Royal Mail Travelling Post Office....The Last Post
The 9th January 2004 marked the end of a tradition right across the country which dated back to the days of steam . While thousands of people lay sleeping, postmen would travel on trains sorting the mail on the move. The sorting of mail was carried out inside specially adapted coaching stock as the train raced through the night to its destination. These trains were known as the 'Travelling Post Office' (TPO's) and housed a special breed of postman who's dedication to these nocturnal activities probably went un-noticed to the majority of the British public. The TPO's would operate overnight between long distance destinations. Four TPO services operated through Taunton during the early hours of the morning, with one (1V40) stopping to pick up and drop off mail at Taunton Station. The train would be met each week night by a local lorry from the Taunton sorting office. Sadly 2003/2004 saw the demise of 'mail by rail' in both TPO and standard van form, after the Royal Mail ditched transporting its mail by train (despite an extensive rail network) in favor of lorries and aircraft.
Mail was first sorted on a moving train back in 1838. The first special post train was operated by the Great Western Railway between Paddington and Bristol on the 1st February 1885. Since this time transporting mail by train was seen as an incredibly efficient and quick way of moving letters and parcels from one location to another. The Romance of this era was best captured by the 1936 documentary film 'Night Mail' which included the famous poem by W H Audens.
During the 1990's after privatisation Rail Express Systems (and later EWS) and the Royal Mail revolutionised the mail by rail network by constructing dedicated hubs at key locations around the UK. These hubs would allow the efficient unloading and sorting of mail (away from main stations) using a dedicated fleet of locomotives, rolling stock and unloading equipment. Hubs were constructed at Willesden (London), Bristol Parkway, Stafford, Warrington, Low Fell, & Sheildmuir, as well as more traditional station stops being made at locations such as York, Exeter and Taunton. The network was built to be efficient and fast, and worked well, but the these efforts were in vain when in 2003 Royal Mail announced they would cease all rail transportation by early 2004.
Postal services through Taunton have varied throughout the years but just before the end of the UK mail by rail postal operation Taunton could still boast 15 post train movements each week day as noted below:
'The Last Post Headboard' carried by 67007 during its stop at Exeter on the 9th January 2004 (Photo: Brian Garrett)The last TPO services operated on the 9th January 2004, with nearly 80% of Royal Mail TPO staff taking early retirement, rather than finding other roles within the business. Many hundreds of people turned out during the early hours of the morning to wish the postal workers well, and wave off another long standing British tradition. However many took the view that the TPO still had a very important role to play within Royal Mail system, as was still the best way of getting late posted mails to far off UK destinations for the next day. The TPO may have been seen as an old idea but for many years it helped Royal Mail to achieve their high performance targets. A change in their service was certainly noticeable once mail by rail had been axed!
The views above shows Taunton on the 19th December 2003 (shortly before the last TPO services operated). The 1V40 Willesden - Plymouth service stops at Taunton to exchange mail at 01:40 in the morning, prior to continuing its journey to Plymouth (Photo: Brian Garrett)
On the final night of mail operations provided a party atmosphere which was played out at stations all over the UK, Taunton was no exception where large crowds turned up to wish the postal workers well and to get their unique hand stamped TPO postage marks on their letters. Because Taunton only had one TPO service which stopped each week night, we took the opportunity to also visit Exeter to record the final departures of the 1C01 and 1M99 TPO's before returning to Taunton to record the final 1V40 stopping at Taunton. (Video: Brian Garrett)
After the demise of rail by rail, almost all the coaching stock used went into store and eventually went for scrap. A limited number of TPO vehicles did survive and entered preservation. The Great Central Railway now hosts a large rake of these historic vehicles and uses them at regular gala events. On the 25th May 2006 EWS liveried Class 67 No.67020 hauls a rake of former TPO coaches through Cogload Junction with the 5Z72 Exeter Riverside to Doncaster Belmont Yard for scrapping. (Photo: Brian Garrett)