From mail to passengers, Britain’s latest rail attraction is a tribute to old and new

By Geoff Courtney

It surely ranks as one of the most unusual and idiosyncratic restored railways in the world, for it is noisy, cramped, uncomfortable, dark, and can even be a little intimidating. I wouldn’t describe it as fun, but fascinating it most certainly is.

Platform for success: Mail Rail communications manager, Harry Huskisson, waits to greet journalists at Mount Pleasant after their ride on Mail Rail on July 24. The train has accessed the railway’s ‘terminus’ in the former Post Office Underground Railway depot after climbing from the line below. GEOFF COURTNEY

It is also the UK’s newest restored railway, and it’s right in the heart of London, awaiting its first swathe of passengers be they locals or tourists from across the globe.

It’s Mail Rail, a ride of nearly a mile 70ft beneath the giant Royal Mail Mount Pleasant complex in Clerkenwell near King’s Cross station.

Opened in 1927 as the Post Office Underground Railway, the original 2ft gauge 6½-mile line ran from Paddington in the west of the capital to Liverpool Street and Whitechapel Road in the east, stopping at eight stations en route that were served by central London sorting offices.

As it was: The Post Office Underground Railway maintenance and repair depot at Mount Pleasant in 1927, the year the line opened. The depot has been transformed into an exhibition and hospitality centre and the embarkation point for the new Mail Rail trains, which are accessed at a new platform to the right of the central column, where train No. 01 can be seen. POSTAL MUSEUM & MAIL RAIL

The driverless electric trains – a world first – never carried passengers but up to four million letters and parcels 22 hours a day, while residents and visitors above walked the pavements or rode in cars, buses and taxis, blissfully unaware of its existence.

That existence, however, came to an end in 2003 as road transport obliterated its raison d’etre, but rather than being sealed up, the entire system of tunnels and its large underground depot at Mount Pleasant was mothballed, with maintenance continuing to be carried out by a small team.

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