Stop making our Postal Rail a tourist attraction and get back to it carrying mail!

The Royal Mail infrastructure of tunnels that connect East London Whitechapel with the Ventral London Mount Pleasant Postal Sorting Office and the West London Paddington Station and which was closed in 2003 will scandalously reopen in September 2017 as a Postal Museum tourist attraction called “Mail Ride” (see here).

The network once built by the taxpayers purse,  which was in operation for 76 years, between 1927 and 2003, was argued in 2003 to be too expensive to be continued to operate and repair. Royal Mail claimed it was five times more costly than transportation by trucks on roads. The Communications Union (CWU) countered at the time, however, that these costs were hyped up.

Royal Mail proceeded to move much of the post that went through the tunnels onto road based trucks which increased traffic on roads throughout the city.  A Greater London Authority (GLA) Study in 2013 noticed that this increase was equivalent to an extra 80 lorry journies per week on London roads, with a not insignificant environmental impact (dust particles and noise pollution)  See The Future of Rail Mail, GLA, April 2013.

At the time of the closure, Royal Mail faced losses of nearly 1/2 bn. Pounds (£484 Mio), which let, in the end, to the national service’s complete sale by the edict of thee Conservative government in 2015.

The closure of the Postal Rail was criticized however not only by the Communication Workers Union at the time but also by the Greater London Authority (GLA), the authority responsible for London’s main roads. The GLA opposed the closure, especially on the aforementioned environmental grounds.  They recommended that steps should be undertaken to make the line efficient again. Further, there was criticism by Steve Jones of the CWU that the line had been deliberately run down by Royal Mail and that

“We think we could very, very quickly move to a break even. If you start bringing new work into the business, you could probably make a profit.”

A secret investigation by a group calling itself the Consolidation Crew revealed in 2011 that the tracks and tunnels were all in relatively good shape. Whilst their exploration was from an urban sociological perspective, it suggested also that the network could easily be reopened if there was any will. See http://www.placehacking.co.uk/2011/04/24/security-breach-london-mail-rail/

In spite of intense discussions about the congestion on London’s roads and the pollution it caused, Royal Mail, now a private company, no longer felt it would be right to consider using the tunnel network and getting lorries off the road.

Instead, in an almost cynical move, part of the tunnels are now going to be used for museum tours,  costing £14.50 or £16.50 with a donation to normal paying adults, where visitors can have a ride on purpose-built trains along the old tracks. UK national media like the BBC and the Guardian have been invited for pre-opening tours, but their reports lacked any critique or awareness of the controversial history of the closure, focusing on but what the Postal Museum wanted to get out, namely “here is a history-themed “fun ride” ( See BBC Report and  Guardian Report).

The Kings Cross Community, which is part of the London population that had to tolerate the increase of 80 Royal Mail lorries per week alongside many other areas on already overloaded and congested roads, sees Royal Mail traffic through its roads as a problem. We have seen little signs of willingness or cooperation to change traffic from the Mount Pleasant Central sorting office to less polluting vehicles or electric vehicles for example or to offer any solutions to mitigate the environmental impact of their road-based transportation. They like to stay quiet and out of the discussions on this. Yet one partial solution was and continues to be right underneath the renovated postal office, an idea that worked, and was built by previous generations exactly at the time that London road congestion became an increasing problem.

It is rather hypocritical to state that the tunnels are not able to carry mail any longer, but are good enough for human transportation, in fact, that a purpose built locomotive and compartments that can carry people were ordered for the purpose, and that Royal Mail believes that it can advertise these rides, which can be pre-booked now for its opening in September 2017, without controversy or argument.  One poster doing so was seen at Kings Cross Underground station itself, an offence to all tube using local residents of Kings Cross when you consider that part of our mail could also take the tube, rather than the truck.

It is a scandal that it took this community blog to highlight the controversy and hypocrisy of the scheme and expose it for what it is: A shallow money-making enterprise on the backing of a proud and futuristic scheme erected once by the public purse by gone by generations for the greater good. In fact, it is a scheme that was way ahead of its time, and in the climate of trying to reduce congestion and polluting traffic it ought to be considered to be more than just the latest London tourist attraction to yield money from rides, but its operation restarted and in fact, the track network extended.

Post ed. Aug 2018. The revamped postal museum is doing well.  What would visitors and tourists care for? Above true expose has received but little attention, and now the museum is a finalist for the art fund as well. This is how it goes in the corporate world, where nobody is prepared to look too closely anymore! It is only Londoners who carry the impact of the added 80 lorries per week. One wonders if we were ever consulted on what we thought, nor does it seems were our elected representatives in the GLA, who at first had highlighted the issue, able to keep track of what happened.

 

 

 

About Daniel Zylbersztajn

Daniel Zylbersztajn
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3 Responses to Stop making our Postal Rail a tourist attraction and get back to it carrying mail!

  1. Pingback: August 2017 – Postal News – Postal Employee Network

  2. Albert Beale says:

    From: Albert Beale, 5 Caledonian Road

    Daniel – well done for this!

    At the time the Post Office Railway was closed, it was said not to be only a matter of total cost, but a function of the subdivision of the old Post Office / Royal Mail into separate trading subsidiaries, when they first talked of privatising it all, many years ago. I was told that the problem was a squabble between Royal Mail, the letters department, and Parcel Force, the parcels bit, as to how the cost of upgrading those tunnels would be split, given that they were now rival “profit centres” rather than part of an integrated public service. So because they couldn’t agree, it was closed.

    Of course this went along with the larger scale (ie nationwide rather than just London) switch from rail to road, brought about by the commercialisation of the rail system. Long-distance movement of mail went by train – including by some dedicated overnight services where First Class stuff was cross-sorted en route … remember the famous film (The Night Mail – the successors of which continued for decades until the switch from rail relatively recently).

    The reinstatement of the PO Railway, putting it back into use, of course makes environmental sense, especially if more of it continues its journey by national rail (many of the stations on the little London system are directly underneath stations; others are underneath sorting offices).

    As part of an integrated low-impact delivery and distribution system in London (think of smaller localised deliveries rather than vast lorries bringing stuff into the centre) – for things beyond just the post – these tunnels could be invaluable. It would be said to be too expensive to build this system from scratch (though imagine how people would think it a brilliant idea if it didn’t already exist and someone proposed it now!); but it’s sitting there, mostly (apart from the twee heritage bit being advertised now) just mothballed, and could be reclaimed for use – if the political will was there and shareholder profit wasn’t the controlling factor in decision-making..

    It’s certainly an environmental scandal that an existing capital resource like this isn’t still in use.

    Albert Beale

    • Dear Albert, thank you for the further invaluable information and the larger picture as it was then, especially your memories on the competing parts of the old RM, inrcedible! Thank you so much for sharing this!

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