Published on January 27th, 2020 | by Sam Rose

Looking Back at Rail Mail – The Post Office on Tracks

The Post Offices we walk into or notice on the high street are much more conventional than in earlier years. Here we highlight Rail Mail, and how the Post Office once used to deliver mail via train tracks.

If you’ve never come across the term ‘rail mail’, then you might not be aware that the Post Office we often take our letters and parcels to and collect from in the present day once took the form of Travelling Post Offices – carriages which were specially adapted and put on mail delivery routes during Victorian times.

The use of rail mail and Travelling Post Offices came at a great risk to both workers and the public as the carriages would often travel at speeds of up to 70mph on train tracks, with workers having to sort mail ready for dispatch during stopping points at towns on each route.

These Travelling Post Offices have become an important part of the Post Office’s rich history so we thought we would take a quick trip back in time to uncover more about this now-defunct service and the impact it has had on the mail delivery as a whole.

When Were Travelling Post Offices First Created?

Travelling Post Offices were first established following an agreement made between the General Post Office and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1830.

The very first example of the earliest recorded Travelling Post Office was a train carriage converted from it’s original use as horsebox, with mail being sorted during the carriages journey on the Grand Junction Railway.

Due to the Railways Act of 1838 coming into effect, it was decided that more special train carriages would need to be created in order for Postmasters to abide by the law, and railway companies would begin to carry mail on locomotive routes around the country.

These special carriages attached to trains that carried out rail mail were termed as Travelling Post Offices and were used in many British Commonwealth countries, with the Army Post Office also utilising this form of transport for its mailing duties too.

Flashing forward to 1963 (also known as the year of the Great Train Robbery), it was said that there were 49 mail trains in operation, with at least one to five Travelling Post Offices being attached to many passenger trains.

To further meet the public’s mailing needs, complete Travelling Post Office trains were also put into operation and would travel on routes between London, Aberdeen and Penzance.

Why Was a Big Part of Rail Mail – Travelling Post Offices Eventually Phased Out?

The decline of Travelling Post Offices and rail mail in general was put down to a number of factors, with suggestions prevalent that timetabling conflicts, the dangerous nature of workers having to sort mail on moving trains and the cost of the service were at blame.

There are also the dramatic changes that were made when British Rail was privatised during the mid 1990’s that could hold the reasoning as to the abandonment of these rail mail services, as before being privatised, the Travelling Post Offices were ran by Rail Express Systems, who were succeeded by EWS.

A decision was made in 2003 however, that would ultimately put an end to rail mail and the usage of Post Offices on tracks, when the Royal Mail suspended all forms of transportation of mail by the rail industry.

After a phased service withdrawal period, the very last Travelling Post Office ran one final route on the evening of the 9th of January 2004.

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