Today in Transportation History – 2004: The End of Traveling Post Offices

In Great Britain, a longtime transportation era came to an end when the mail trains known as Travelling Post Offices made their final runs. “Mail trains have reached the end of the line,” proclaimed BBC News. “After more than 160 years of service, the Travelling Post Office – where post is sorted en route on special train services – has finally gone to the sidings.”

The first Travelling Post Office (TPO) made its debut in 1838 after a railroad car used for carrying horses on Great Britain’s Grand Junction Railway (GJR) was converted into a moving postal train. A General Post Office surveyor named Frederick Karstadt was the one who recommended using a GJR horsebox for handling mail. His son, incidentally, was one of the two clerks who sorted the mail on board that pioneering TPO.

The first train specifically designed to serve as a TPO was introduced in 1855 and initially operated by the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol. TPO operations continued to expand throughout Great Britain, becoming a major means for collecting, sorting, and distributing mail in not only England but also Scotland and Wales.

Over time, this rail-based postal delivery service experienced its fair share of both highs and lows. A positive example was the critically acclaimed 1936 documentary film “Night Mail,” which focused on a train serving the route between London and Glasgow and included compelling footage of postal employees grabbing up bags of unsorted mail during the journey for handling on board. It also didn’t hurt to have two artistic legends lend their considerable talents to this documentary; classical composer Benjamin Britten wrote a musical score for “Night Mail” while literary giant W. H. Auden prepared a poem exclusively for the film.

One of the more unfortunate milestones involving the TPOs took place in 1963 when a gang of 15 robbers held up a mail train making its way from Glasgow to London. The Great Train Robbery, as it is now known, resulted in the men escaping with today’s equivalent of 50 million pounds (approximately 68 million in U.S. dollars).

By the start of the 21st century, TPOs were increasingly seen as far less effective than other transportation options for delivering the mail throughout Great Britain. The Royal Mail finally ceased operations of this service on the night of January 9, 2004.

For more information on the Travelling Post Office (TPO), please check out the 9 January 2004 BBC News article “R.I.P. Mail Trains” at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/3382141.stm and the 9 January 2014 National Railway Museum blog post “Ten Years Since the End of the Travelling Post Office” at https://blog.nrm.org.uk/ten-years-since-the-end-of-the-travelling-post-office/.

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