back to article Going underground: The Royal Mail's great London train squeeze

For the last 13 years, a tiny train tunnel running through the centre of London has remained empty and unused, maintained by just four engineers. But these engineers don’t work for Transport for London or Network Rail – they work for the Royal Mail. The small gauge tunnel, running for 10.46km (6.5 miles) from Paddington to …

  1. Lee D Silver badge

    Remove the public ownership restriction.

    Sell it off.

    Watch some companies make millions out of using it. Delivery, I suspect. Ironic if they used it for parcels and mail. But even using the tunnels for underground fibre must be possible - I bet a load of companies along the line would pay a fortune for another leased line that goes by a route independent of the buildings etc. above it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Nah, having it as a tourist attraction is the best way to go. It'll be popular, as long as it's marketed properly. I'll certainly go.

      I'm going on the Down Street tour later this week. At £75 a shot, it's expensive, but they don't have any problem shifting the tickets. I'm really looking forward to it.

      1. AMBxx Silver badge
        Pint

        Definitely a tourist attraction. They've looked at other options already.

        Given what I was happy to pay recently for a day on the Flying Scotsman and how busy it was, shouldn't be a problem to fill.

        2.1m tunnel though!

      2. BlartVersenwaldIII
        Thumb Up

        Lucky you getting the Down Street - managed to miss out on the tickets for that this year so congrats. Had to make do with the consolation prize of the old Euston tunnels but was still well worth the £35. It also came with a discount voucher for the london transport museum.

        At the risk of doing myself out of tickets again next year, I'd recommend all commentards in london and the south east interested in this sort of thing to bookmark the Hidden London site and watch it like a hawk for when new tours make an appearance:

        http://www.ltmuseum.co.uk/whats-on/hidden-london

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "I bet a load of companies along the line would pay a fortune for another leased line that goes by a route independent of the buildings etc. above it."

      It's a market pretty much owned by London Underground Limited in London. This line doesn't go many places, whereas the tube covers rather a lot of sites.

    3. DJO Silver badge

      using the tunnels for underground fibre must be possible

      Too little and too late. The pipes belonging to the London Pneumatic Company which delivered compressed air to power lifts and other machinery in London were sold off to carry fibre years ago.

      1. Chloe Cresswell

        Don't you mean the LHC, the London Hydraulic Power Company?

        1. david 12 Bronze badge

          London Pneumatic Despatch Company

          London Pneumatic Despatch Company was a mail company. They ran a short pneumatic rail system.

          There was also a small pneumatic tube system (between the London Stock Exchange and the telegraph station), but London doesn't seem to have had much of a pneumatic tube system -- not enough to make much of a fibre system.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If I had the money I'd buy it and convert it into my underground (sorry) lair.

      I could make a good heap of dosh running dark fiber for people, and even more for intercepting that (hey, according to Hollywood, that's what people with underground lairs do, it's now UK accepted practice and something suitably evil has to pay for the upkeep).

      There, problem sorted. All I need now is the money.

      And a cat.

      :)

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        I could make a good heap of dosh running dark fiber for people, and even more for intercepting that (hey, according to Hollywood, that's what people with underground lairs do, it's now UK accepted practice and something suitably evil has to pay for the upkeep).

        Sadly not that simple. Problem is you're constrained both by the limited route, and by wayleave costs getting fibre in/out of the tunnel. Then there can be additional O&M costs or embuggerances due to limited access, maintenance windows, HSE restrictions etc that impact on cost and SLA. So for example when the tunnels were operating 22hrs a day, you'd have to fit any installation/repair work in with the 2hr maintenance window. Or try 'Stop the train! Teh Interweb's down!'.

    5. boltar Silver badge

      COuld help reduce air pollution?

      "Delivery, I suspect. Ironic if they used it for parcels and mail."

      Doubt that would happen, there simply isn't emough the money in it for them to afford to buy the system.

      However given the bad air pollution in London at the mo, surely taking any vehicles off the road would be a good idea so perhaps Mr Kahn could think of subsidising some deliveries going via this system instead of in a van or lorry? And given the traffic levels it would probably be quicker. Just a thought.

  2. Korev Silver badge
    Stop

    Speed

    A report that said that London traffic would never allow for speeds of greater than 6mph

    Which I understand isn't too far away from the truth today...

    What the traffic does ->

    1. Valerion

      Re: Speed

      Yep, they only overestimated the speed by 2 or 3 mph.

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: Speed

        The average traffic flow speed now is 12mph. Run over a few cyclists and it'll drop to 11mph!

        1. Paul Woodhouse

          Re: Speed

          hmm... working this one out... do you mean that the cyclists on average are faster and squish a few, you'll lower the average speed, or does it mean that the congestion you'll cause by squishing cyclists will reduce the average speed?

          someone needs to design an experiment...

  3. Chris Miller

    At least one each of the locos and wagons is stored at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre in Quainton.

    1. Ashley_Pomeroy

      Quainton - where quaintness comes from. Quaintness was originally invented in the Victorian era. It was sold in tubs, but alas the original formulation used radium so it was banned in the 1960s.

      1. The Indomitable Gall

        Quaintness

        The LHC has detected evidence of the existence of the hypothesised "quaint quark", postulated to be responsible for the phenomenon known as "nostalgic action at a distance", where people's memories of their childhood hellholes are magically transformed into images of wonder and light...

  4. Whiskers

    VIP passenger service

    There were times when I'd have gladly paid for a fast way to get between Liverpool St and Paddington, avoiding the crush and hassle of the Tube.

    1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: VIP passenger service

      My exact thought.

      The joy of having to get to the LHR express terminus or LHR itself from King's Cross and Liverpool Street mid-rush hour. I suspect a mail-transfer container will be less cramped.

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: VIP passenger service

        Just wait a bit and Crossrail/Elizabeth Line will be running from Liverpool St to Heathrow just for you.

    2. phuzz Silver badge
      Linux

      Re: VIP passenger service

      "avoiding the crush and hassle of the Tube"

      You might avoid the hassle, but the mail tunnels are only a couple of meters high, so a crush is all but inevitable.

      >>>>>> two lights at the end of the tunnel

      1. Whiskers

        Re: VIP passenger service

        I have no objection to travelling in a seated position, or even laying down. In fact I rather prefer it.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If a brand new train, running a fixed route on a dead end line with no other trains, needs a driver in order to carry passengers, how on earth are driverless cars even a thing?

    1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      If a brand new train, running a fixed route on a dead end line with no other trains, needs a driver in order to carry passengers, how on earth are driverless cars even a thing?

      Costs and benefits. The Mail Rail tourist route can only derive a small benefit from driverless operation, so the cost of implementing it isn't justified.

      Driverless trains are not uncommon. The DLR has been one since 1987. The Victoria Line, constructed in the 1960s, has drivers, but the trains are automatic.

    2. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      Probably cheaper than the automatic control systems (a la DLR) to run it driverless.

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Probably cheaper than retrofitting the automatic

        You need to install this system in an old and rather cramped tunnel that has had no provision for optics or modern cabling of any type. It may pay back if you run a train every 5 minutes. If you run a few tourist trips a day - not a chance.

        1. collinsl

          Besides, a driver for a museum might well be a volunteer, or otherwise paid a lot less than a tube driver, plus you only need two or three of them and not thousands.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That's something of a non-sequitur. Driverless cars don't operate solely underground in a tunnel that the passengers are unfamiliar with should there be a breakdown.

    4. Dave 15

      20%...

      20% of the supposed working age population of the UK are not working, no point in inventing a driver less train when it is so easy and cheap to get a person

      The Chinese worked this out years ago... cheaper to have a lot of people than spend money on machines.

      1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

        Re: 20%...

        Except that the likes of Foxconn are replacing workers with Robots at a great rate of knots.

        Go read up on Elon Musk's plans for the Tesla model 3 and how it will be built with very little human interaction.

        Go read Mark Carney's speech on this today.

        5% unemployed will become 15-20% unless there is a new Ned Ludd lurking in the wings.

        1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
          Paris Hilton

          Re: 20%...

          > 5% unemployed will become 15-20%

          That was the past, I think.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: 20%...

            But Foxcon are replacing expensive skilled workers with robots.

            We are suggesting replacing expensive locomotives with cheap labour, and chains, possibly some whips

            It's a return to Victorian values - at least as far as the mining industry

    5. DropBear Silver badge
      Devil

      "If a brand new train, running a fixed route on a dead end line with no other trains, needs a driver in order to carry passengers..."

      The thing is, once passengers are involved, the driver is several orders of magnitude cheaper than the lawyer...

  6. Vinyl-Junkie
    Thumb Up

    Some fabulous pictures...

    ...of the Mail Rail system were taken by a group of urban explorers in 2011. Whatever one may think of their laissez-faire attitude to trespass laws; there's no denying that UEs have documented some very interesting places in recent years.

    The story and pics are here: http://www.placehacking.co.uk/2011/04/24/security-breach-london-mail-rail/

    1. Jan 0
      Pint

      Re: Some fabulous pictures...

      Somewhere... I have some nice pictures that I took on a tour organised via Usenet in the 1990s. I can't remember the name of the organiser, just that it was probably done via uk.misc. What impressed me were the stacks of wheel pairs on massive axles, nicely ground and finished with red paint. The miniature trains made you think that we'd stumbled on a aliensubterranean civilisation. A long owed beer for whichever kind and industrious soul organised our free visit. I'm so glad that I saw this before it became a relic.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is the full network still accessible or just the shortened one that existed after station closures?

  8. JJKing Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Thank you.

    Wow, cool story Señor Reg, gracious.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Side note

    Birmingham had similar tunnels, but used little electric trucks. Maybe they should follow London.

    http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/creative/birminghams-hidden-spaces-modern-mailbox-8318014

    1. Korev Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Side note

      Thanks for sharing, I've just spent an enjoyable few minutes reading that and some of the other "Hidden Spaces" articles linked from there.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Side note

        Perhaps they could link the London and Birmingham systems.

        A railway line between London and Birmingham could be useful, by building it underground you would avoid a lot of local objections

    2. IvyKing

      Re: Side note

      Chicago had quite a network of freight tunnels that were last used in the 1950's. The Royal Mail tunnels appear to be similar and may have been based partly on the experience with the Chicago tunnels.

  10. Yesnomaybe

    Cool!

    A steampunk hyperloop!

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Cool!

      Steampunk Hyperloops that once existed, and some that never were.

      1. Yesnomaybe

        Re: Cool!

        Very nice! Thank you!

  11. Dave 15

    One good thing May and Hunt could do...

    They could stop sticking their oar where it isn't needed and insist on the royal mail reopening and using this damned railway to get their noisy, polluting and foreign vans off the over crowded streets of London.

    In fact I would force them to extend the railway.

    I guess some snotty RM board directors and some government ministers got together with the directors of Mercedes and Shell to get some nice kickbacks from abandoning an environmental, cost effective, cheap and existing solution in favour of a nasty, polluting, overcrowding and expensive alternative. Just like Beeching did in the 50s

    1. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: One good thing May and Hunt could do...

      The mayor of London could follow the other cities like Paris etc and ban Diesel vehicles from central london. That won't bring this rail line back into daily use though.

      The MailRail hub in Willesden made sure that there would be no need for the mail system to use this link.

      However as much as I hate to say it, Amazon would probably love an artery like this through the city.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Set the wayback machine to 1990s

        "The mayor of London could follow the other cities like Paris etc and ban Diesel vehicles from central london"

        Is there any analysis anywhere on the relative contributions from (diesel) cars, light vans, vehicles up to 7tonnes (sub-HGV), and HGV and above? Plus buses etc.

        Instinctively based on what I see in Birmingham centre and suburbs, the contribution from diesel cars is relatively small (newer and better maintained vehicles, with DPF, etc), whereas the contribution from commercial vehicles, PSVs, etc, of varied ages and sizes (and qualities of maintenance) seems likely to be much higher.

        In fact why not have another go at what Ken Livingstone's GLC quite understandably wanted a couple of decades (?) ago: ban all HGVs in the city and suburban areas unless specifically authorised (or, alternatively, zero tailpipe emissions, ho ho ho).

  12. Barry Rueger

    Night Mail

    Here's a 1936 classic for your lunch break. From the days when postal mail was fast and efficient.

    Night Mail

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Night Mail

      "Here's a 1936 classic for your lunch break."

      2013 remix (3 minutes or so): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFJPYi3JXw4

      "From the days when postal mail was fast and efficient."

      What? You mean it's not 'fast and efficient' to have dozens of competing delivery companies (Herdel and Yomes and such) all trying to see who can offer the worst delivery service and the worst employment conditions **in the same places as the competition** and still make money for the owners?

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All this talk of electric trains...

    ...makes me want to dig out the old train set I had as a kid & pretend to be a Conductor again.

    *Wistful sigh*

  14. spot

    Fifty trains shifted 30,000 items each 22-hour day?

    That item count seems unlikely at first glance, it's of the order of just 100 items per trip.

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge

      Re: Fifty trains shifted 30,000 items each 22-hour day?

      1 item == 1 postal bag, I take it.

      1. davidp231

        Re: Fifty trains shifted 30,000 items each 22-hour day?

        Each mail sack weighing a maximum of 11kg.

  15. salamamba too

    Bob Howard

    I take it the closed off sections are for the Laundry archives?

  16. bep

    Bit light on for technical details I thought

    We know the trains are electrical and driverless, but that's about it. I wonder who built them?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Bit light on for technical details I thought

      You wonder who built the stock.

      Others may wonder if you (or the article author) are familiar with Wikipedia (am I allowed to say the W word here these days?).

      Start at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Post_Office_Railway

      and you will find that English Electric built most of the stock, with the exception of the last batch.

      English Electric also built the Deltic:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deltic

      Little and Large, as it were. Or as ARM would have it, big.LITTLE?

      1. davidp231

        Re: Bit light on for technical details I thought

        You could probably fit one inside a Deltic.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The new trains for the tourists

    were delivered to the site recently. The latest edition of "Rail" (out today) has an article about it.

  18. hi_robb

    Excellent article

    In fact it was first class..

  19. andy gibson

    Hudson Hawk

    I believe the location doubled up as the Vatican mail railway in the terrible movie Hudson Hawk.

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

      Re: Hudson Hawk

      I have a copy of David Long's "Bizarre London" next to me here so just checked...and it did apparently

    2. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: Hudson Hawk

      You mean as opposed to the groundbreaking movie "Unbreakable"...?

  20. Simon Rockman

    Nice story

    Shame it was such a long way to travel from The Reg office :-)

    Simon

  21. Snafu1

    Greathead shield etc

    "Greathead shield system" - a link would be useful (yes I can copy/paste but a direct link from the article would be good)

    However, this is really going to screw up my current Mornington Crescent gameplay strategy.. could you add another 2 stops to the SE please.. or maybe 1 S & 1 E?.. ;)

  22. Paul J Turner

    From April 2014

    This features a couple of the characters mentioned -

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzGd-5kwR9E

  23. willi0000000

    . . . but still nothing about the whereabouts of the golden suit and hat?

    [ i am disappoint ]

  24. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Nice article

    Thanks very much, from an old ex-Post guy.

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