By DAVID HORSPOOL
Of all London's semi-secret underground curiosities – the Kingsway tram tunnel, the deep-level air raid shelters at Stockwell or Belsize Park, "ghost" tube stations from Aldwych to Down Street – the Post Office's 6-mile private subterranean railway running in a loop from Paddington to Whitechapel is perhaps the most intriguing. When the TLS's Freelance columnist Hugo Williams visited on a guided tour in 1998, the railway was still running, and he got to push the button sending a driverless "little red train" on its way from Mount Pleasant sorting office. But the Mail Rail was "mothballed" in 2003; this morning, I took up an invitation to Mount Pleasant to see the plans to incorporate it into the new Postal Museum, to be opened next year.
The division between the active business of sorting and delivering the post, and the contemplative project of memorializing 500 years of communication technology was much in evidence. When Hugo visited in 1998, there seemed to be no plans to stop using the Mail Rail. It was introduced in 1927 (after a sixteen-year gestation), I was told, because the streets above ground were so crowded, and the conventional Underground stations were not very close to the big sorting offices. The same conditions surely still apply a fortiori, but the little railway seems to have become too expensive in the new millennium. If you have ever wondered what mothballing means when used about large engineering projects, it turns out it means "left exactly as it was", à la Miss Havisham, though with fewer cobwebs. The blurry photo below, for example, contains the roster sheet for what one assumes was the final shift at Mount Pleasant.
For entertainment between shifts, there was a dartboard, the sort you get in a pub, with doors and a little blackboard for the scores. But in a little over a year's time, when the Museum opens, the trains will run again. Visitors will be able to descend to the platforms (it is the only underground London railway apart from the Waterloo and City line which is all underground) and travel in a specially constructed replica carriage on a short loop, with digitally projected images to "enhance" their experience.
Above ground, a newly built museum will house postal curiosities, from a copy of Ulysses intercepted as an obscene book in 1932 to a sheet of Penny Blacks. But the highlight will surely be the Mail Rail. As we left the vast hall of the Sorting Office, apparently mistakenly being led past the thousands of wheeled postal cages (they are called "Yorks", I learned) and the great automated sorting machines, I hoped that, when the immersive Postal Museum opens in 2017, something of the ghostly ambience of the little railway (were those Christmas trees, complete with baubles, we spotted on the eastbound platform?) remains.