London, England

Going postal

Date April 2011
Posted March 2012
The infiltration of London's mothballed Post Office Railway
Mine and siologen's interest in finding a way down into London's 'Post Office Railway' (or Mail Rail) was rekindled one day in the autumn of 2010 by, of all things, a rave. The party in question took place at a disused former Royal Mail depot in the City. Notably a few potential attendees, trying to find a way into the building itself, ended up on the platform of a 'disused Tube station'. Their blurry mobile phone pictures told a different story.

Amongst the serial trespassers of London town, few locations evoke the same elusiveness as the much-coveted Mail Rail. This has both to do with what it is, and where it is. Let's take a moment to picture this system and consider why it might generate such interest...

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

Running approximately 20m beneath the surface of London's busy streets, most of the 10.5km stretch of line was built between 1915 and the railway's opening in late 1927. This 12 year construction plan and the necessary costs had been deemed worthwhile because of the city's congestion problems back in 1911 when the plans were drawn up. Those plans were realised in the form of a twin-track private narrow-gauge railway network, completing most of its course through 2.7m steel-lined tunnels. The operational rolling stock was electric, power collected by the locomotives of each unit from a 'third rail' mounted between each pair of running rails. In total 9 stations were constructed, complete with platforms and mail chutes, and two of these were located at mainline railway stations. And so by these means up to 4 million letters were moved across London each day until May 2003, when the facility was shut down after Royal Mail somehow concluded that the post could be moved by road transport for 20% of the cost.

And so there it all sat in a 'mothballed' state, more-or-less (one presumes) left alone by Royal Mail until that early hours invasion by the ravers more than 7 years later. During this time it became the dream of various under-city explorers to access the system, both for its uniqueness and for the obvious challenge of doing so.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

Several nights later and I stood in the giant ground floor loading bay of the ravers' depot, the room strewn with rubbish, mainly empty bottles. The whole scene was brightly illuminated by a number of halogen builder's lamps on yellow stands. Just as the wayward partygoers had been disappointed that they couldn't find a way into this theatre of destruction, I felt similarly disheartened that there was no obvious way down into the tunnels below.

After gaining illegal access to the premises the two of us had begun our investigation. Over the previous hour we'd noisily ploughed paths through the detritus, scouring the ground floor and basement levels for some way down. There must be stairs, lift shafts or mail chutes, surely? Instead all we found were dark flooded voids, and nothing that seemed to offer passage to the Mail Rail. My frustration was cut short as siologen turned in silence and began gesturing wildly. Looking over my shoulder I couldn't work out what he was trying to tell me. The giant Australian crept over and whispered in my ear, before pointing to the corner behind him where a security guard sat reclined in an office chair, fast asleep. We left, quickly.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

Back outside and the available possible entrances to the system seemed to number one less until we discovered that the fire escape used by the ravers was not accessible from inside the building after all. But alas the external door to the stairs had been replaced, and was seemingly impenetrable. A poorly planned attempt to mobilise a demolition squad and smash a hole through an internal wall to access the staircase ran aground when we found the resident guard still there (and awake this time) several weeks later. Probably just as well, too: later we discovered that these access points have internal doors, and alarms. Loud ones.

Henceforth we took to visiting other depots, some disused, others showing signs of life. Notably the Whitechapel depot looked promising until I drunkenly hammered on the back door one night to ascertain if it was manned. And manned it was, and the man did not look impressed at the kebab-sauce-smeared face pressed retard-like up against the window.

Post Office Railway, London

By April of the following year my interest had waned, or more likely I'd been conveniently distracted by weekend trips abroad. Fresh as I was from several nights of sub-city fun in Stockholm, siologen's text message provided a welcome invasion to my working day: the coveted Mail Rail had been breached, and he was going back tonight. And, crucially, did I want 'in'? Work responsibilities summarily dealt with (Alt+F4) I threw a towel at Fox (who, apparently tired of my cynical quips, had fallen asleep on the floor) and told her to get her things together. After snatching up my ever-ready Black Diamond pack I yelled downstairs to the butler to get the Rolls warmed up. We were heading south, post haste.

The five of us sat around a wooden table, drinks before us, talking about our plan in a similar discreet manner to that with which Fawkes and co might've forged their plot a little over 400 years earlier. For all around us were the enemy, all be they conveniently dressed in attire that identified them so: bright orange Royal Mail vests. After shifts (or maybe even before them) these men were each enjoying a pint of their own at the same pub, oblivious to the intentions of the handful of grubby twenty-somethings sat outside. With time to spare we exchanged stories of recent travels and I learned the story of the previous night's adventures in the Post Office Railway.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

It had been a London based explorer going by the name of Statler who'd first identified the possible entry point. And, once I'd been shown it, the whole thing seemed obvious, not least because myself and siologen had loitered right by the big clue on several occasions whilst scoping out a different objective. But then, so often this is the way. Statler was joined by SM who conducted a more detailed investigation, found that it was 'on', and so the night before that first entry had taken place. In this fashion they'd managed to slide the pieces of one of London's most exclusive underground puzzles into place. Despite all this, getting back in wouldn't be straightforward, and came with the considerable risk of being caught in the act. But then, who'd want to have it any other way?

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

As quickly as possible we completed the obstacle course, dropping one by one into the shaft that would lead us to the prize. Soon we arrived down in the system, peering out from an alcove into a small single-track tunnel, darkness in one direction and lights in the other. Moving quietly in the lit direction we emerged at a junction, several other single-track tunnels opening into the cavity and merging into a single pair of lines, and beyond the junction we could see our first station.

With caution we proceeded onto the platform, passing beneath CCTV cameras as we did so using the assumption that there's little chance that they'd actually be monitored without good reason. As far as we knew we'd crept in without being noticed. And besides, the prize here was too good, and we knew that we have a good few kilometres yet. Somewhere way up above our heads was some noise, the banging of mail trolleys or something, for of course we were beneath a Royal Mail depot, and would be again as we navigated this 10km transect beneath London. Security risks? Or security embarassment risks? Because they'd be embarassed for sure. I smiled (a rare occurrance, I know) at the thought and we kept moving quickly.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

As the hours tripped back over to single figures we were still going. The excitement and satisfaction with which we'd first entered the system hadn't worn off, and how could it? We traipsed along through this network of tunnels, sidings, cross-overs and loops going off in all directions. The next station we arrived at was in a sorry state, and had apparently fallen into disuse some time before the railway was mothballed. It's worth a mention because of the contrast with the active stations. Maybe one day the whole system will be abandoned, only to be later discovered looking as rotten as this part, from end to end. Who knows what'll happen to it. We perused various bits of broken locomotive, old signs and other junk and then kept going. There was still a long way to go, and things were going to get even better.

A few km along and we emerged into probably the best station yet. At New Oxford Street we found trains aplenty here parked up and gathering dust. The other aspects of the station (control centre, signage and other artefacts) all gave a clear reminder that nothing had really been done with the railway since it'd been shut down. Quietly I wondered what it must've been like to see it all in use or, better, ride from one end to the other.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

Being as it was a self-contained system there was the requirement for maintenance and repairs to be carried out by specially trained staff, down there beneath the ground. Of course, the rolling stock could be winched out of the tunnels if needed, but that would hardly be cost-effective. The 'car depot' we knew to be located at the Mount Pleasant depot in the centre of London, and furthermore some quick online research revealed that it was at basement level. This would put us closer to the staff and security (Mount Pleasant is very much active, and if security guards were monitoring anything other than a Daily Star, then this is where they were doing it), and therefore increase the risk of being caught. As the heart of the system, it had to be seen. Buoyed by the complacency of getting away with so much already we followed the gentle incline of the connecting tunnel, leaving the main line behind us.

The car depot was unreal, pure porn to nerds of our calibre. Machinery, old 1925 rolling stock, sidings, and of course all lit up. Somewhere could be heard the distant hum of a transformer, and above and around us we knew the building to be manned, but by now we were past caring.

Post Office Railway, London, England (2011) courtesy of

It was sometime in the early hours that we elected to make our exit. This would be done via one of those stairwells up to the surface. The doors were wired up and we had a fair idea what was going to happen next. Gathered together, bags checked, everytihng set and the doors were shoved open with the hope that no cops would be parked outside. As anticipated the silence was cracked by the ear-splitting cry of the intruder alarms but the streets were empty. We tumbled out onto the street, slammed the door shut and hustled away, disappearing into the night amongst the street sweepers, delivery vans and night workers.
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