Visit the secret tunnels beneath London
IT WAS the early years of the 20th century and London had a parcel problem.
Before World War I, the streets of the largest city in Europe were choked with buggies and, increasingly, inventions called motor cars.
Postal workers carrying the lifeblood of commerce and communication found themselves stuck behind stalled horses or marooned by the capital city’s notorious fog. So the city fathers concocted a solution for the growing mail crisis – go underground.
And with that, the Mail Rail system was born. The 10.5km-long network of tunnels sits 20m below street level. Its heartbeat was electric-powered, driverless trains that shuttled mail beneath the city for nearly a century.
“It was quite a remarkable thing for what they did in the 1920s,” said historian Peter Johnson. “They basically kept it going until the inter- net killed it. People started using email.”
Now, nearly a decade after the Mail Rail system was mothballed, it is being resurrected – but to shuttle people, not parcels. Starting in July, the tunnels, tracks and replicas of cars will be used to take visitors to the National Postal Museum on a tour of the city’s past.
As early as 1855, London leaders worried about mail delays began hatching plans for an underground network of parcel trains, but the costs in the 19th century always proved too high.
What would become the Mail Rail was the brainchild of a feasibility committee set up in 1909. Construction began in 1914. That was also the beginning of World War I and, although digging continued as England was sucked into the turmoil, metal at that time went to guns and ammunition, not railroad tracks. Thus, tunnels were dug, but tracks were not laid until later.
According to Johnson, mail rail traffic hit a peak in 1962, but even two decades after that, a Post Office survey found the rail could still deliver letters for 40 percent less than the cost of moving letters by road.
By 2003, that equation had flipped. Roads were expanded and improved, Johnson said. And transport by truck was more economical. The mail rail system was shut down. – Washington Post