The Mail Rail: Exploring Forgotten London

Suggest to a Londoner that the highlight of a fun day out in London was riding in a cramped, underground train and they would probably look at you in disbelief.

“But don’t I do that most days?” they would ask.

But London Underground this is not. This is the Mail Rail, London, the Post Office’s own underground railway and the scene-stealer of London’s Postal Museum.

red brick postal-museum-london-exterior

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The History of the Mail Rail, London

Congestion on London’s streets is not a new phenomenon.

In 1911, the Royal Mail was worried. Roads clogged with slow-moving horse and carts – the average speed was 6 mph – was causing delays in postal deliveries. Time meant money and they needed a traffic-proof delivery system.

The Mail Rail was a radical solution to this problem.

In 1914, construction began on a 6.5-mile underground railway between Paddington and Whitechapel. Temporarily thwarted by World War I, the Rail Mail finally opened for business on December 1927.

This network of narrow tunnels, 70 feet below the surface, linked six sorting offices with mainline stations at Paddington and Liverpool Street. At its peak in the 1930s, the driverless Mail Rail transported four million letters each day, with a train every four minutes, 22 hours a day.

rail-mail-london-tunnel
Mail Rail tunnel

In fact, it was those clever Victorians who first dreamt up a subterranean network. Intermittently from 1863, they dabbled with pneumatic chutes 3 m below the surface but abandoned this idea in 1874.

With the closure of sorting offices and soaring operating costs, against the background of cheaper road transport, the Mail Rail carried its last sack of letters in 2003. Various plans for the decommissioned subterranean labyrinth were then proposed, including an underground mushroom farm and a cycleway. But in 2017, the Mail Rail was reopened for human cargo as part of the Postal Museum.

Riding the Mail Rail

This is not a train ride for those with a fear of small, enclosed spaces.

Five feet high and 65 feet long, this electric train squeezes its passengers in two abreast. With the track a mere 2 m-wide, to say that it’s a snug fit is putting it mildly. Clear plastic windows and a roof insulate you from the tunnel atmosphere, adding to the claustrophobic feel.

rail-mail-london-carriage
Mail Rail, London – train

Your disembodied ‘guide’ for the 20-minute train ride is the ex-Royal Mail employee, Ray Middlesworth, who narrates points of interest along the way and supplies anecdotes. Abandoned platforms are brought to life with spectacular projections.

Visiting the Postal Museum, London

The Mail Rail is part of London’s Postal Museum, and the museum itself should not be missed.

Highlights of The Postal Museum include a sheet of the first stamps, vintage postal carriages, post boxes and a selection of posters and magazines from the 1950s and 60s.

Royal Mail carriage, Postal Museum, London
Royal Mail carriage, Postal Museum, London

It is a very interactive museum and is, therefore, is great for kids (and for the young at heart).

The Mail Rail exhibition allows would-be train drivers to operate the lever frame and race pneumatic cars. Budding postmen can don the flat cap and trench coat of a travelling postal worker.

postal-museum-vintage-phone-box
Vintage phone box, Postal Museum, London

In the Postal Service exhibition, I had great fun creating a stamp with my head on it. My stamp of approval for the Rail Mail and London’s Postal Museum if you like.

Airmail postbox from the 1930s at london postal-museum
Airmail postbox from the 1930s. Note the price of postage on the sign.

Visiting the Mail Rail and Postal Museum, London

How to get to the Mail Rail and Postal Museum

  • There are separate entrances to the Mail Rail and Postal Museum, on opposite sides of the road from each other. The address is 15 – 20 Phoenix Place, London WC1X 0DA.
  • The museum is a short walk from Kings Cross, Farringdon, Chancery Lane or Russell Square Tube stations.

London Postal Museum & Rail Mail opening hours

The Mail Rail and Postal Museum are open from 10.30 am to 5 pm daily on Wednesday to Friday; weekends 10 am to 5 pm

Postal Museum and London Mail Rail ticket price

  • The cost of an adult ticket is £17 (£16 if you book online). Reduced rates are available for those under the age of 24.
  • Your ticket includes unlimited access to The Postal Museum for one year from the date of your visit and one ride on Mail Rail, valid on your first visit to the Museum.
  • As this is a popular day out, I recommend booking tickets in advance.

Tips for visiting the Mail Rail and London Postal Museum

  • No loose articles are permitted on the Mail Rail. This includes bags which you need to leave in the cages or lockers provided.
  • The Postal Museum has an excellent gift shop and café with outdoor seating.

Is the Mail Rail Worth the Ride?

London’s Mail Rail is both fun and informative, catering for all age groups.
Riding along this small stretch of track that has been hidden for so many years is a unique experience, and the history of the railway is presented in an engaging way.

It is also an excellent way to spend a few hours if you are a solo traveller in London!

PLAN YOUR TRIP TO LONDON

GETTING THERE

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STAYING THERE

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TRAVEL INSURANCE

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OTHER TRAVEL RESOURCES

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