Going postal Mail by rail
For many years, British railways carried the majority of postal traffic around the UK, and the apparatus to facilitate the quick and efficient transfer of mailbags was a familiar lineside feature.
If you’ve seen the famous 1936 documentary film Night Mail or owned an OO gauge train set as a child, you will know about the specially fitted travelling post office coaches. Basically, these enabled mailbags to be automatically picked up and dropped off via lineside equipment, meaning that the train did not have to stop at intermediate stations to allow the mail to be loaded and unloaded.
At Huntingdon station there are two northbound tracks, the slow and fast lines. Equipment for the automatic collection of mailbags was positioned by the slow line; when this was not in use, it would be shifted out of the way to the side of the line, but when a train with a fitted TPO was due, it would be swung out with a mailbag hanging on the arm, which would be safely scooped up and swept aboard the passing train. That was the theory, anyway.
The late Eric Sawford, a noted transport author and photographer, lived at Huntingdon and had spent part of his career working for the Royal Mail. One day he and a colleague drove their van with a mailbag to the lineside for collection by the TPO. They duly hung the bag on the hook and swung the arm out across the track, ready for collection by the approaching train. However, the signalman had obviously had a bright idea that day and had routed the train on the fast line – a considerable distance from the mailbag dangling uselessly by the slow line! As a result, the train had to be held at Peterborough while the mailbag was delivered to the station by road.
The Nene Valley preserved railway in nearby Wansford, Cambridgeshire is one of the few locations in the country where you can actually see the operation of mail exchange on the move. It even holds a special Royal Mail Weekend on 25-26 June. There is also a chance to try your hand at sorting the post in a genuine mail coach at the station. The Nene Valley Railway’s Classic Car Sunday is held on 24 July.