Go­ing postal Mail by rail

Classic Car Weekly (UK) - - The Way We Were -

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.


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