Travelling Post Office

TPO at the Colne Valley Railway. Visible to the right of the Royal Mail logo is the letter box, for first class post only.
TPO interior
British Rail TPO vehicle NSA 80390 on display at Doncaster Works open day on 27 July 2003. This type of vehicle, based on the British Rail Mark 1 coach, was the final design of TPO vehicle used in the United Kingdom.

A Travelling Post Office (TPO) was a type of mail train in Great Britain where the post was sorted en route. The last Travelling Post Office services were ended on 9 January 2004, with the carriages used now sold for scrap or to preservation societies.

Carriage of mail by train

Following an agreement in 1830, made between the General Post Office and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), mail had been carried by train in Great Britain, between Liverpool and Manchester, via the L&MR.[1] The passing of the Railways (Conveyance of Mails) Act 1838 required railway companies to carry mail, by ordinary or special trains, as required by the Postmaster General; however this act did not set the charges for such services.[1]

These special trains eventually became Travelling Post Offices (TPOs). TPOs were employed in many British Commonwealth countries;[2] and the Army Post Office had its own TPOs.

TPOs were equipped with letter boxes so that mail could be posted whilst the train stood at a station. The post-marks from TPOs are valued by philatelists.


A TPO, circa 1890, showing the equipment used for transferring the mail bags to and from the train whilst it was travelling at full speed

Mail was first sorted on a moving train in January 1838, in a converted horse-box, on England's Grand Junction Railway. It was carried out at the suggestion of Frederick Karstadt, a General Post Office surveyor.[3] Karstadt's son was one of two mail clerks who did the sorting.[4] In 1845 the service was extended via Derby to Newcastle upon Tyne by the Midland Railway; and soon after reached Scotland.[5]

The first special postal train was operated by the Great Western Railway between London and Bristol. The inaugural train ran on 1 February 1855, leaving Paddington station at 20:46, and arriving at Bristol at 00:30. In 1866, apparatus for picking up and setting down mailbags without stopping was installed at Slough and Maidenhead.

In 1963 (the year of the Great Train Robbery) there were 49 mail trains, with one to five TPOs attached to passenger trains, and complete TPO trains between London and Aberdeen and Penzance.[6]

Post-privatisation of British Rail

After the privatisation of British Rail in the mid 1990s, British TPOs were operated by Rail Express Systems and their successor EWS. Royal Mail decided to suspend all transportation of mail by rail in 2003.[7] The last TPO services went out on the night of 9 January 2004,[8][9] ending the sorting of mail on trains in the UK.[10]

However, Royal Mail did restore the movement of some already-sorted letters by rail in time for the Christmas season that year, contracting with EWS's competitor GB Railfreight to resume bulk transfer services along the West Coast Main Line between its mail terminals at London (Willesden), Warrington and Glasgow (Sheildmuir) using the dedicated Class 325 electric multiple units that had been in operation since 1996. In 2009 the contract for these mail trains was transferred to EWS's successor DB Schenker Rail. For flexibility Royal Mail had preserved rail access to its distribution centres on Tyneside (Low Fell) and at Tonbridge in Kent,[7] and did occasionally send mail trains to Low Fell, for example when Newcastle Airport was closed by snow.[11] In June 2013, a regular service resumed from Low Fell.


Several Royal Mail TPO's have been preserved along with stowage vans and GUV's. Only one PCV (Propelling Control Vehicle) remains, currently at the Mid-Norfolk Railway. At these preservation lines you can see the TPO's performing a live drop off/pick up from a preserved line side apparatus. The Great Central Railway and the Nene Valley Railway are leading this endeavour with many weekends devoted to 'Mail by Rail'. Other lines are following in their wake so there are many places you can see these vehicles in action.

TPO vehicles

TPOs were formed of several different types of vehicle:

See also


  1. 1 2 Simmons, Jack; Biddle, Gordon (1997). The Oxford Companion to British Railway History From 1603 to the 1990s (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211697-5. Pp 303-304.
  2. Poole, L.G. (1969). "The Travelling Post Offices of Victoria: 1865 - 1912", In: Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin, June, 1969, Pp127-139.
  3. White, John H. (1978). The American Railroad Passenger Car. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 473. ISBN 0801819652. OCLC 2798188.
  4. Johnson, Peter. (1985). The British Travelling Post Office. Surrey: Ian Allan Publishing. p. 13. ISBN 0-7110-1459-0.
  5. Billson, P., (1996) Derby and the Midland Railway Derby: Breedon Books
  6. Railway Magazine September 1963 p. 661
  7. 1 2 Written statement by Royal Mail (Document FOR 105), House of Commons Transport Select Committee, September 2003
  8. Daily Mirror 10 January 2004 "Send of the line - last journey by mail trains"
  9. "What happened to the TPOs?". British Postal Museum & Archive. Retrieved 7 January 2014.
  10. BBC Cumbria Jan 2004
  11. Railforums posting, 29 December 2010

Further reading

External links

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