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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 May, 2003, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
'My years working on Mail Rail'
For 75 years, a "secret" railway has carried letters and parcels across London. Now the Mail Rail is about to be closed, Amanda Smith recalls her time guiding the miniature trains.

Tracing the history of the Royal Mail's underground railway

I've been with Royal Mail for 19 years, 16 of which I've worked on Mail Rail. I started off as an administrator, and then I got promoted to controller - so I'm the Fat Controller, as it were.

I'm based at the Mount Pleasant sorting office in Farringdon, where the station is about 70 feet below ground. Coming out of the lift onto the platform, it looks not dissimilar to the London Underground. The station is a miniature version of the Tube at platform level, although the trains themselves are nothing like Tube trains - there's no driver, for one thing.

Each platform - one eastbound, one west - has three berths so three trains can be loaded with mail at a time.

Amanda Smith on the platform
Amanda Smith on the platform
But these days we only use one berth as the volume of mail has dropped. Years ago, we loaded and unloaded trains right the way up - it was a hive of activity, you couldn't hear yourself think.

Each station used to have its own controller, but today it's centralised and run by computer. There's two controllers on shift at a time, and we rotate duties. For two weeks I'm upstairs at the controls and the next fortnight I'm what's known as a travelling inspector, going to the different stations, making sure that everything's running okay.

The screen gives us two views of the railway - an overview of the network, and one on which we can focus on a particular station. It shows us every section of track, where each train is, and if there's any faults - which is very rare - we can let the engineers know where to find it.

Working here has always been like being part of a great big family - literally in some cases, as brothers and fathers and sons have worked here together. And most people who join retire here - not many have left to go to other jobs. So we've all been working together for years - the most junior person has been with Mail Rail eight years.

Mail Rail
Underground unmanned train service started in 1927
23 miles of 2ft gauge track link Whitechapel in the East End with Paddington in west London
Once it served nine stations and carried 7m bags a year
Today three stations remain and it carries half that amount
Its 76 workers will be laid off or retrained for other roles

We used to have big Christmas parties down here for kids from the local children's home, with the platform decorated like Santa's Grotto and this secret train for delivering presents.

There's a passenger carriage that only comes out for special occasions and I cadged a lift on it one day. We rode from here to Paddington and it was quite a bumpy ride. We were all packed in tight - we had to sit two to a row - but at least that stopped us rolling about too much. In between stations it was often pitch black, so it was like London's biggest ghost ride.

My last shift is on Friday, and then my colleagues on nights will close it down on Saturday morning. I doubt we'll give the railway a send off this week, as we'll be too upset to do anything. I'm not sure what I'm going to do next, whether I'll stay with Royal Mail or go somewhere else.

I wish I could remember the first time I came down here, but I'm sure I was quite amazed - I'm still amazed by it now. People are so surprised that Royal Mail has a secret railway, and I'll be one of the few who can say I worked here. I'm proud of that.

Mail Rail

I used to work at west central office. The first time I heard about the railway, I thought it was a wind up. The mail containers were called coffins, if I remember correctly.
Stephen Carlin, England

I visited London regularly with my parents. When I was about 8 or 10 years old - about 1952/4 - a friendly post office official at Mount Pleasant suggested that we apply to tour the facility. The next day we were taken around on a personal tour. We were shown the lost letter office with mail for Roy Rogers and Father Christmas. We saw part of the River Fleet (now a sewer) and the Roman wall underground at Mount Pleasant. We saw the miniature railway.
David, Canada

When I was at London University's Queen Mary College at Mile End Road in the mid-1970s, we were invited down to view the tunnel and sorting office at the nearby Whitechapel station during a visitors' day. It was fascinating to know that such a railway existed.
Tim, UK

I was first made aware of this rail system about 30 years ago, when we shown an ancient black and white film at school about the Royal Mail, explaining how letters arrived at their destinations. We were all fascinated with the secret underground part of the operation.
Annie, UK

As something of a railway enthusiast, I find the idea of a "secret railway" running beneath my city tremendously exciting. But when are they going to open it up to the public? Come on, Ken!
N Altmann, Putney

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