Twenty years ago the £25 million Princess Royal Distribution Centre at Wembley became the hub for a national network of mail trains. PAUL SHANNON recalls the ambitious scheme, of which little remains in operation today
How a network of mail trains centred on a £25m distribution centre has been reduced to a mere handful of services.
From its earliest days the railway carried mail. Mailbags and trolleys adorned the platforms of major (and not so major) stations up and down the country, keeping up the bustle into the early hours. The Travelling Post Office (TPO) enabled the sorting of mail on the move, and became a symbol of railway efficiency.
But in many respects technology stood still. The British Rail mail and parcels network of the early 1980s had changed little for half a century - many trains comprised motley collections of elderly vans, and complicated shunting manoeuvres took up precious time and resources.
By the late 1980s, the mail and parcels business had declined to the point where change was inevitable. In the face of road competition British Rail had withdrawn its own collection and delivery service, jettisoned the carriage of Royal Mail parcels, and lost almost all newspaper traffic.
What remained was essentially Red Star parcels (which used mainly passenger trains) and Royal Mail Letters (which now had to bear the bulk of the costs associated with the van train network). And the Royal Mail Letters business was struggling - on the one on the other the service quality fell short of Royal Mail expectations.
Attempts to revitalise the Royal Mail business resulted in a new five-year contract that took effect in 1988. The contract promised a better return for the railway, but also gave Royal Mail the flexibility to withdraw from specific trains and routes, as well as the right to impose penalty payments for cancellation or late running. In practice Royal Mail was quick to cut back on peripheral operations, such as short-distance and weekend trains, and the continued use of elderly equipment made penalty payments all the more likely.
The division of British Rail into business sectors brought the mail operation into sharp focus as Royal Mail became the main customer of the Parcels sector, which in 1991 was rebranded Rail Express Systems (Res).
That rebranding brought one of the more striking and controversial livery schemes of the business sector era. The tired blue and grey of British Rail would give way to bright overall red with a grey upper band and light blue and grey flashes, the latter apparently intended to convey the impression of eagles’ wings. The livery spread to hauled stock (other than TPO vehicles, which carried Post Office red), as well as to the sector’s share of Class 08, ‘47’, ‘86’ and ‘90’ locomotives.
As the contract signed in 1988 neared its end, the bright new face of Res couldn’t hide the fact that the whole mail network was life-expired. Further tinkering would merely prolong the decline. A variety of options was considered, including the total withdrawal of rail-borne mail. In the event, the outcome was (in the short term) a happier one - in December 1993 Res and Royal Mail signed a 13-year contract to continue carrying mail by rail, with significant investment in new trains and terminals.
While traditionally there had been a lot of overlap between passenger and mail operations, the new contract involved the building of dedicated mail terminals at eight locations and the ordering of a fleet of 16 mail-only electric multiple units. This gave much greater autonomy to Res, which by this time was being prepared for sale to the private sector. The aim was to have the new mail network, dubbed Railnet, in full operation by 1996.
The sale of Res was completed in December 1995 to a consortium led by the US-based Wisconsin Central, to be known as North and South Railways Limited. It’s worth highlighting that neither of the
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covered other types of work - notably the Royal Train and charter trains - alongside its mail and parcels operations. However, Royal Mail was by far the company’s largest customer, accounting for roughly two-thirds of its £ 75 million a year turnover.
Overall, North and South Railways took responsibility for some 800 staff, 20 electric and over 100 diesel locomotives, five traincrew depots, and four traction and rolling stock maintenance depots.
It wasn’t long before North and South Railways became part of something much larger, as the same consortium that bought Res acquired the three divisions of British Rail’s Trainload Freight in February 1996.
The days of the distinctive Res identity were now numbered. By the summer of 1996, North and South Railways had renamed itself English Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS) and another rebranding exercise was launched. However, in operational terms there was little synergy between the former Res and former Trainload Freight businesses - the opportunities to mix overnight mail and heavy freight were few.
During 1996 Railnet took shape in readiness for its official September launch. The centrepiece of Railnet was the Willesden hub, which would later be known as the Princess Royal Distribution Centre (PRDC). This facility, built on railway land north of Willesden Brent sidings, had a price tag of roughly £ 25m and was the biggest rail terminus to have opened since Marylebone in 1899. With a floor area stretching to 34,000 square metres, the PRDC comprised seven electrified platform lines, each long enough for 12-coach trains with two locomotives, as well as 41 lorry bays at its north end. The signalling allowed two shorter trains to occupy a single platform if required.
While superficially the PRDC looked rather like a passenger terminus, it was very much a purpose-built facility for mail. Its platforms were 1,215mm high, rather than the usual 915mm for a passenger platform. A bespoke
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As the contract signed in 1988 neared its end, the bright new face of Res couldn’t hide the fact that the whole mail network was life-expired. Further tinkering would merely prolong the decline.
There seems to be little appetite for further expansion. Royal Mail is wedded to the speed of air and flexibility of road for most of its traffic.
between platform and train. Each York container could carry up to a quarter of a tonne of letters, tightly packed in sliding trays or (in the case of TPO trains) traditional mailbags.
The design specification of the PRDC was based on a daily throughput of 40 rail and 450 lorry movements, with the rail movements falling into a 16-hour period between lunchtime and the early hours of the morning. The terminal would handle around 12 million items a day, equating to 20% of all letters posted in the UK and some 60% of first class mail. Space was allowed inside the shed for an eighth track to cater for possible future growth. The Willesden site was chosen because of its convenient rail access from the West Coast Main Line, using railway land that needed a new purpose, and because of its proximity to London’s North Circular road.
When the PRDC sprang into action on September 30 1996, it replaced at one fell swoop the shared use of passenger termini at Euston, King’s Cross, Paddington and Liverpool Street. Night-time at those stations suddenly became a lot quieter.
Using the PRDC meant re-routeing many mail trains around the capital. Trains to and from East Anglia used the North London Line via Dalston, those to and from the East Coast Main Line were routed via Gospel Oak and the Harringay curve, and those to and from the Southern Region used the West London Line via Kensington Olympia. Trains between the PRDC and the Western Region used a turnback siding at Kensal Green to gain access to the Acton incline.
Alongside the PRDC, dedicated Railnet terminals were opened at Shieldmuir (Motherwell), Low Fell ( Tyneside), Doncaster, Warrington, Stafford, Tonbridge and Bristol Parkway. The Bristol facility was the last to come on stream in May 2000. None of these terminals rivalled the PRDC in size, but some were very busy - for example, the three-track Warrington depot was served by six trains a day in each direction, having replaced the shared use of passenger stations at Crewe, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly and Preston. Railnet continued to serve passenger stations in other parts of the country (see map, page 102).
The rolling stock for Railnet was a mixture of new and old. Pride of place went to the 16 Class 325 electric multiple units that Royal Mail had ordered in 1994 as a crucial part of its new contract. With a maximum speed of 100mph, the Class 325s could operate in four-, eight- and 12-coach formations and worked mainly on the West and East Coast Main Lines. However, they were also equipped for third rail DC operation, and ventured to Tonbridge on the former Southern Region. The Class 325s could also be locomotive-hauled when necessary - for example, if a train was diverted away from its normal electrified route.
While the Class 325s covered 18 of the 68 daily Railnet trains, time-honoured traction and rolling stock remained the order of the day on the remainder. In December 1995 the new Wisconsin-led management had inherited a sizeable fleet of ageing equipment, including 117 Class 47 diesels, 15 Class 86 electrics, five Class 90 electrics and more than 600 vans. The vans were a mixture of TPO vehicles - a limited amount of mail sorting still took place on the move - as well as standard mail vans that were either General Utility Vans (GUV) or Mk 1 Gangwayed Brakes (BG), all modified with roller shutter doors.
In addition, Railnet acquired 42 Propelling Control Vehicles. These were mail vans converted from Class 307 carriages with a driving cab at one end, designed to simplify operations at stations where trains had to reverse direction for a short distance. The PCVs were particularly useful on trains between the PRDC and the Western Region - the PCV was always marshalled at the front of the train between the PRDC and Kensal Green, with the locomotive providing power from the rear.
With the Royal Mail contract set to run until 2006, Railnet was worth investing in. The first priority for EWS was to replace the Class 47s, which were increasingly unreliable and costly to run. The company opted for a new build of diesel locomotive with 125mph capability, which could be used on passenger as well as mail and parcels duties.
Ideally EWS wanted a high-performance version of the Class 66 locomotive, which in April 1998 had just started to appear on British tracks. In practice it wasn’t so easy to adapt the Class 66 design for high-speed running. The Class 67, as it became known, was rather a different beast, sharing some internal components such as the engine and traction motors with the ‘66s’ but with twoaxle instead of three-axle bogies and with a weight-saving monocoque bodyshell.
The 30 Class 67s were assembled by Alstom in Valencia, Spain, and commissioned from late 1999 onwards. Various problems delayed their entry into service, notably the heavy loading on the two-axle bogies, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the fleet was passed for 125mph running. However, in time they turned out to be successful replacements for the Class 47s, which were eased out of their frontline duties either for less demanding work or for a oneway trip to the scrapyard.
While the Class 67s gave a welcome boost to the Royal Mail contract, they failed to allay concerns over Railnet performance as a whole. The rate of right-time arrivals dipped to 88.7%, well below the contracted figure of 95%. In addition, the high costs of using rail were again called into question. The signing of a longterm contract and Royal Mail’s ownership of the Class 325 fleet did not prevent Royal Mail from thoroughly reviewing its use of rail.
In 2002 Consignia (the short-lived trading name of Royal Mail at that time) announced that it was pulling out of sorting mail on the move, putting an end to the remaining TPO services that ran from Willesden to Dover, Low Fell, Plymouth, Carlisle, Swansea and Norwich, and on cross-country routes from Penzance to Bristol, Bristol to Low Fell and Cardiff to Shieldmuir.
Worse news came in June 2003, when Royal Mail announced that it was withdrawing completely from rail. Not only did this mean cutting short the contract with EWS, it also meant mothballing Royal Mail’s own Class 325 electric units after just seven years in service. The decision was largely determined by cost, even though EWS had reduced its price by 20%. There was also the pressing need to replace the 40-year-old TPO coaches, which did not meet modern standards of crashworthiness.
During 2003 the network of TPO and other mail trains was gradually wound down. The last TPO train reached its destination on January 10 2004, with just a few residual services for pre-sorted mail continuing into February. The PRDC at Willesden was retained for road traffic, as were the Royal Mail terminals at Warrington and Shieldmuir, but other depots were abandoned. The Class 325 units went into storage, along with the large fleet of TPO and other hauled stock that had been used mainly on non-electrified routes. The Class 67 locomotives became something of an embarrassment - it was a struggle to find suitable work for them, and some ended up on lightly-loaded trip freight workings.
Thankfully, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Within a few months GB Railfreight
was discussing options with Royal Mail for a limited return of mail trains, using Class 325 stock. The service targeted mainly bulky items, which in the internet age were forming a larger share of Royal Mail’s business.
However, there would be no return to a national network - the trains would run only on the West Coast Main Line between Willesden PRDC, Warrington and Shieldmuir.
GBRf signed its initial contract with Royal Mail on December 1 2004, covering a fourmonth period to the end of March. That contract was renewed, and as rail proved its effectiveness the service was increased to two trains a day each way. However, the Class 325s were not in the best of health - locomotive haulage was frequent, pending repairs to the electric units’ traction motors.
Further change came in June 2010 when DB Schenker (formerly EWS) took over the Royal Mail contract from GBRf. The West Coast services operated much as before, but in December of that year a weatherrelated airport closure gave DB Schenker the opportunity to run a trial mail train to Low Fell, and in May 2012 the company resumed a regular Class 325 service between the PRDC and Low Fell. Route knowledge on the East Coast Main Line had been maintained by diverting occasional Willesden-Shieldmuir trains that way.
At the time of writing, DB Cargo UK holds a contract until June 2018 to run two mail trains a day in each direction on the West Coast corridor and one on the East Coast route (see table). But even though the remaining fleet of 15 Class 325s (one was cannibalised for spares and then scrapped) is scarcely overstretched, there seems to be little appetite for further expansion. Royal Mail is wedded to the speed of air and flexibility of road for most of its traffic.
Nevertheless, from time to time the railway comes into its own for short-term opportunities. A case in point are the preChristmas mail ‘extras’ that have run between Warrington and Shieldmuir, initially using BG and GUV vans brought out of storage and more recently using internationally-registered freight vans.
As for other mail and parcels carriers in the deregulated market, it all depends on there being a critical mass of business on a particular long-distance route. For a time EWS ran what looked like a successful parcels service for DHL between Walsall, Mossend and Aberdeen, but DHL pulled out of that operation and it ended abruptly in 2007.
Taking the long-term view, the Railnet contract of 1993 was a final golden opportunity to keep mail on rail, but one that was sadly curtailed.
Viewed from a lighting tower in June 1996, the new Princess Royal Distribution Centre at Wembley is located between the West Coast Main Line on the left, and the Watford DC sidings on the right. The two overgrown tracks are the InterCity West Coast carriage lines. The PRDC had seven platforms capable of handling 12-van trains with two locomotives.