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.
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.
With the undoubted success of this first line a longer, 3' 8 ½ " 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.
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.
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.
The recommendations were however approved and a bill was put before parliament on 15th August 1913. An experimental length of line was built the following year and in 1915 Mowlems were given a 15 month contract to build the new line. All the running tunnels were completed towards the end of 1917 but the contractors were ordered to suspend work on the stations because of problems with labour and materials during the war. With the danger of Zeppelin air raids the completed tunnels were considered a suitable place for the storage of art treasurers and in January 1918 much of the collection from the Tate Gallery, National Portrait Gallery and the Public Record Office were stored in the station tunnel at King Edward building. The King’s pictures and the Wallace collection were stored in the tunnel at Paddington Station.
Work on the line resumed in 1920 and tests on the first completed section between Paddington and West Central District Office began on 24th January 1927 with the first scheduled parcel service between Paddington and Mount Pleasant running on 3rd of December. The final section between Liverpool Street and the Eastern District Office received its first traffic on 2nd January 1928 and the first letter traffic was carried by the railway on 13th February 1929. The main line runs in a single tube, 9 feet in diameter, diverging at each station into two parallel tunnels, 7 feet in diameter, widening out at the stations to 25 feet. For most of it’s length the line runs at 70 feet below ground with a 1 in 20 rise and fall at each station which helps to slow the trains down as they approach a station and aids acceleration away from a station.
By the 1st March 1928 the line had achieved its intended maximum capacity. There were initial teething problems both with the track and the rolling stock but these were eventually ironed out and by 1932 a regular reliable service was achieved.
With the threat of war in the late 1930’s it was decided to use the stations as staff shelters and these were brought into use in 1939 with hinged bunks that lowered onto the platforms and track. The stations were last used as an air raid shelter in 1944 but the dormitories remained in use until September 1945. The use of the stations as night shelters meant there was a reduction in the running hours on the line with the railway closing between 11pm and 7 am.
The railway itself suffered little damage during the war; the most serious incident being on 18th June 1943 when a direct hit destroyed the parcel block at Mount Pleasant and flooded the station.
After the war there were further plans to extend the railway with braches to Euston and Kings Cross but no new lines were ever built. There was however a quarter mile deviation to the existing line with a new Western District office at Rathbone Place and a new station beneath it, opening on 3rd August 1965. The stations serving the Western Parcels Office and the Original Western District Office were closed at the same time. The disused sections of tunnel are now used as a store with some track remaining in place.
The car depot and workshops are at Mount Pleasant where there is space to store 81 of the original 90 cars although they are usually stabled at various points along the line to avoid the necessity to run back to the depot at the end of each working day. All maintenance of the stock is carried out in the workshop that also acts as a base for tunnel and track maintenance. There is also a shaft for lifting rolling stock in and out of the yard adjoining Phoenix Place.
The three tracks into the depot are reached by reversing from the top of the incline up from Mount Pleasant Station.
Initially the railway ran 22 hours a day with staff working in three shifts, the two hours when the line was not in operation was used by the maintenance team, larger maintenance jobs being carried out on Sundays when the line was closed. The service has now been reduced to 19 hours a day, 286 days a year.
In recent years King Edward Building and the West Central District Office in New Oxford Street have been closed and sold with all links between the buildings and the stations below being sealed off. The station at Liverpool Street has also closed leaving just four stations, Paddington Sorting Office, the Western Delivery Office at Rathbone Place, Mount Pleasant Sorting Office and the Whitechapel Eastern Delivery Office.
Although initially hailed as a great success, in the last quarter of the 20th Century the line has been continually losing money and on 7th November 2002 Royal Mail announced that the whole line had become uneconomical with losses of £1.2M a day. Unless a new backer and new uses could be found the line would close in the near future.
In early 2003 it was announced that the line from Mount Pleasant to the Eastern Delivery Office will close on 21st March 2003 and the remaining section from the Western District Office at Paddington to Mount Pleasant will be mothballed on the 29th March 2003. The sorting office at Paddington will also be closed and be relocated to Rathbone Place. There will be no compulsory redundancies with staff taking voluntary retirement or redundancy or being redeployed elsewhere in the industry.
Until a few years ago it was possible for interested groups to visit the railway but with new Health and Safety regulations these visits were discontinued. However with the announced closure of the line, 15th March 2003 was set aside for one final open day with 120 people being shown round Mount Pleasant Station in Groups of 8. Subterranea Britannica was able to secure one of these tours and at 12 noon we gathered outside the administration entrance in Farringdon Road.
We were taken up to the 2nd floor briefing room where we were shown a short video while we waited for our guides to return from the previous tour. 20 minutes later having walked along the labyrinth of corridors at Mount Pleasant we descended to platform level by lift which opens into a short cross passage at the eastern end of the two platforms, each 313 feet long.
We moved first onto the eastbound platform where one of the 1980’s driverless Greenbat Locomotives with four mail wagons was standing at the eastern end the platform, ready for loading. Each loaded train cannot move off until a signal is given from the platform and we all had an opportunity to press a button (cherry) above our heads and watch the empty train disappear into the tunnel where it ran around a loop to re-emerge on the westbound platform. One of three emergency battery locomotives were also on display on the platform loop. These are permanently stationed at various points on the railway.
Since 1981 the railway has taken its power from the National Grid feeding five sub-stations along the line. There is a central conductor rail at 440 volts DC which allows speeds of up to 40 mph in the tunnels. In the stations the trains supply voltage is reduced to 150 volts which allows the trains to run at a maximum speed of 7 mph The old manual control room with its illuminated track diagram, describer board and 56 lever frame is located between the platforms and is kept in good usable condition. Until 1993 each station had it’s own line controller. His job was to control all train movements at the station, sending trains into the station or routing them via the loop on to the next station.
Each panel was mechanically and electrically interlocked. As the train approached the station there is a break in the conductor rail that causes the train to stop. The station controller could then take over control by using the receiving lever which controlled the motor with a selection of relays, each applying a different voltage to control the trains speed into the platform without having to apply brakes. Once in the station there was another dead section of rail which brought the train to a halt and applied the brakes.
The manual controls became redundant in 1993 when a new central computer operated control room was brought on line on the third floor of Mount Pleasant. There is a direct interface between the Vaughan computer and the old control system. The new computer can control the entire system automatically although it is still possible for the line controller to override the computer and regain manual control at each of the control cabins. We were able to see the new control room at the end of our tour.
Although our tour was officially limited to 40 minutes, as it was the last one before lunch this was extend to an hour with no restrictions on photography. Although there was one member of staff to every two of us to ensure nobody wandered off into the tunnels, we were given the freedom of the platforms and control room with knowledgeable members of staff around to answer a plethora of questions.
- The Post Office Railway by Derek Bayliss ISBN 0 902844 43 1
- Mails under London by LC Stanway ISBN 0 9535398 1 4
- Mail by Rail by Peter Johnson ISBN 0-7110-2385-9