Visit the se­cret tun­nels be­neath Lon­don

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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