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Blog > The Underground Worlds of Rail Mail

Mail can be moved in many different ways, as the newest series of Europa stamps shows… but did you know that this process was once done with the help of wagons that whizzed by in a metal tunnel, deep underneath the bustling streets of London?

We’re talking about the UK's Post Office Underground Railway, charmingly later referred to as Mail Rail, a driverless electric underground railway system used to move post between sorting offices in London. It was constructed throughout the 1910s and 1920s with combined efforts of the Post Office and the Underground Electric Railways Company of London, inspired by the Chicago Tunnel Company’s underground railway freight tunnel network.

London Post Office Railway
Rail Mail tunnel, by Richard Pope, on Flickr.

The railway began its operations on December 3rd, 1927. It ran from east to west and stretched six and a half miles between the East End and Paddington. Consisting of eight stations, the largest existed below Mount Pleasant. At its peak, a new train of mail arrived at the station every six minutes. Employees had to work very quickly in order to remove all the mail whose destination was Mount Pleasant and load any mail destined for other offices. There was a great camaraderie between staff members, who generally spent their entire careers working on the system. You can see evidence of this from the relics left behind on walls near major mailbag chutes: a dartboard, finished paintings, and a collection of stamps.

800px London Post Office Railway Map

Only three other cities attempted an underground postal railway: Munich, Germany in 1910, Lucerne, Switzerland in 1927, and Zurich, Switzerland in 1937. All closed their operations in the 80’s. The Chicago Tunnel Company sometimes delivered parcels, but its main function was not associated with the Post Office.

By 2003, only three stations of London’s Post Office Underground Railway remained. Royal Mail had reported that using Mail Rail cost five times more than using road transport for the same task, and so, after 75 years of operation, the railway shut down on May 31st, 2003. Today, the British Postal Museum and Archive (BPMA) has been undertaking efforts to conserve parts of the Mail Rail.

Mail rail carriage

Rail Mail wagons, by Yuriy Akopov on Flickr.

You can learn more about their endeavors and about the railway itself at the BPMA Museum’s Mail Rail page and fantastic Flickr gallery. If you’re in the area, they currently have a free photography exhibition about the Mail Rail that you can visit!

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21 comments so far

teamug, Germany
I wonder how they still found space under London city, what with the tube running "crisscross" around the city on different levels.
A pity that they shut it down.
One would think with London's traffice jams, the mail rail had a big advantage, but obviously not.
I'd love to travel in a mail rail wagon!!!
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CatharinaG3, Netherlands
Wow, that is interesting, I've never known this special underground rail mail existed! And I totally agree with teamug!
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Luziaceleste, Brazil
Each time I read over this, it is again amazing!
The Brits....
Congrats for the post!
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ned44440, Ireland
Lovely post and very interesting. Always great to read about Postal History.
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rosenbusch, Germany
Thank you for the interesting story. So far, I knew nothing about this underground rail mail...
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Tetsuko, Germany
I heared about the London rail mail, or guide in London told anything about it... not really sure anymore, already long time ago. But I didn't knew ther was one in Germany too. Thank you for all these great and educational storys from time to time :)
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POST888, Philippines
Wow. Thank you for sharing your story! We learned from it.
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biscuit, United Kingdom
A very interesting bit of history. I'd not heard of this underground rail mail before now. Thanks for the info and keep up the good work.
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JulianJr, Malaysia
Since this is a real thing, the Hogwarts Express must be real too.
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kugusch, Germany
I just LOVE these type of blog entries....Postcrossing has turned out to be an expensive, but very informative Hobby, I CONSTANTLY learn something new!
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topcloud, Kenya
very interesting story!
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nugget, United States of America
Thanks for sharing. I learned something new!
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juliaclaire, United States of America
This is very cool. I want to hitch a ride on the mail rail! :O)
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JemmaJ, United Kingdom
WOW! That is amazing; I will have to look out for them now next time I am in London!
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geminiscp, Portugal
amazing! :)
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OmaIne, Netherlands
Super, I know air mail and e mail, but I didn't know about rail mail. Clever people!!!
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leugim, United Kingdom
Great post :) I´ll try to see it :)
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florencen, Australia
when I go to London l will visit the postal museum.....why not I work in a post office.I take pictures of postoffices when I am on holidays kind of like a busmans holiday!Keep up the informative blogs.Been ssick recently and my cards keep me sane.
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hobartally, Australia
fascinating story - thanks for the information
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lopilopi, Indonesia
WOW!!! ^^
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_Marina, Turkey
Super News! Amazing story! Go on this way!
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