back to article We're going deeper Underground: Vulture clicks claws over London's hidden tracks

Descending down the entry ramp and stepping over the Mail Rail tracks for the first time, you start to see London's underground heritage from – quite literally – a whole new angle. Hidden beneath the Royal Mail sorting depot at Mount Pleasant, in west Clerkenwell, London, Mail Rail itself is a marvellous piece of hidden …

  1. paulf Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Worth a visit

    Me and TOH visited Mail Rail and the Postal Museum last year. The journey on the former mail bag train was pretty good, while somewhat cramped for a lanky bloke like me! It was relatively short, compared to the full network, but still interesting to see with interactive presentations that run during the journey. The volunteers there have done an excellent job of getting what is, in essence, a former freight only line working for passengers from the general public to ride on safely.

    This tunnel walk is a great addition so will have to book up for it. We've done similar things in the past including the tunnel walk from Rotherhithe to Wapping and back through the Brunel Tunnel (excellent!), and also the visit to Aldwych station (also worthwhile).

    The postal museum was pretty good too. The only thing I would say is many of the interactive displays in the Mail Rail site were broken when we visited. I'd like to think they've sorted these out now, and if they haven't the really ought to as they looked pretty interesting (I think one was a demonstration of signalling operations on the line).

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Worth a visit

      ..cramped for a lanky bloke like me!

      Anyone who is taller than about 5' 6" or wider than a 30" waist will find the carriages snug.

      To be fair, though, this railway was never designed to transport humans but letters and parcels, so it's fantastic that they've managed to shoehorn in trains to carry humans.

      1. paulf Silver badge

        Re: Worth a visit

        I completely agree - the safety case and risk assessment must have been a nightmare to write so it is a credit to all involved. Even if I was able to rest my chin on my knees while going around. (I jest!)

      2. RegGuy1

        Re: Worth a visit

        managed to carry humans shoehorned in trains.

        TFTFY :-)

  2. Valeyard

    Mail Rail

    First time I heard of this was in the laundry files when it gets used as an escape route, had to immediately look it up

    1. GrahamRJ

      Re: Mail Rail

      And operated by zombies, *ahem* "Residual Human Resources". (To readers who haven't discovered Charles Stross yet - get reading.)

  3. MJB7 Silver badge

    6 mph in Victorian London

    Plus ça change

    5.13mph in 2017, 6.35mph in 2016 (both figures "within 1 mile of the centre"). Fundamentally, there is almost unlimited latent demand for travel in central London, and whatever you do to ease congestion will just cause more journeys to happen until the congestion is up to (almost) the same level.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

      The Pigou–Knight–Downs paradox.

    2. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

      This isn't just constrained to central London.

      It's why building roads tends not to decrease traffic congestion. All it does is increase traffic.

      What's actually needed to decrease congestion is to either decrease the journeys being taken, or change mode to more effective modes...

      Buses and trains are more efficient way of carrying large numbers of people from common points - but you need to get *to* them - the bus ought to take you to the train of course.

      Without cycle parking at bus stops, and/or the ability to carry a cycle on the bus (which they manage with ease elsewhere) bus stops can only serve relatively small areas - which means* they never really get enough people to realise the efficiency they offer - and therefore all the supply routes get closed as 'uneconomical', meaning that no-one can get to the main routes any more...

      Cycling and walking are far more efficient, as well as being both physically and mentally beneficial - to say nothing of the complete lack of 'point of use' pollution.

      * of course their excessive cost doesn't help either.

      1. bpfh Silver badge

        Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

        Comparing apples to apples, looking at Amsterdam Metropolitan Region, there are 2.4 million people, with a density of 1400 people per square kilometer, and a country that is rabidly ecological and bicycles are a part of life from as soon as kids can sit in a child's seat, and trams are omnipresent.

        London, with their 5600 people per square kilometer, and sparsely situated underground stations either put you in for a long walk or a bus trip, you cannot bike around the town without risking getting hurt, and the state not really investing what it could be in infrastructure - or in central london, they can't as there is a distinct lack of space !

        Start with changing mentalities on how to use transport.... and take things from there. Does LT / TFL or whatever they call themselves today have a 20 year plan to move this , without relying on other companies or sponsorship?

        1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

          Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

          Does LT / TFL or whatever they call themselves today have a 20 year plan to move this

          A plan with a duration of 20 years?!? Any plan these days has a maximum outlook of 5 years (i.e. one term of office). No government would allow anything to be planned which could result in something good happening while another administration is in power.

          1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

            Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

            5 Years? The current maximum duration is only three months, the standard Brexit extension.

        2. John Robson Silver badge

          Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

          You can't do anything without risking getting hurt... Cycling (even in London) isn't actually more dangerous than not cycling.

          However I absolutely agree that we should be focussing on making it easier, and making it *feel* safer.

          1. macjules Silver badge

            Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

            "Cycling (even in London) isn't actually more dangerous than not cycling"

            Unless you are being followed by a taxi (might kill if no one is looking) or a bus (might kill and claim 'it was an accident'). For some reason both types of driver loathe the idea of cyclists using their privileged lanes.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

              Any driver might do either - but actual deaths and serious injuries are incredibly rare, and they are disproportionally HGVs, which have no place on our roads during common commuting hours.

              Not cycling is generally more dangerous - although those risks tend not to be quite so immediately obvious.

        3. Dave314159ggggdffsdds

          Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

          There are two main differences between Amsterdam and London in this context: Amsterdam is a lot flatter, and has separate cycle paths. I think the latter is more important - it's certainly easier to change than the hills!

      2. TRT Silver badge

        Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

        I've been unable to find any articles pertaining to the current trend of constricting the road network deliberately.

        1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

          Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

          Like most towns, Swansea has been blighted by traffic problems in the centre. The councils solution is to turn the main through-road from 4 lanes (2 x 2) to 2 lanes, though I doubt there's any logic behind their reasoning

          There have, though, been such things done in a planned way:

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

            I was in Swansea earlier this year. Don't think I hit Kingsway. I did find an incredible set of roads which appeared to be built around disused railway viaducts and being roundaboutted like crazy to marry up with some horrendous quantity of new housing.

            That video in the news piece is utterly shit, isn't it? I expected a series of historical photographs and maybe the odd scene from a film made on that road, not 2 minutes of video taken on the same day from a variety of different angles which jump cuts to the side of a cinema for some reason.

            1. TRT Silver badge

              Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

              Morfa Road. I wondered what it was running next to... an old Copper Works. Must be what all the railway stuff was about. I'd have loved to stop for a browse around there.

              1. Jamie Jones Silver badge

                Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

                Yeah, that video was pretty rubbish. I at least expected a "before" shot!

                Ah Morfa.. The old copper works... Swansea was apparently the copper capital of the world at one time ( The copper works only closed in 1980 and the whole area had to go through a massive cleanup to get us to the roundabouts and housing estates of today!

                The swansea valley stuff is quite interesting. The old canal is being restored further North (it's been completely built over city-side), and yeah, lots of old railway tracks, what with the coal from the valleys, the copper, and the docks... Swansea Museum has quite a bit on all that.

                1. TRT Silver badge

                  Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

                  I'm sold on making a proper visit there!

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

        > Without cycle parking at bus stops

        Without secure cycle parking at bus stops

        1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

          Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

          If it isn't secure (enough), it just isn't there for all practical purposes.

      4. Zack Mollusc

        building roads tends not to decrease traffic congestion. All it does is increase traffic.

        "building roads tends not to decrease traffic congestion. All it does is increase traffic"

        I think it more a case of building roads at a slower rate than the population increases tends not to decrease traffic congestion. All it does is increase traffic .

        Inrcementally increasing bandwidth on a saturated channel will not eliminate contentiion when the demand is also inrcementing.

      5. Dave314159ggggdffsdds

        Re: 6 mph in Victorian London

        "It's why building roads tends not to decrease traffic congestion. All it does is increase traffic."

        That's a very silly claim that for some reason has gained currency despite being so daft. The measure is not congested roads, it's completed journeys. More people have to use a higher capacity road for it to be equally congested. So no, journey times for people who were already going that way don't fall; journey times for everyone else who now uses the road fall.

        That said, car-based commuting is daft. Easy enough to separate light - say <250kg - vehicles from heavy ones, at which point most people don't need to be in a car.

  4. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    I'm jelly ot you guys having access to such Fascinating Things.

    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      The trick is to have an Industrial Revolution before anyone else has the idea.

  5. Someoneelsehasmyname

    We took our three year old a couple of months back and he thoroughly loved it. As mentioned, the train is a little cramped for someone my size, but it was perfect for him. Totally worth it.

  6. drawoC esuomynonA
    Thumb Up

    Must Add to Our Itnerary

    Wife and I are planning a trip to London over Christmas, I think I might have found something extra to visit while we're there!

    Thanks for an excellent article.

  7. holmegm Bronze badge

    "Mail Rail's original 1920s trains ran for several decades, only being replaced in the 1980s;"

    obNitpick: 60 years is "several decades"?

    But kidding aside, fascinating article!

    1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

      obNitpick: 60 years is "several decades"?"

      Curious comment. What's your definition of 'several' ?

      I'd put it as 'more than a couple / few' and 'less than many / lots'. So 6 appears nicely in scope.

      Perhaps el Reg has a canonical measure ?

      1. bpfh Silver badge

        El Reg Weights And Mesaures Soviet

        Can we get 1 mail train = 60 years?

        1. Huw D Silver badge

          Re: El Reg Weights And Mesaures Soviet

          Probably not. Based on old info, The Royal Mail uses (used?) DB Freight for mail trains. There are (were?) 16 of them carrying around 1,000,000 items of post a day in total.

          If we assume that an item of post takes 2 days on average then that's 2 million days for 16 trains, so each train is 125,000 days or about 340 years...;)

          The trains did have 4 cars, so 340/4 = 85 years per mail car?

          1. bpfh Silver badge

            Re: El Reg Weights And Mesaures Soviet

            Sounds good actually.

            If we can get the length of the mail cars we can even link that as a base unit of the speed of a sheep in a vacuum, making it a proper physics-defined standard unit!

          2. dajames Silver badge

            If we assume that an item of post takes 2 days on average ...

            In the 1920s a lot of the mail -- sorry post -- being carried by these trains would have been delivered the same day, if posted and delivered in or near London.

            I recall reading a letter in The Times a few years back, in which the writer reminisced that when she and her husband were first married (in the 1920s/30s) he would send her a postcard if he learned that he expected to leave work later than usual that evening, and that this postcard would leave his London office by the morning post and could be relied upon to arrive at their home in the suburbs by tea-time.

            1. NightFox

              I've still not got my head round how one day about 20 years ago I popped a 35mm film in a Truprint (or similar) envelope and stuck it in the postbox before I went to work. I came home that same evening and found the developed photos delivered through my letter box. To this day I don't understand how that was possible, and even RM people I've spoken to raise an eyebrow and say it isn't.

      2. holmegm Bronze badge

        Only since you asked ... I suppose personally it varies by the thing counted.

        I tend to think of decades in relation to a human life. That doesn't leave much room between "few" and "many".

  8. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

    If you want...

    To take a ganders at one of the original trains, the National Rail Museum in York has one squirrelled away in a corner of the great hall (behind the Mallard) and is always worth a visit if you're in a northerly inclination.

    1. Muscleguy Silver badge

      Re: If you want...

      Thanks for that, York is indeed much closer than London when you live in Dundee (we have a transport museum too but mainly of interest to natives of which I’m not one). We have an interesting collection of former rail lines as well.

      If anyone wants to know how they got trains across the Tay before the first Tay bridge was built the excellent museum in Broughty Ferry Castle (free to enter) has a most excellent model of the rail ferry. They had to bring it back when the original bridge blew down whilst a train was crossing. Bolts holding the deck to the piers were not long or strong enough or present in required numbers (corners cut).

      But lessons were learned and the replacement is still there, still carrying trains. Still being actively maintained. I always enjoy crossing it.

  9. Annihilator

    Deja vous

    Blimey, so good, you visited twice?

    1. E_Nigma

      Re: Deja vous

      Apparently so. Also, the first time they went on the then yet to be opened to public ride on the train, whereas this time they took to the current latest attraction, the walking tour. :)

  10. Ochib Silver badge

    vacuum-driven railway

    No-one tell Elon Musk, as he invented this techology with the Hyperloop

    1. aks Bronze badge

      Re: vacuum-driven railway

      Might he throw his toys out of the pram again?

      1. Spanners Silver badge

        Re: vacuum-driven railway

        No. He'll just have another chillout spliff.

    2. Steve Davies 3 Silver badge

      Re: vacuum-driven railway

      Poor Isambard must be turning in his grave.

      Ok, so the vacuum is pretty small but the South Devon Railway used it in the mid 19th century for a short while.

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

        Re: vacuum-driven railway

        The problem there was rats eating the leather seal on the pipes.

        What remains of a pump house can be found at Starcross. One was built at Totnes station to extend the Atmospheric Railway towards Plymouth but it was never commissioned.

  11. David 18

    Why obsolete?

    Why obsolete?

    Electric - Tick

    Rail - Tick

    Eases congestion - Tick

    Efficient and fast - Tick

    Environmentally friendly - Tick

    Presumably replaced with diesel fume belching or "green" electric trucks adding to congestion.


    1. Rich 11 Silver badge

      Re: Why obsolete?

      I think it was more a case of the sorting offices in Central London being closed. Moving them out to the perimeter allowed larger and more modern ones to be built and gave improved access to the rest of the country, both via the rail network and by road. The lorry engines would have been more energy efficient doing 60mph on a motorway rather than chugging at 12-30mph across town.

    2. DontFeedTheTrolls Silver badge

      Re: Why obsolete?

      According to the totally reliable Wikipedia it was five times more expensive to operate than on road vehicles (disputed by the Communications Workers Union who said it was only three times as expensive).

      1. really_adf

        Re: Why obsolete?

        According to the totally reliable Wikipedia it was five times more expensive to operate than on road vehicles (disputed by the Communications Workers Union who said it was only three times as expensive).

        Could be viewed as: road vehicles should be three/five times as expensive as they are...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Why obsolete?

          With anti-congestion/anti-pollution charging zones and having to buy new fleets of electric vehicles for inner London, I wonder if it may become cost effective in the long run to re-open it? Probably not, what with more comprehensive H&S and various regulations etc and it won't ever be as "cool" to the new young suits as "drones".

          1. Wicked Witch

            Re: Why obsolete?

            The H&S issues would be somewhat reduced by the trains being driverless (they always were, they were originally controlled like a giant model railway), so the only people in the tunnels would be maintenance staff.

            ISTR there was a plan to extend the line to the then-new London distribution centre (now the Princess Royal Distribution Centre), which would have made it worthwhile, but shifting fashions and lack of ready money meant no solid plans had been prepared before the switch from rail to road transport for long-distance post.

          2. dajames Silver badge

            Re: Why obsolete?

            I wonder if it may become cost effective in the long run to re-open it?

            Not while it makes money as a tourist attraction!

    3. Stork Silver badge

      Re: Why obsolete?

      I don't know about the UK, but in Denmark mail service apparently collapsed. The royal Danish mail was sold to a Swedish outfit, and shortly after public correspondence, utilities and banks went electronic for everyone who didn't ask to keep the paper. 90 percent of letters gone, postal service reduced from six times per week to two or three.

  12. LDS Silver badge

    OK. OK, Brexit is finally coming...

    ... no need to find an underground shelter anyway.

    I'm just surprised Amazon didn't try to lease/buy the system to deliver its boxes around London...

  13. FuzzyWuzzys
    Thumb Up

    LU's warehouse tours are good too

    There's some superb stuff hidden around and under London. I remember a few years ago getting one of the few tickets to go out the to London Underground offsite storage warehouse. The tour was run by volunteers who work at the warehouse and simply take care of LU's artifacts for the love it. It was incredible to see all the stuff they squirrel away after it's been used on the network. Posters, leaflets, signs, bits of trains, a really good day out if you're a bit of a "trainspotter" and you get the chance.

  14. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

    Railway Signalling works trip

    I went on a trip there oriented towards the railway signal engineering aspects of the railway when it was in full operation. The photo of the circuit breaker plate in the article reminds me that train control was primitive but effective: achieved by switching current on to a section to get a train to move, and cutting the power to stop the train. No gigantic Hammant & Morgan knob to rotate. We had a look round the train control switch-room and the arcing and bangs are not for those of a nervous disposition.

    1. aregross

      Re: Railway Signalling works trip

      The first question I always have when I see articles of old electric equipment like this is... did it run on AC or DC?

      1. Ken Moorhouse Silver badge

        Re: did it run on AC or DC?

        DC traction current, converted from National Grid AC using mercury arc rectifiers. DC tended to be more viable for "smaller" railway systems but would become uneconomical for long distances due to the large number of power sub-stations required.

        Not sure about the signalling side of things.

        London Underground uses DC for traction and AC for signalling - 33.33Hz (older installations) and 125Hz (more modern installations*), the idea being that signalling relays would be impervious to spurious AC leaked from the national grid, those two frequencies not being harmonically related to 50Hz. Outside** relays (known as Double Element Vane relays) required two power sources of the same frequency and compatible phase in order to energise indicating the absence of a train on a track circuit. (Fail-Safe principles).

        * Not sure about the latest installations.

        ** Outside of a relay room, which is aluminium-clad to keep that pesky interference at bay for internal relay switching (Faraday shield).

        1. aregross
          Thumb Up

          Re: did it run on AC or DC?

          Excellent Info, Thanx!

  15. Danny 2 Silver badge

    20 MPH zones

    Most of central Edinburgh now has 20MPH signs where they used to have 30MPH signs. There's been no enforcement so far, but cars have started driving at 30MPH where they used to drive at 40MPH.

    We like to break the law, but not too much.

    1. Danny 2 Silver badge

      Re: 20 MPH zones

      I get heavily downvoted every time I post song lyrics here. I get it, it diminishes the forum and nobody likes the music I like. I'll stop doing that, tomorrow.

      1. Huw D Silver badge

        Re: 20 MPH zones

        "Today was tomorrow yesterday" - Ozzy Osbourne.

        1. Ken Shabby Bronze badge

          Re: 20 MPH zones

          There was me thinking Nektar and Remember the future.

        2. 080

          Re: 20 MPH zones

          Tomorrow never comes

      2. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: 20 MPH zones

        I get heavily downvoted every time I post song lyrics here.

        But you don't post song lyrics, you post an url to a youtube video without the lyrics and without even having the decency to make it a clickable link. And as a silver badge, you are granted that ability (comes much sooner already).

        1. Danny 2 Silver badge

          Re: 20 MPH zones

          My apologies A.P. I normally just post lyrics, and will type them out for you as penance knowing fine well everyone will hate this.

          If you get a message coming out of the stars you must hide away

          And if you get a message coming out of the stars you must hide away

          If you get a message coming out of the stars

          Don't believe in luck you are in touch with Mars

          And you must hide away, you must hide away

          These collapsing nations and the weight of the West make us hide away

          And these collapsing governments that pole axe us with taxes make us hide away

          It's just a suggestion, congestion

          Grab it and then hide way

          You've got to hide way and go underground

          London Underground

          ~ Julian H. Cope

          1. Alan Ferris

            Re: 20 MPH zones

            Cheers. Have a downvote

            1. Danny 2 Silver badge

              Re: 20 MPH zones

              Have an upvote! I hope you also smiled when clicking.

              I'll have you know Julian Cope is a national treasure, and so deserves to be buried underground.

    2. Imhotep

      Re: 20 MPH zones

      "There's been no enforcement so far, but cars have started driving at 30MPH where they used to drive at 40MPH."

      Isn't it funny how 10MPH over the limit seems to be almost a universal standard?

      Except on the interstates around here (south of Nashville, TN), where you need to do 90 in the fast lane to keep up with traffic.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 20 MPH zones

        Same as the M40

  16. Strictly

    I visited Mount Pleasant on a school trip in the 60's. Saw the train in action, but the best bit was the staff entertainment. Up on the stage was wrestling, weight lifting and body building. Very surreal and non-PC now!

  17. Imhotep

    Love These Articles

    Fascinating. The French pneumatic mail system in Paris is worth a read too, but my favorite delivery system remains the short lived Pony Express.

    BTW: When I was a kid in the late 50's - early 60s, there was a comic about a superhero who traveled underground is a double-screw-ended contraption.

    Does any fellow ancient know what comic that was?

  18. Dave 15

    Environmentally friendly

    So royal mails contribution to London environment is to use diesel vans to do the work of an existing dedicated electric railway... leaving vans choking the streets in traffic jams and ensuring mail is late. Of course it is now owNed by a great company, Germany being the proud user of Europe's largest co2 producing coal fired electricity station (not for them following eu rules as we did and eating rid of coal) you almost couldn't make it up

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2019