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Hidden city: the mail rail

Posted at 4:30 pm, June 10, 2015 in Secret London, Transport
Mail Train

Stretching more than six miles under central London is a mini railway that was once used to shuttle post across the city. Chris Taft, head of collections at the British Postal Museum & archive, reveals more.

What is the Mail Rail?

‘The world’s first driverless electric railway. It opened in 1927 and operated until 2003 between Whitechapel and Paddington, shuttling letters and parcels underground to the big central London sorting offices.’

Why did it stop running?

‘Improvements in technology meant that one sorting office could do what three or four previously did. The line went from having eight stations to three, so it just wasn’t cost-effective.’

Does it still cause a headache for engineers?

‘Crossrail runs pretty much side by side with it along Oxford Street. When designing the new Bond Street station, designers had to deliberately put a big bend in a pedestrian walkway to avoid the Mail Rail tunnels.’

Did it ever carry anything cooler than my grandad’s gas bill?

‘During construction at the end of World War I, the Tate and National Portrait Gallery stashed a load of nationally important artworks down there to protect them from the Zeppelin raids. Bruce Willis filmed a sequence from “Hudson Hawk” in one of the tunnels during the early ’90s. The Royal Mail got paid for that, and spent the money on an underground Christmas party for some local disadvantaged kids.’

Aw! So what does the future hold?

‘We plan to open up a section of track to the public by the end of 2016.’

Are you ever out drinking in town and just get the urge to ride it home?

‘No. That has never happened.’

Interview by Andy Hill

Want to know more about the mail rail? We went behind the scenes.

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