These tunnels that transported mail daily from 1927 to 2003 are hidden 70ft below the streets of the capital. The now closed railway tunnels were once home to an engineering marvel that is seen by some as the Post Office’s best-kept secret. Perhaps this is the one secret that the great Train Robbers missed.
When it first opened in 1927, the Post Office Underground Railway was the world’s first driverless, electrified railway and at its peak it transported 1.4 billion letters a year along 23 miles of track.
For 19 hours a day the trains carried mail from Whitechapel on the east side of London to Paddington in the west.
The tunnel was inspired by the Chicago Tunnel company as was designed to assist in reducing congestion and reducing mail travel time by utilising Tunnels to transport the mail.
By 2003 only three stations remained in use because the sorting offices above the other stations had been relocated for this reason the use of the tunnel ceased. The tunnels were originally built by John Mowlem and company ltd. One of the UK’s leading construction companies that was acquired by Carillion in 2006.
During 1917 work was suspended due to the shortage of labour and materials caused by the war. By June 1924 track laying had started. The line was completed for the Christmas parcel post in 1927 and letters were carried from February 1928
In its prime, a workforce of 220 kept the Mail Rail running, with the tunnels running right beneath Oxford Street.
The tunnels were used during the First World War to store and protect art treasures belonging to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate Gallery.
A Royal Mail press release in April 2003 said that the railway would be closed and mothballed at the end of May that year. Royal Mail earlier stated that using the railway was five times more expensive than using road transport for the same task. The communications workers union claimed the actual figure was closer to three times more expensive but argued that this was the result of a deliberate policy of running the railway down and using it at only one-third of its capacity. In 2002 the greater London Authority released a report in support of its continued use, but despite this the railway was closed in the early hours of 31 May 2003.
In April 2011 an urban exploration group called the “Consolidation Crew” published accounts of illicit access to the tunnels. Detailed photography revealed that the railway is still largely in good condition, despite some natural decay.
In October 2013 the British postal museum and archive announced it intends opening part of the network to the public.
The plans have been approved by Islington Council and the museum is expected to open in 2016. Work on the new museum and the railway began in 2014 and the railway should be open by 2020.
The Rail Mail s the holy grail for underground explorers – a hidden part of the rail network.
Rail’s Mails origin is living proof that congestion is certainly not a new problem in the capital.
A century ago, in the days of predominantly horse-drawn vehicles, congestion was causing delays to the movement of mail.
It seems strange though how a tunnel such as this should have served its purpose so soon. Surely there could be other uses it could be put to as well as a tourist attraction. How many utility pipes have been buried in the pavement above that could perhaps have been better transported in the tunnel. I’m surprised I did not get invited to any underground raves down there in the late eighties or early nineties. It must have been one of the few locations missed.
Hopefully Roman Ambramovich or another Oligarch is not reading this. I’m surprised as a prime piece of London real estate this tunnel has not been sold to the highest bidder like the sorting offices above to become an underground nuclear bunker or extension of a preposterous basement.
Mind you as long as they give the Recruitment and Labour Hire to Kilkern, www.kilkern.co.uk and the Tunnelling to Barhale we will forgive them.