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

Rail (UK) - - Contents -

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

‘R il t ’ d

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

t flifti ‘d bid ’ lt td

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.

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