Site Records

SiteName: Post Office Railway (MailRail)

Between Paddington & Whitechapel

Sub Brit site visit 15th March 2003

[Source: Nick Catford]

The first proposal for a tube line to carry the mail was put forward by Rowland Hill in 1855; he suggested a line from the Post Office at St. Martins-le-Grand to Little Queen Street in Holborn. The initial proposal was for an 'atmospheric railway' designed by Thomas Rammell who came up with a scheme by which a stationary steam engine would drive a large fan which could suck air out of an air tight tube and draw the vehicle towards it or blow air to push them away.

A smaller version of this system was later developed as the 'Lamson Tube' for message handling in large department stores, government offices etc; some Lamson Tube networks are still in use today.

Rammell devised plans for a number of lines in London to carry goods and the Royal Mail, setting up the Pneumatic Despatch Company on 30th June 1859.

In May 1861 an experimental 452 yard line was laid in Battersea. This proved to be successful and lines were proposed from Camden and Euston stations to carry parcels for the LNWR. The Post Office were initially luke warm about the scheme although they agreed to try out the new system once it had been built.

Pneumastic Despatch Company's Railways
Drawn by Derek Bayliss

The first 2' gauge line was built in a shallow cut and cover tunnel from the Arrival Parcels Office at Euston to the Post Office's North Western District Office in Crowndale Road, a distance of 600 yards, the first train running on 15 Jan 1863. After an inspection by Post Office Secretary Sir Rowland Hill, the new service was approved and a permanent service introduced with 70 trains a day making the 70 second journey.

The opening day of the Holborn to Euston Line
From Illustrated London News

With the undoubted success of this first line a longer, 3' 8 " gauge line was proposed running from Euston to 245 Holborn and then on to the General Post Office at St. Martins-le-Grand and Pickford's depot in Gresham Street.

The section from Euston to Holborn was opened on 10th October 1865 but the extension to St. Martin le Grand proved problematic with a limited service finally opening on 1st December 1873, the extension to Gresham Street was later dropped.

The Post Office were not satisfied with this new service as it only shaved 4 minutes off the time taken to carry the mail by road. In 1874 they announced that they would not be using the new line and it was quickly abandoned and the Pneumatic Despatch Company was dissolved. The terminus at the General Post Office became a coal and wood store and other parts of the tunnel were put to other uses.

In 1895 there was a proposal to reopen the tunnel with electric traction and a new company, the London Despatch Company was formed. Some work was done on upgrading the line and tunnels but the Post Office remained sceptical about its worth and work on the new project ceased in 1902 and the London Despatch Co was wound up in 1905. The Post Office finally bought the tunnel in 1921 to use for telephone cables. Several sections of the tunnel have been lost over the years but about three quarters of it is still in use carrying cables.

On the 20th June 1928 an explosion in the tunnel under High Holborn was blamed on the ignition of coal gas, one workman was killed. During the subsequent excavations to repair half a mile of damaged road, four of the original cars were discovered, unfortunately these were not preserved. The same year some of the cars from the 2' gauge Crowndale Road line were uncovered during road works at Euston, one of these is now on display at the Bruce Castle Museum at Tottenham and another, which was cut into two halves to recover it; this is on display in the Museum of London.

2' gauge car now on display at Bruce Castle
With the demise of the pneumatic line, electric railways seemed a more versatile means of transport for the mail and numerous proposals were made for new underground electric lines even before the pneumatic railway had closed. In 1909 a committee was set up to consider all the alternative schemes and eventually they recommended a 2' gauge twin electric line in a 70 foot deep tunnel running from Paddington District Office to the Eastern District Office in Whitechapel Road with intermediate stations at Western Parcels Office in Barrett Street, Western District Office in Wimpole Street, the West Central District Office in New Oxford Street, the main London sorting office at Mount Pleasant, King Edward Building in King Edward Street and the Great Eastern Railway Station at Liverpool Street, a total length of six miles. Further extensions were also suggested but these were never built. The total length of track including sidings and loops was 23 miles.
The Post Office Railway
Drawn by Derek Bayliss

Each station would have a wide island platform with sufficient room for loading and unloading and a loop line to leave the main line clear for through running. The suggested line capacity was 40 trains an hour in each direction. The Post Office remained sceptical about whether the line would achieve any real savings over road transport.

Photo:The eastbound platform at Mount Pleasant
Photo by Nick Catford


Further information and pictures about this site continues here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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