Would you like to take a secret train ride in London?
The seats are tight, there’s no on-board service, it’s partly in the dark -- and it’s one of the most intriguing train rides you’ll find anywhere. Welcome to a piece of nearly forgotten history: London’s Post Office Railway, affectionately known as the Mail Rail.
The Mail Rail opened to visitors in 2017 and is one of the highlights of The Postal Museum. The museum does an excellent job making postal history relevant, interesting, and fun. There are lots of hands-on exhibits that will intrigue visitors of all ages.
It made me think about communication and how much it has changed since the introduction of email and texting. It seems hard to believe that most messages were sent in writing on paper not very long ago.
What Is The Mail Rail?
In the 1830s, Rowland Hill, a social reformer and educator, pushed for changes to the UK’s postal system to make it affordable and efficient. Charles Babbage, whose name is usually linked to the invention of the computer, also took an interest.
From 1840, with the invention of the postage stamp and low postal rates, the volume of mail doubled and kept growing.
By 1855, Hill thought pneumatic underground tubes might be an efficient way to move mail from one London sorting office to another. Air pressure would drive the mail cars along tracks. This was tried but not adopted. Instead, by 1900, mail usually traveled slowly above ground through London’s traffic.
For London passengers, the famous Tube opened in 1863. However, it was apparently Chicago, not the London Underground, that provided an example for the postal railway. Construction started in 1914, was halted during World War I, and was finally completed in 1927. It cut the mail travel time substantially.
The Mail Rail was used until 2003. It ran between the Paddington and Whitechapel Sorting Offices with about 70 trains on a narrow-gauge track. There were eight stations on the 6.5-mile track. The driverless trains ran almost around the clock, stopping for less than a minute to load and unload at each station.
In 1987, the name of the system was changed from the Post Office Railway to the Mail Rail.
When the rail line was shut down, it wasn’t dismantled. That turned out to be lucky for us!
How To Ride The Mail Rail
A ticket to The Postal Museum includes a ride on the Mail Rail. The little electric train is only about 4 feet tall and goes through tunnels as narrow as 7 feet on a narrow-gauge track only 2 feet wide, at a top speed of 7.5 miles per hour. This passenger train was built to resemble the original mail cars, but with a driver.
It’s a cozy fit for two adults in cars designed for sacks of mail, but it works, and it’s fun. The 15-minute ride features some of the sights and sounds of the original system, including a power cut, a look at the tunnels diverging, the flood doors, and a clever video projected to show the action on the platform. You can peek at the Train Graveyard, where the out-of-service trains sit.
The ride is partly narrated by Ray Middlesworth, a retired Mail Rail engineer. He says, “It was hard work down here, but there was enormous team spirit.” I got that impression throughout this part of the museum: They were a very strong community working at something very few people knew existed. They moved four million letters a day!
One touching story featured an adult recalling visiting this secret underground world as a child. That was something the Mail Rail workers did for their families at Christmastime.
The Postal Museum
Before or after the train ride, you’ll have a chance to explore the museum, which shows how the Post Office came into being and the many ways it has influenced our lives. The quality of the exhibits here is excellent.
A temporary exhibit I really enjoyed was about mail crime, highlighting the Great Train Robbery. There was a 1960s film covering anti-theft devices, looking more Maxwell Smart than James Bond. The Great Train Robbery exhibit recreated in detail the farmhouse kitchen where the thieves holed up.
In the 1930s, the UK General Post Office had its own film unit -- who knew? At the Postal Museum, I was captivated by Night Mail, a 1936 documentary about the Postal Special train going from London up to Scotland. It’s a classic, with music by Benjamin Britten and poetry by W. H. Auden, beginning, “This is the night mail crossing the Border…” The black-and-white film shows a valiant-looking mail train puffing through the hills.
Postal workers used to sort mail on intercity trains. The Postal Museum has a railcar with a moving floor to give you that wobbly feeling while you stand and try your hand at the mail clerk’s job. It’s a challenge!
In the novel 1984, Winston Smith receives and sends messages at work via pneumatic tubes. At The Postal Museum, you can try it yourself. You put your message into a canister, place the canister into the tube, pull the lever, and wham! The canister shoots up the tube and across the room in a flash. Very satisfying.
Rail fans get a unique chance to see and ride a one-of-a-kind heritage railway here. There’s lots of equipment to see and displays showing how it all works. There’s even a chance to do the railway controller’s job, directing model trains on their route.
Including the train ride, it takes 2 to 3 hours to explore the museum. If you’re curious but won’t be able to get to London any time soon, check out this video by Joolz of Joolz Guides. I love how he brings The Postal Museum to life.
The Postal Museum has hosted some interesting events that I hope they’ll repeat. On a tunnel walk, visitors get to explore the rail tunnel on foot in a small group with a guide. This used to be something only daring underground adventurers could try -- after breaking in.
I can only imagine what might be lying around down there. The day the Mail Rail service stopped, everyone went home as usual, leaving the workplace looking as if they’d all be back the next day.
There’s an Indiana Jones feeling to the tunnel. I’m pretty sure I even saw a stalactite.
What To Know Before You Go
The Postal Museum is located in two buildings across the street from each other, connected by a crosswalk.
Except for the train ride, The Postal Museum has step-free access. The Mail Rail ride is not accessible to persons who cannot get into and out of the cars unaided. There is a film version for anyone who doesn’t ride the train, available with subtitles and, upon request, as described video. British Sign Language tours have been organized in the past. Please check the museum’s website for upcoming offerings.
There is no on-site parking. A number of buses stop nearby, however. Use the Transport for London Journey Planner to find the easiest route. There are four different Tube stations nearby, each about 15 minutes away.
The museum encourages visitors to buy museum tickets online, booking the train ride in advance. Please check the museum’s website for guidance.
Typically for any London museum with child-friendly exhibits, I would avoid summer weekends and school breaks. I’m going to make an exception here because of the timed ticketing system, and suggest following the museum on social media for current information.
More In London For Train Lovers
The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden doesn’t have a train ride, but it does explore the network in detail, with exhibits covering the Victorian times to today. The shop is well stocked with souvenirs and relevant books.
London’s main rail stations are historic sites as well as functioning, busy transport hubs.
The Docklands Light Railway is one of my favorite public transport rides -- a driverless train rising above the water of London’s industrial history.
For more to see and do in London, see this page.