Another English Electric FIRST……
The world’s first fully automatic electric railway was opened in 1924, beneath the streets of London. The civil engineering work for the Post Office tube, including the running tunnels and tracks, were laid down before the 1914-18 war, although it was not until 1924 that electrification work was begun, following the acceptance of the English Electric Co.’s proposals. English Electric’s contract with the Post Office included the provision of rolling stock, substation equipment, automatic control systems, signalling and cabling.
The route covered in the project was 6 ½ miles long, with tracks laid to 2ft 0ins gauge, and power supplied at 440V d.c., and fed to the conductor rails from three substations. The original plan was to carry the mails between main line termini in London to the Post Office’s major sorting offices at the Western and Eastern ends of the city, to avoid the intense congestion in London’s streets.
From Paddington to Liverpool Street, the deep level tube was constructed to link the principal GPO sorting offices. This included the Paddington District Post Office and the Eastern District Post Office in Whitechapel Road with the most important station at Mount Pleasant, about half way along the line, which also provided the maintenance and repair shops. A pair of running tracks was laid in 9ft diameter tunnels, which reduced to 7ft at station approaches. At each station, an island type platform arrangement was adopted, with passing loops for non-stop trains, and the railway operated 22 hours a day for most of its life.
Actual vehicle speeds were set at 32 mph in the tunnels, slowing to 8 mph at the station platform roads. The rolling stock order consisted originally of 90 two axle trucks, though these were replaced in the 1930s by 50 wagons on “maximum traction trucks”. These were fitted with a pair of 22hp d.c. traction motors, reverser, and electrically operated brake gear.
This photo shows the driver’s controller, with the words ‘English Electric’ at the top (obscured by driver’s handle), and stating ‘Dick Kerr System’ nearest the camera. Preston heritage. Photo: Matt Brown, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
New Stock & Early Upgrades
The 1924 stock was put to work when the system opened in 1927, but it was quickly discovered that they were not sufficiently reliable, and were prone to derailment. In addition, the increase in mail traffic growth demonstrated that the railway required new vehicles with greater capacity to cope with the traffic growth.
So, in 1930 50 new vehicles were ordered from English Electric, and used in articulated train formations, but within a few years, as traffic continued to grow another 10 units were ordered and delivered in 1936.
However, the newer vehicles re-used some of the equipment from the early stock, and the new stock proved much reliable and lasted into the 1980s, supplemented by a new design developed again from an English Electric prototype.
One loco – No. 809 – from the 1930 vehicles has been preserved and is stored at the National Railway Museum.
English Electric were justifiably proud of this narrow gauge railway, and in a review of progress published by the company in 1951, considered it to be unique in the whole railway world. The Post Office Tube did have some human intervention, at a distance, as the operation of a switch was necessary to start a train on its way, and control of the points on the track was exercised remotely, guiding the vehicles on their way.
On the tracks at Mount Pleasant station. Photo: Matt Brown, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
The railway was still carrying considerable traffic in the 1960s, and in 1962, The Post Office ordered a pair of prototype units, which were intended to provide the base of a new design, some features of which were included the 1980 stock. Whilst English Electric built the prototypes, Hunslet built the new rolling stock, although they too were not the first choice, and the order was passed from Greenbat, who had gone bust. The vehicles were completed by 1982, and remained in operation until the system was closed in 2003.
Some of the earlier stock was retained, and renumbered after 1984, from the 1930 and 1936 batches, although none of the original 1924 order was around, the electrical equipment did continue in use in the 1930s stock.
Of the two English Electric prototypes from 1962, No.1 was withdrawn and scrapped in 1967, whilst No.2 remained in service until 1980, and was repaired using parts from No.1, and renumbered 66, lasting until the railway’s closure in 2003.
Although Greenbat managed to build three of the new 1980 sets, developed from the English Electric prototypes, before going into administration, the remainder were built at neighbouring Hunslet, who supplied sets 504 to 534. The intention was to replace the almost 50 yerars old English Electric stock from the 1930s, but as noted in the table, 17 of the units built in 1930 and 1936 were kept going.
In 1984, all of the stock was renumbered, with the most recent Hunslet units carrying numbers 1 to 34, and the retained 1930s stock renumbered from 35 to 51. They did manage to survive another 19 years until the system was finally closed in 2003.
Closure, Preservation & Re-opening
The English Electric innovation may not have been the first such plan to support the Post Office, but was certainly a pioneer in the field of automation on a railway. From the first order in 1924, the system and stock lasted some 76 years, and has now been given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction.
When the railway closed in 2003 it remained out of use. However thanks to years of fundraising it was up and running again in September 2017 – at least a short section – for tourists to travel on, using new rolling stock supplied by Severn Lamb of Stratford-upon-Avon. As part of the New Postal Museum, this is likely to be a star attraction, and has already received royal patronage, with a visit from HRH Princess Anne.
A number of the tractor units and trailers have been rescued, including No. 809 at the NRM – however, on their page Post Office Railway, underground train, No. 809 it shows incorrect information. But the Post Office Museum has a great deal of additional information about the railway and its operations: Mail Rail Exhibition
Others were rescued and can be found at:
A fascinating piece of railway and engineering history, with its success assured as much by the innovative ideas from English Electric in Preston, as the foresight of the General Post Office. Today, mails are carried almost exclusively by road – both in and across London, and around the rest of the UK.