Postal Museum, London: What it's like to ride London's hidden underground railway

Twenty-one metres below the streets of London, there is a vast, sophisticated network of railway tunnels that stretches more than 10 kilometres.

For almost a century this underground railway was the main means of communication for millions of people living in and around London. Considered to be the social network of the 1900s, the underground Mail Rail was the equivalent of email and Facebook, connecting millions of Londoners daily via postal mail.

Unbeknown to many Londoners, the complex network of Mail Rail, which operated from the 1920s until 2003, exists beneath today's London underground. At its peak, the railway ran for 10.4 kilometres from Paddington to Whitechapel and was made up of six sorting offices with a mainline railway station. Running 22 hours a day, the railway transported on average 4 million letters a day across the capital from post box to the delivery address and it employed 220 staff.

Visitors to central London's Postal Museum, which opened in late July this year, can ride on one of the railway's driverless trains, a replica of the historic trains that used to travel the railway. London's Mail Rail was the world's first railway serviced by driverless electric trains. Its introduction was hailed as a significant technological and communication innovation for a city that was suffering serious delays in postage delivery because of traffic congestion on London's streets. In those days, the postal service operated twice daily, which meant that if you sent mail in the morning, you could expect a reply by the afternoon. The frequency may seem like "snail-mail" by today's email standards, but its purpose and relevance as London's key method of communication, business or personal, reveals the enormity and scale of Mail Rail's operations.

A round-trip on the Mail Rail train, which started running in early September, takes about 15 minutes and begins at what used to be the Mount Pleasant depot. Each passenger gets a train car to themselves; it's a rather compact space but big enough for one person. My train is red and looks rather like a Lego toy. The train slowly pulls out of the platform; picking up speed as it meanders around corners in the low light  and makes short stops along the way. The ride includes montages and a story describes the railway's working life, from its 1930s heydays to World War II, as well as giving personal anecdotes from people who worked on the railway.

The museum also features several exhibitions at the same location. At the Mail Rail exhibition retired trains and large rail equipment that was used to build and maintain the railway are on display. The exhibition takes a closer look at the engineering feats behind the inception and legacy of the railway. The Postal Service exhibition features modern stamp designs, including Penny Blacks, the world's first adhesive postage stamps, a selection of retro posters and magazines from the 1950s and 60s, and post buses that were used to deliver mail to remote or rural areas.




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London's Postal Museum is open seven days a week. General admission tickets (includes Mail Rail ride and exhibitions) Adults from £14.50 ($A25) and children from £7.25 ($A12.50). The train ride operates from 10am to 5pm, Monday to Sunday, with the last train departing at 4.30pm. See

Annie Dang travelled at her own expense. VisitBritain covered entry into the museum.

See also: The three-minute guide to London's East End

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