For as long as I can remember explorers have joked, discussed and cried themselves to sleep over the possibility the Post Office Railway could be explored. Those keen to attempt entry desperately clawed at every scrap of information like a starving hobo snacking on bread crumbs. Just the idea of access, let alone the task of traversing the line seemed fraught with impossible obstacles and doubt.
With all the abandoned postal depots now converted or with a foot thick dump of concrete covering what would have been access below, all potential avenues of access pointed solely to the infiltration of live postal depots. In other words, somehow getting into a site and its central building, working your way down an unknown route through a series of passages, locked doors, workers and alarms until you somehow found your way into the basement and with it the depots Mail Rail station. In other words, impossible.
It is without a doubt the Mail Rail sits at the throne of London exploration, laughing maniacally at the puny adventurers unable to even stare it in the eyes without bursting into flames. There is, and will never be anything like it again, its uniqueness forever unrivalled, London’s final unconquered “Grail” now a slain beast.
In a way, it’s with a bit of sadness I write this, when your group has conquered the best location a city or country has to offer, those sites remaining will often seem tame by comparison. Its like fighting the last boss in an RPG, nine times out of ten when you defeat it, the games ends, leaving you little choice but to remember the good times, go out and buy another to spend the next six years of your life playing. However, if on occasion the game doesn’t end, you’re left to venture forth, the world opening for mini side quests and the possibility for 100% completion. This may seem fun and may occupy you for a while longer, but in the back of your mind and in your heart, you know deep down the satisfaction you once gained is gone forever, it packed its bags and moved abroad.
I had the same experience with the exploration of sewers. Back in 2005 I would crawl on my hands and knees squeezing my way up a 3ft, never-ending concrete pipes only to find a dead end or smaller tunnel, but I enjoyed it, going back for more week after week. Yet after discovering some of the Victorian lost rivers and storm drains, this once enjoyable activity instantly lost its appeal, in fact it became frustrating. I could do this now anyway because I’m fatter then I was six years ago and no longer fit in said 3ft pipes, but now I don’t even consider them an option or viable route. I guess I became a ”Sewer Snob”, if there is such a term, spoilt by bigger and better things. In fact it’s been the same across the entire board of exploration. Asylums, mills, bunkers, forts, all things I once enjoyed with equal passion, now nothing more then a space to kill some time. But then there was always Mail Rail, lurking in the background.
I think after time people just gave up with the Mail Rail. Many tried, all failed, it was branded impossible and we all just moved on. That was until last Halloween, when a group of ravers infiltrated the abandoned New Oxford Street sorting office. As with the outcome of most raves, vandals also turned up, utterly destroying the building, smashing windows, covering the walls with graffiti and ripping doors and fire escapes from their hinges.
The following day the Internet was ablaze with images and news articles condemning the rave, yet for explorers three pictures stood out from the rest. One depicting a set of double fire escape doors hanging from the wall, the other two, phone shots posted on Flickr from inside the station slumbering beneath. You’ve got to be joking, the Mail Rail, something which thwarted those who specialise in accessing abandoned structures, conquered by a group of party-goers with glow sticks. To be fair it was the result of extreme circumstances, drunk people, strength in numbers, all without a care. Unless you were willing to rock up on one of the busiest streets in London, several crowbars in tow, you weren’t going to get in anyway.
By the time we had arrived hoping the doors would still be open, they had been fixed, thick sheets of wood sealing them together. Although we had failed to gain access this time it did let us know one thing, that access from the abandoned depots, no matter how impractical, still existed. Quest De La Mail Rail was back on.
Fast forward a few months, Silent Motion and Statler while on a mission elsewhere inadvertently spotted a potential climb into the Paddington sorting office. Now when I say climb I don’t mean a small wall or fence, I mean a five story, rusty drain pipe shimmy of death that few in the right mind would ever think, or have the ability to do. Its the only reason I’m revealing what are effectively access details as I don’t know anyone who will be able to do it. Even standing on the ground I felt nervous as SM climbed, one slip, one loss of grip and the result would be a bloody mess on the roof of the small Peugeot parked below. With a few clangs he was in, those within the area seemingly none the wiser.
We hadn’t heard from our conspirator for over twenty minutes but the guard within hadn’t moved so we knew he wasn’t caught. Time ticked away, theories of what happening running through our minds before we heard a click behind us, SM sticking his house from a fire-escape, a large grin on his face as he simple said, “we’re in.”
For those who don’t know here is a brief history on the Post Office Railway, if you want more I suggest you look up Sub-Brit, their countless years of sitting in chairs has resulted in quite the in-depth collection of historical fact and technical nerdery regarding the place. The following is mainly the interesting bits plucked from theirs and other pages.
Originally designed using a pneumatic system in 1855, after years of testing, tunnel construction and usage its limitation began to show. The Post Office who were already unhappy with its high running costs, coupled with the fact the scheme only shaved four minutes from the delivery time by road decided in 1874 that they would no longer use the line, the Pneumatic Despatch Company being dissolved as the tunnels were closed. The pneumatic line would never reopen, its tunnels and depots being sold off for alternate uses and although the majority of the line was lost, small sections still remain housing cables.
Even before the demised of the Pneumatic line, several plans had been put forward recommending a similar mail delivery system, most promoting usage of electrified lines. In 1909 a committee was established to consider all the proposed schemes, eventually recommending a 2′ gauge, twin electric line to be constructed in a 70-foot deep tunnel running from the Paddington District Office to the Eastern District Office in Whitechapel Road. The line with a length of six miles and total track distance of 23 miles would run through intermediate stations at the Barrett Street, Wimpole Street, New Oxford Street, the main London sorting office at Mount Pleasant, King Edward Street and Liverpool Street.
Construction of the tunnels began on February 1915 from a series of shafts located along the route. The tunnels were primarily dug in clay using the Greathead shield system, although the connecting tunnels in and around the stations were mined by hand. Construction was suspended due to the outbreak of WW1, but was allowed to continue until completion for safety reasons. Further setbacks halted the construction of the stations during 1917 due to the shortage of labour and materials.
It wasn’t until June 1924 that workers began laying the track using 1000 tons of running rail and 160 tons of conductor rail. The remaining electrical installation took place in 1925 with the section between Paddington and the West Central District Office being ready for training. The line was eventually finished in 1927 with the first letter through the system running on February 1928.
In 1954, due to problems with access at the Western District Office and the Western Central District Office plans were drawn up to construct a new Western District Office at Rathbone Place. This meant the construction of a diversion to the line, which was completed in 1958 although the station was not opened until the 3rd August, 1965.
Although the main tunnel was constructed at a depth of 70ft, the stations themselves were constructed at a much shallower depth, for two reasons. One, the mail had less distance to travel to the platforms from the surface, and two, the incline on the track as the train approached the station helped slow the trains, assisting with acceleration on the other side.
Initially the Mail Rail line ran 22 hours a day, its staff working in three shifts. The two hours the line wasn’t in operation it was used by the maintenance team, with larger tasks being carried out on a Sunday when the line was closed. This service was later reduced to 19 hours a day, 286 days a year.
Although initially the system was a success, in its last years of service the line was continually loosing money. On the 7th November 2002, Royal Mail announced the line had become uneconomical with losses of £1.2M a day and that they planned to close it should no alternate uses be found. This was to be the death of the Mail Rail. The line from Mount Pleasant to the Eastern Delivery Office closed on the 21st March 2003, the remaining section from the Western District Office to Mount Pleasant following on the 29th. Now it just sits there buried where light cannot reach, rusting away, the trains sleeping silently in and around the stations waiting to be used again. Sadly a dream which we all know will never come true.
With access acquired we speedily descended into the bowels of the sorting office. The cameras, alarms and PIRs at every corner seemingly inactive. Paddington, which was closed in February 2010 as a result of the sorting office above being relocated to Rathbone Place is still in very good condition, the postal delivery belts still sit in place, the switch boards and power-relays in working condition, seemingly preserved within the damp environment.
As no one had ever explored the Mail Rail we had no idea what to expect, our only frame of reference coming from archive and other images on the sub-brit and unofficial Mail Rail page. So far the cameras and alarms had been somewhat avoidable, excluding the sneaky ones hidden above doors. As the final bulkhead creaked open, a musky smelling darkness greeted us on the other side.
We stepped out torches in hand, checking for further cameras and alarms. Surprisingly, there were none, or so we thought. Presuming the coast was clear we momentarily lowered our guard, stepping out onto the platform. With a bright flash of light the station lit up, a nearby PIR triggering a flood light under which sat a brand new camera. Like a deer mesmerised by the beam of a car’s headlight we stared straight at it, attempting in vain to cover ourselves when we saw the camera.
We hesitated, awaiting a response that never came. No alarms, angry security, postal workers, police dogs, nothing. Were the cameras watched? Maybe, but why? The Mail Rail had been mothballed since 2003 and as far as I was aware, considering there had been no successful attempts at entry outside of the Halloween rave, it was highly unlikely they would employ someone to look at blank screens for months on end.
The floodlight eventually dimmed, plunging the station back into darkness. Concluding the cameras were being recorded at best we threw caution to the wind, covering the cameras with excess items of clothing just to be sure. Flicking a nearby switch kindly labelled ”platform lights” the station buzzed and hummed, its lights springing into life one by one in quick succession.
With over six miles of track and nine stations to see we didn’t hang around for too long, poking our heads into the nooks and crannies, taking some photos before dropping onto the line and venturing into the portals. For the most part the tunnels themselves are standing height, there are a few section that require stopping down. Thankfully, they usually last no more then a hundred meters, where the track splits just before reaching a station.
The sections between stations are fairly uninteresting, once you leave the control area of each the line joins into one straight tunnel until reaching the next with little variance in between. Eventually we arrived at the next station, the Bird Street Western Parcels Office.
The Western Parcels Office was closed even before the mail rail was mothballed, primarily due to a lack of road access to the depot above. Everything had been stripped, the emergency exits bricked and sealed with partitions placed along the platforms.
As I said, little remained of the station bar the tunnels themselves, even the turn around loops and layups for the trains had been sealed off. It is also worth noting that this was the only station didn’t have cameras given the only way to access it would be to walk in from either Paddington or Wimpole. It didn’t take long before we had seen everything it had to offer, venturing off once more along the line.
Next stop, the Old Western Delivery Office at Wimpole Street. With a similar fate to Bird Street, the Wimpole office was closed long before the line and for the same reason of access problems. However unlike Bird Street, Wimpole was replaced by a new sorting office which was to be constructed further along the line at Rathbone Place, but we’ll get to that later.
Wimpole, again due to the early closure was stripped of all its features, a few tools and items suggested it was at one point used for storage. Once more the exits were sealed although this time the sidings and loop remained open, a few locomotives rusting away inside, covered in the fallen paint from the tunnels.
Moving on then.
So far our trip had been fairly casual, the sorting offices we were under abandoned, converted or disused. Next we would come to Rathbone Place, being the newest of London’s sorting office it was very much active. Even as we approached the station the banging and crashing of mail trolleys could be heard.
We edged closed and closer pausing at every sound, judging how far and in which direction it came from. Sitting at the portal we assessed our options, the moment we were to step out we knew the lights would fire up and we would be visible to the cameras. Before now we didn’t really worry as if anyone was watching them they were far away at Mount Pleasant. Having only seen a small percentage at the time, we didn’t want to risk capture for what is essentially one of the bland stations.
Eventually, after twenty minutes sitting in the dark we decided to skip it over, running the platform and continuing onto the next station. 3, 2, 1, Run. We darted from our safety, as predicted no more then two minutes from our hole the lights fired on illuminating our path but at the same time exposing us to both platform cameras. Faces partially covered we ducked into the eastbound portal, continuing at a brisk place until we were well out of the stations view.
Although we didn’t take photos on this instance, as we had to backtrack to our exit point we re-passed it later in the night, the house lights now on, silence from the depot above. Taking the moment as a golden gift we promptly took some photos before continuing our journey out.
Rathbone was unique in its design, its platform sat as an open plan island sandwiched between the east and westbound lines, the steel tunnel at this point replaced with flat concrete walls. It was reminiscent of a New York Subway, I don’t know if this was a good thing or not. Nevertheless the station was completely intact, trains, york carts, post belts, everything remained. This was the one station, with the exception of Mount Pleasant, I could see being re-used for its original purpose without any restoration work.
Yet again we continued, bumping our heads on the ceiling and stomping forward towards our next destination, the New Oxford Street Sorting Office. If you have read what I’ve previously written you’ll know that this is the location of the 2010 Halloween rave, the station that was accessed with the glow-sticks. If not, then your probably not reading this either so continue scrolling.
Given the state of the topside office I feared the station below would be utterly trashed, but no, it wasn’t. In fact I was hard pushed to see any damage at all caused by the revellers, most resulting from natural decay. Actually, excluding a beer can or two and a small tag at the top of the emergency escape, there was no sign the station had even been accessed.
It seemed they left the place well enough alone, returning back to the music above instead. Personally I felt New Oxford Street station was one of the best. It has all its features, trains, signs, only one camera and just enough natural decay that you knew you were exploring something.
With almost half the line now walked, the centre point of Mount Pleasant just around the corner, we decided now would be a good time to have a snack break, taking refuge in the crossovers between the platforms before planning our assault on the Eastern Branch.
With stomachs satisfied, strength in our legs returning we pushed on, 50% still to see. Next along the route, the Mount Pleasant sorting office. Mount Pleasant is effectively the centre of the line, home to the headquarters of Royal Mail and also includes the largest sorting office in London. In other words, a place you do not want to be caught messing around near.
Our vigilance now maxed we checked every corner for cameras and alarms. Unlike the other stations everything was powered, the lights, fans and almost certainly, the cameras. The latter of which there were many, counting at least eight. Previously we had spent time wandering the platforms, taking photographs accordingly, but here something just didn’t feel right. It seemed a bad idea to hang around in the area, let alone stop and crack out the tripod.
Stealth in mind we snuck from portal to portal, taking pictures of the trains and platforms from out protective cover, enjoying the time while we had it. Thanks to information available online we had learnt that the Mount Pleasant sorting office was also home to the maintenance depot, where they fix the broken trains and used to store them.
Pictures taken, we packed away, cutting back the way we came up the central siding and into the maintenance depot above. Although fairly empty in terms of trains, the machinery and cranes did give an accurate depiction on what life would have been like during service. A follow the line trail of rails bobbed and weaved around the hanger, a few locomotives sitting dismantled in the corner.
By this point I don’t even think we were underground, we were in the building’s basement at best, the noise from the depot above louder then ever. We were pushing our luck, one door stood between us and a team of mail workers, every bang, every crash setting us on edge. If they were to arrive we had two options. Give up and face the consequences, or run back into the tunnels, three miles back to Paddington and hope that they weren’t waiting for us at the other side. Neither seemed like fun.
Descending back into the underground we were now tasked with crossing the station, although unlike Rathbone, given the lights were on, we were a little on edge. Nevertheless with the choices of give up or go forward, we chose the latter, tripods in hand running the length of the platform in seconds and back into the relative safety of the tunnels.
By now we were starting to lag, four miles of walking which in itself doesn’t seem like much becomes a whole new ball game underground. That, coupled with the fact however far we walked, we would have to repeat walking back, meant suggestions of turning back now were now cropping up. After all, walking about fourteen miles in one day is the same a short marathon.
But this is the Mail Rail, possibly the best that London has the offer, the idea of leaving only to return to find it sealed depressing. As such we pushed on walking further, deeper into the line, eventually reaching the next abandoned station located underneath the King Edward Building.
Once more as the building above was sold off for alternate use the station below was cleared of anything of use and sealed, the lift shafts and stairwells capped, emergency exit signs now pointing towards Mount Pleasant. Although similar to both Bird and Wimpole, the King Edward station at least had its power-relays intact and for some reason was swept clean. I guess Royal Mail or its maintenance engineers have some special feelings towards this one? Or not.
As quickly as we came we left, our stays in each station becoming shorter and shorter, likely due to fatigue. Two more to go.
For us, the next station, Liverpool Street, held more opportunities then just that of the Mail Rail. As you may be aware our fascination with the London Underground has taken us to places many have never seen before, as such, an abandoned station so close to the main line Liverpool Street station had the possibility to give access to further possibilities and locations down the line. It was not to be passed up.
However it was not to be, like all of the Mail Rail, stations of which the depots and sorting offices above had been sold off, any connection to the surface now sat behind a wall of concrete. That is usually true, but here we saw two possibilities. One was a goods lift at the foot of the station that still appeared to be in operation, the buttons marked basement, ground, and station still glowing red. Yet given we had no clue as to where the lift actually went, who would be at the top and what we happen if we pushed one of the buttons, we left them alone.
The second was a spiralled fire escape which appeared to still have access to the surface. The only problem being where the power had been off for so long the sumps had also ceased to function, said fire escape now sitting across a thigh deep pit of dirty water. With no waders and the postal belts on either side looking like they would fall over if human weight was put on them we gave up. Access to the tube, if it even existed, was not to be given that night.
Time was ticking on, fast approaching 3am. With one station left to see we attained our second wind, charging into the tunnels like a marathon runner for the finish line.
After walking at least 7 miles of track we finally reached the Whitechapel Eastern Delivery Office, the terminus of both the Mail Rail line and also our adventure. So, what is there to be said about the ninth mail rail station that hasn’t already?
Given Whitechapel is the only Mail Rail station on the eastern branch that sits under an active depot, it remains the most intact. All its fixtures, machines and trains sat in a neat order, hoping to be used again. This once more came with a downside – there were workers, and lots of them. We were forced to repeatedly ditch our photograph opportunities and run into the tunnels, the stations lift shafts in constant motion although never actually reaching the station floor.
Although they had no reason to come down given the station hasn’t been active for eight years, we still couldn’t take that chance, knowing the one time we decided not to run away the lift would reach the station and confrontation would no doubt ensue. Caution was the word, creeping about taking pictures the name of the game. The usual.
So far the night had been unreal, Grail busting of the highest order, but what now. With practically everything of interest now stricken from London, visited time and time again, it seemed high time we look further afield. Paris, USA, Australia, all contained possibilities to entertain for the immediate years. But we didn’t have to make any decisions then, we had plenty of think about it on the six miles back to the exit.