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London’s Mail Rail

For seventy-six years, starting from 1927, the London Post Office operated a fleet of driverless electric trains that scuttled around pairs of narrow gauge rails deep under the ground hauling mails between various sorting offices. The Mail Rail ran from the Paddington Head District Sorting Office in the west to the Eastern Head District Sorting Office at Whitechapel in the east, a distance of 6.5 miles. In between, it had eight stations, the largest of which was underneath Mount Pleasant. At its peak, the Mail Rail operated for 22 hours a day and carried 4 million pieces of mail in a single day.

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Photo credit: Miles Willis/ The Postal Museum and Mail Rail

The underground railway was built to circumvent the massive road traffic congestion of the early 1900s that was causing unacceptable delays in moving mails from one sorting office to another. Until 2003, it was the beating heart of London’s postal service. The system was eventually closed because its operation cost had become far too much for the Royal Mail to bear. Using the railway, they said, was five times more expensive than using road transport for the same task.

The Mail Rail is set to open again in September 2017, but this time it will move people instead of mail. When Mail Rail opens to the public in a few months, visitors will be able to take a 20-minute ride on 1 km of circular track, sitting on new wagons designed to accommodate people instead of mails.

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Photo credit: Miles Willis/ The Postal Museum and Mail Rail

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Photo credit: Miles Willis/ The Postal Museum and Mail Rail

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Photo credit: Miles Willis/ The Postal Museum and Mail Rail

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