top of page
Steamy saga of when mail met rail

THERE is something romantic about long train journeys.

Listen carefully and you can almost hear the Coronation Scot music, or, more likely for philatelists, the Night Mail documentary film, words by W H Auden narrated to the rhythm of the rail by John Grierson.

Some think they missed a trick by not conveying Queen Elizabeth’s coffin by train from Edinburgh to London, going slowly though the major towns and cities so locals could pay their respects. There may well have been 

coronation scot.jpg
Coronation Scot - click on image to hear the music

logistical problems with that, but just venturing the idea does emphasise a link between the public and the transport.

Carrying mail by train was mooted in the very early days of the railway. The service started in November 1830 and carried on for 166 years.


As stamp collectors we tend to view travelling post offices (TPOs) in terms of routes, marks, and mileage. A new book, Mail On Rail, by Peter Johnson, looks at things more from the train operators’ point of view.

I must admit this is not really my thing, so it is a complement to Mr Johnson that as well as being lavishly illustrated the book is

also a good read and packed with information.  He starts with a history of the TPOs and the problems of the reliability of the services which was hopeless and how fast a train should be travelling at – the Post Office suggested an average of 25mph which must have been astonishingly fast at the time. Until the railway the fastest thing that could transport a person was a horse which goes at about 12 miles an hour at a canter.

Working on a TPO could, and often was, dangerous. For example, right up until 1971 Workers would snatch the bags hanging from trackside posts and simultaneously drop bags from the train into nets beside the railway line.  It may just be my morbid streak, but I found some of the more interesting parts was Johnson’s account of the accidents to staff on TPOs including poor Henry Cole Silk who managed to be on three

night mail.jpg
Night Mail: click on the image to see the film

trains all of which were involved in accidents including the Abergele disaster where 33 people were killed.


There is a whole section on the London Railway which operated first with pneumatic tube until replaced by the automatic electric railway which some of you may have ridden on when visiting the Postal Museum.


If you collect train mail the book is a must, if not there is enough here to easily justify the cost simply because it is a good read with some great pictures. Highly recommended.


MAIL ON RAIL by Peter Johnson is published by Pen And Sword Books and can be purchased from their website on this link:

Pen and Sword Books: Mail by Rail - Hardback (

The price is £31.50 plus P&P.

Pages: 296

Illustrations: 200 colour & black and white illustrations & maps

ISBN: 9781526776136

Published: 2nd September 2022

mail by rail book.jpg
bottom of page