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All aboard London's hidden underground railway

A hidden train that used to carry mail under the streets of London now carries passengers. Join CNET for a ride on the Mail Rail.

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Kent German
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1 of 30 Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Welcome to the Mail Rail

London's Postal Museum is opening its long-closed underground Mail Rail as a tourist newest attraction. Starting September 4, 2017, you can ride a tiny train on tracks that were used to haul mail between eight post offices from 1927 to 2003.

The museum and the entrance to Mail Rail are located at the Royal Mail's Mount Pleasant sorting facility in London's Clerkenwell neighborhood.

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Your journey will begin in a basement below the sorting facility where crews used to repair the Mail Rail's trains. Step into the train and make yourself comfortable. Just mind your head.

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The track slowly descends into the tunnel from the boarding area. Though the original railway stretched six and a half miles across central London between Whitechapel and Paddington, your ride will take a 1 km loop below Clerkenwell.

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While we waited for our turn, a train carrying a few museum employees chugged out of the station.

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The trains are double-ended, meaning they have an engine on either side. I rode in the rear engine, giving me a clear view out the back. The controls didn't look too complicated.

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A second train was idle on a parallel track as we pulled away.

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Andrew Hoyle's view from the front car gave a different perspective. As I said, head room under the clear canopy is a bit tight. The tunnels have an average diameter of just eight feet.

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As we traversed the loop, we passed other tunnels leading to the rest of the closed network. Though the first tunnel was dug in 1915, it took another 12 years for it to officially open.

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Looking ahead also gave Andrew a view of the curving track in the distance.

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Meanwhile from the back seat, I could see where we'd been. The entire ride takes 20 minutes.

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During your ride you'll pass through two stations that served the Mount Pleasant facility. Workers would use the platforms to sort mail bound for other platforms and load and unload trains. 

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In each station, short films tell the history of the railway and the postal service.

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A control panel shows the track layout below Mount Pleasant. Trains leave the boarding platform on the red track and travel on one of the blue tracks before stopping at the first station (yellow). Trains then travel through the green loop to the second station and back to the boarding area. 

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Crews would use this hook to raise trains off the track when they needed extensive repairs.

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At its peak, the Mail Rail employed 220 people and operated 22 hours a day. It could carry six million bags of mail each year. But it all came to an abrupt end when the railway was shut down on May 31, 2003. The closure, which some assumed to be temporary, was so sudden that some staff left their personal belongings in their lockers.

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Other lockers held supplies like boxes of mails. After the 2003 closure, the railway was left untouched until 2011 when postal service employees reopened the tunnels. Work on opening the railway to the public began in February, 2016.

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After your ride you can view older rolling stock like this engine from 1927. It ran on 152 battery cells.

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As trains passed through stations, crews could toss mailbags into open railcars.

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In its later years, the entire railway could be controlled from a single switching panel at Mount Pleasant. As a visitor, you can play switch master in a simulation.

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You also can have a go at sorting mail while a floor rocks beneath you to mimic the swaying motion of a moving train.

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Back in the Postal Museum's new larger home across the street, you can see the sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II that Royal Mail used to design the current UK stamp.

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There's also a design for a stamp that never was. King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 before his stamp was printed.

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Behind a protective sheet of glass is a sheet of the world's first stamp: the Penny Black featuring Queen Victoria's portrait from 1840.

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Fun fact: Post boxes in the UK used to be green. But after residents in complained that green boxes were hard to see, red became the color of choice in 1874.

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Yes, you'd have to wear this if you delivered the mail around the time of the Penny Black.

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Maybe you'd even be driving this coach on a country lane to deliver Christmas packages.

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A five-wheeled "bicycle" like this one was also used to deliver the mail in Victorian times.

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Motorized vehicles became more common in the 1920s.

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There's also plenty to keep your kids occupied at the museum. They can take a photo and design their own stamp.

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Or they can play post office in a children's play area.

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