes mean that the little things could be lost. We thought long and hard about how we could preserve Mail Rail exactly as it is today. The solution we came up with was 3D scanning.

Just before Christmas ScanLAB Projects, a 3D scanning and visualisation company based in East London, spent a week down in Mail Rail and captured the Mount Pleasant depot, loop and platforms in 3D. In total they completed over 223 terrestrial laser scans with incredible and accurate results.

View of the Mount Pleasant platforms

View of the Mount Pleasant platforms

The scans that ScanLAB have created show all the minute detail of the spaces, preserving Mail Rail as it is now for us all to explore in years to come, including parts of Mail Rail that visitors to the site won’t be able to see, such as the train graveyard.

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Fly-through of the train graveyard

 

Of course the results have got our creative gears spinning. Increasingly visitors are expecting an increased level of digital interactivity from a visitor to a museum, allowing them to interact with exhibits and collections through devices such as smart phones and tablets, before, during and after their visit – but how can we use these scans to enhance the visitor experience, both physically and remotely?

The guys at ScanLAB gave us a demo of just this; using an Oculus Rift headset we explored the train graveyard and the depot. BPMA staff delighted in walking around, reaching out to touch trains and walls, and even ‘sitting’ in one of the trains!

Looking around the Mount Pleasant Depot through Oculus Rift headset

Other possibilities include augmented reality apps for smart devices, projections or 3D printed installations –the options are endless– so what would you do with them?

Mail Rail Book Reading Event

With building works to transform Mail Rail into an exciting and immersive national visitor attraction as part of The Postal Museum set to begin in the next few months, opportunities to show off this extraordinary and inspiring space in all its mothballed glory are becoming increasingly limited. Hannah Clipson, BPMA Community Learning Officer tells us about a recent event which did just that…

From 1927 to 2003, Mail Rail transported huge volumes of post under the streets of London, beneath the feet of millions of blissfully unaware commuters and tradesmen going about their daily business 70 feet above. Opened in an age when the horse and cart ran alongside new-fangled automobiles, it was a technological innovation that kept people in touch across ever-greater distances and at ever-greater speed. Since the last shift when workers downed their tools in 2003, the Mail Rail has sat, silently gathering dust. Until now!

On 25 March, a lucky group of visitors were granted access to this hidden landmark as the Mail Rail Car Depot, where trains from across the network were brought for repair, became the dramatic backdrop for a very special BPMA event.

In collaboration with Cityread London 2015, an annual celebration that encourages all of London to pick up the same book and read it together, Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Sunday Times best-selling urban fantasy/crime fiction series Rivers of London, unveiled a special new short story, King of the Rats, read by comedian, rapper and entertainer Doc Brown, aka Ben Bailey Smith.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, 'King of the Rats'.

Ben Bailey Smith, aka Doc Brown reads a short story by Ben Aaranovitch, ‘King of the Rats’.

“When a self-styled King of the Rats crashes a corporate do hosted by Fleet and Tyburn naturally the Folly are called in.  Peter and Kumar have to determine whether his majesty is the legitimate ruler of the rat nation or a sad man with a rodent fixation.

And they’d better do it fast before irate Rivers decide to embark on a bit of DIY pest control.”

After being treated to this new instalment, fans were able to pick the author’s brain during a lively Q&A session!

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

Ben Aaranovitch answers questions from the audience.

The evening marked the start of Cityread’s 2015 season. Over the next month Rivers of London will be the theme behind a programme of exciting events across all 33 London boroughs.

You can hear the full story, read by Doc Brown, below

Exploring 3D technologies at the BPMA

The last 12 months have been exciting for the Digital team here at the BPMA. Our Share Academy/London Museums Group funded project, From Vault to View, which partnered us with Mona Hess from UCL’s Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering Department, has given us both a lot to do and to think about. The project has now come to an end, but it has increased the knowledge we now have of 3D technologies, and encouraged us to do much more.

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George V Die for striking leads. 1½d postage British Empire Exhibition, 1925

The aim of the project was to test different methods of capturing objects in 3D. Working with our little-viewed objects, Mona tried a variety of techniques to see what would produce good 3D models and what wouldn’t. The objects chosen posed real challenges: many were made of bright metals, which makes them difficult to capture using laser scanning or photogrammetry techniques; some were complex shapes, such as a flintlock pistol; while others had such a lack of detail making them difficult to measure and recreate as 3D computer models.

So what did we get out of it? Before the project we knew very little about how 3D

imaging worked. We felt the buzz around these technologies, such as 3D printing, but had little idea of how these things were created or how they might be used. All we really knew was that we had a rich treasure of 3D objects that no-one could really access physically in a satisfactory way.

By the end of the project, the BPMA had purchased photogrammetry software which has enabled us to try 3D imaging for ourselves – and the results are extremely promising. These techniques can be learnt by our staff and employed to create 3D models of items in the museum collection for exploration by the public.

This new-found knowledge, though still fairly elementary, has given us confidence to explore other uses for 3D imaging. In December 3D experts, ScanLab Projects, spent a week scanning the work depot, platforms and tunnels of Mail Rail which we will be opening to the public in 2016 as part of our plans for The Postal Museum. The results are truly astounding and we hope to show them in the near future.

Scanner capturing Mount Pleasant platform

Scanner capturing Mount Pleasant platform

Beyond all this, the project has given us an opportunity to revisit the objects and see them afresh. Although we weren’t able to obtain good 3D models of objects such as the large printing plates and the rollers, we did get excellent images of a number of dies using a technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging [RTI]. We also obtained an excellent laser-scanned 3D model of the Machin cast of Queen Elizabeth II – a truly unique and iconic object. The fruits of these experiments will eventually be made available via our website and online catalogue as we integrate the technology.

Plaster head of HM the Queen made by Arnold Machin for new definitive issue of stamps, third version (POST 118/5373)

Plaster head of HM the Queen made by Arnold Machin for new definitive issue of stamps, third version (POST 118/5373)

-Martin Devereux, Head of Digital

Capturing Mail Rail: 3D survey of the depot, loop and platforms

Last week was an exciting one for the Digital team here at BPMA! For the past five days, Rachel and I have been accompanying ScanLAB Projects Ltd. while they undertake a 3D survey of Mail Rail.

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Scanner capturing the west platform.

 

ScanLAB have been targeting the areas of the network that are to be the focus of our Mail Rail  visitor attraction – that is the work depot at Mount Pleasant, the platforms beneath Mount Pleasant and the tunnel loop from the depot to the platforms – just about 1km of tunnels.

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Will from Scanlab discusses the technology with guests from FARO, New Scientist and Harry (BPMA Communications Manager).

 

The 3D scanning of Mail Rail is important in that it captures the industrial heritage of an unexplored and little-known feature of central London. The survey records the details and the features of Mail Rail as a working space, with all the flotsam and jetsam left behind when the service was suspended. From tools and equipment to newspapers and calendars from over a decade ago, Mail Rail is a time capsule just waiting to be explored. These features will inevitably be tidied up when we open it to the public so it is crucial to capture that detail for posterity.

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Thomas and Will from Scanlab sharing the raw data.

 

The survey will allow users to see these features in three dimensions – bringing the platforms to life in ways not possible even when the train ride is running. The survey can be shown via the web and used in the exhibitions we create at the Postal Museum and Mail Rail attraction to offer a truly explorative experience of Mail Rail in a way that the train ride cannot. Imagine navigating the tunnels and platforms for yourself?

Scanner on the platform.

Scanner on the platform.

Using the latest scanning technology from FARO, and using the surveying and imaging expertise of ScanLAB, we will be obtaining as faithful a representation of the site as we possibly can. From the work depot to the platforms and the tunnels in the loop around Mount Pleasant, we will be recording a truly significant piece of Britain’s industrial history.

-Martin Devereux, Head of Digital

Students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Massachusetts visit the BPMA

We are a group of four students from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. At the beginning of the summer, from May 12th to June 28th, we had the privilege of working with the British Postal Museum and Archive to develop better visitor evaluation strategies. The goal of our project was to help improve visitor evaluation within their exhibitions which primarily focused on the Last Post Exhibition.

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WPI Students take a tour of Mail Rail

The overall experience was fantastic, filled with opportunities and memories. We were able to visit and explore some of the most popular museums in London including the Natural History, Victorian and Albert, and Science museums. At these museums, we observed visitors to identify what they enjoyed and see how the set up can affect visitor engagement.

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Nysa at Last Post Coalbrookdale

We also had the pleasure of working with BPMA visitors. Getting to know those who enjoyed the BPMA’s work, and asking them for helpful insight into what they learned and what they think would improve the sites. Working at events and visiting the Last Post exhibition at Mansfield and Coalbrookdale was a thrilling experience; we not only learned about the exhibitions but also were able to test many different evaluation methods such as interview, surveys, creative writing/drawing activities and observations.

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Shuyang with the postal uniform display

We gathered some informative and gratifying feedback, for example one visitor said she “…learned so much more about a city [she had] lived in for 40 years.” Others said that they “did not realize the extent of Post Office involvement in the First World War.” The feedback we gathered was helpful and greatly aided our research objectives.

Enjoying London

WPI Students enjoying London

Aside from gaining new knowledge about museum goers, as a team we were able to improve our professional writing skills, communicate with a broad range of people, and work efficiently in a group setting. This experience also enabled us to grow as young professionals; we believe this project has added to a foundation of what the working world is like.  Living in London was an experience of a lifetime; adapting and working in a different culture will enable us to adapt to all presented opportunities and continue to broaden our understanding of the world.

Thank you,

Angela, Nysa, Shuyang and George

£4.5 million from HLF for The Postal Museum

We are delighted to announce today that the BPMA has secured £4.5m in funding towards The Postal Museum, including Mail Rail, following a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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The news means that we have now raised over 95% of the funds needed to build a new, national museum in Central London and open up the old Post Office Underground Railway to the general public for the first time in its 100 year history.

Talking about the decision Sue Bowers, Head of HLF London, said:

“This wonderful new museum and archive repository are set to be enhanced by plans to open up the historic ‘Mail Rail’ for visitors to experience.  Proposals for major redevelopment work will help people learn more about the key role the postal service played in shaping the modern world.  It will also regenerate a part of London that has strong community involvement but ranks high on the list of social deprivation.  The combination of all these factors make for an exciting project and we’re delighted to be confirming an investment of £4.5m today.”

We’re now working to secure the last necessary funds to move into the build phase for the museum, which will begin later this year.

On this exciting day, we’re also happy to announce that we have now set up a website specifically for news and information relating to our plans. Postalmuseum.org is a one-stop-shop providing all the latest on The Postal Museum and Mail Rail. We’ll be updating it regularly so be sure to check back for new content.

Finally, I’d personally like to thank all those that have supported us to date and will continue to do so in the future as we begin to realise our dream of opening up this nationally, and internationally, important part of our collective social history. We couldn’t have got here without you.

Adrian Steel, Director

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

The Twelve Days of Christmas on the Mail Rail

Follow @postalheritage #MailRail over Christmas to see some festive paintings from the Mail Rail tunnels.

BackgroundMail Rail staff worked 6-days a week and 22-hours a day in the lead up to Christmas. During the 80s, families of staff were invited to a Christmas party down in the tunnels – a reward for their hardwork. The tunnels and platforms were transformed with snow machines and lights.

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‘Eight Maids a Milking’

Children could then ride to another platform where Father Christmas would be waiting with gifts at the end. Along the tunnel walls, the Twelve Days of Christmas were painted for passengers to view as they rode past.

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‘Twelve Drummers Drumming’

Follow #MailRail: To celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas, we will be tweeting a painting a day beginning with ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree’ on Christmas Day. Follow @postalheritage #MailRail over the holiday season to see more of these spectacular images.