History Presentation



The public face of the Royal Mail is a well known one .  The Postman’s morning round , the street corner pillar box and the red mail van with its distinctive Royal cipher are traditional features of everyday life throughout the country. We are all customers of Royal Mail and the collection and delivery services provided by the organisation are familiar to us.

The inner workings of Royal Mail are , by contrast, mostly unseen by its customers .  A large and complex distribution network exists behind the scenes to handle the mail . This network encompasses the length and breadth of the nation and involves all modes of transport - road , rail , air and sea .

One aspect of this network that has often caught the public imagination, most vividly through the poetry of W H Auden and the music of Benjamin Britten which combined to accompany the classic 1936 documentary film “Night Mail” is that of the Travelling Post Office (TPO). TPO’s are trains containing letter sorting carriages which enable mail to be processed on the move.  The TPO’s have run for over l60 years but their day is coming to an end. TPO’s will continue to provide a first class service until their cessation on January 10th 2004. The aims of this presentation is to briefly outline the  history of TPO’ and explain their current role within Royal Mails distribution network and also describe the main elements of TPO operations.


The records tell us that it was George Karstadt, one of the resident provincial Post Office Surveyors, who first put forward the idea of using the railway to sort letters whilst in transit, although Rowland Hill claimed that he had thought of using mail coaches for on-board sorting back in the l820 !  We know for certain that it was one of Karstadt’s sons,  Frederick,  who was appointed to sort letters on the world’s first TPO which ran experimentally between Birmingham and Warrington in January l838 .

For the Post Office of 1838 the TPO offered two great advantages . Firstly, there was the obvious saving of time which could be obtained by processing mail on the move and Secondly, there were great economies to be had in the number of mail bags in circulation (instead of sending a direct mail bag to each of a large number of post towns , postmasters could now send mail for a wide area in one bag to the TPO for amalgamation and re-distribution on board). In this respect,  the introduction of the TPO was almost a necessity if the Post Office was to gain maximum advantage of the speed offered by rail.

The experiment on the Grand Junction Railway was followed later in 1838 by a regular TPO on the newly opened London and Birmingham Railway and  by the end of the year, through TPO services had been established between London and Preston .

The TPO service grew rapidly after its inaugural year. The proliferation of new mail routes; the explosion of the quality of mail handled by the Post Office following the introduction of the Penny Postage in 1840; the general underlying growth of economic activity; - all these factors lead to expansion and development. New, purpose built, TPO vehicles were provided by the railway companies as part of mail carrying contracts agreed with the Post Office.  Additional sorting clerks were recruited. By 1852, about 40 clerks were employed on TPO’s and the network already stretched to Perth in Scotland , to Newcastle Upon Tyne and to Exeter . (It was not until 1854, however, that the GPO Department which ran the TPOs ceased to be known as the Mail Coach Office).

The 1850’s and 1860’s saw further expansion. By l867 the TPO’s were sufficiently important to have their own Department at the GPO headed by a “Surveyor of Travelling Post Offices”, who had over 200 staff under his control.

TPOs ran both as Night Mails and as Day Mails. London was still the nodal point for much postal traffic and whilst the Night Mails connected mail from London evening collections with morning deliveries in the provinces and vice-versa , the Day Mails afforded service to mail flowing between the more distant parts of the country (which was often re-sorted in London and reached its destination in time for the afternoon deliveries then common in most towns and cities.

The zenith of the TPO service was to be seen during the years leading up to the first world war. Over 130 TPO’s made up a complex web of interconnecting routes.  Ranging from the large and prestigious London based services such as the North Western TPO and the Great Western TPO to small local links such as the Grimsby and Lincoln Sorting Tender and the Brighton and Hastings Sorting Carriage, the TPO map of this period reached every corner of the land.

In 1968 the Post Office introduced the two- tier letter service and since then the TPO’s have sorted only First Class mail.

During the 1970’s some marginal TPO’s were withdrawn on economic grounds but the overall size and shape of the network remained largely unchanged until the mid-1980’s.  By contrast, during the last 15 years there has been a series of revisions and alterations on a scale unseen since the formative years of the TPO’s.  These changes have aligned the functions of the TPO’s to the many developments in the Royal Mail distribution network and have tended to resort in fewer bur larger TPO formations. There are now 10 TPO’s operated by approximately 370 Royal Mail Staff.


Apparatus to allow trains to pick up and drop mail bags without stopping was a feature of the TPO service from its earliest days until 1971.  For outsiders this was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of TPO’s and the apparatus is perpetuated in miniature on many model railway layouts. 

A few surviving samples of the full sized version can be seen on preserved railways - most notably Great Western Society at Didcot and on the central railway.

TPO coaches equipped with apparatus had a large net , made of heavy duty rope and fixed to a hinged metal frame on the exterior body side . This net was extended to catch bags suspended from line side posts. The bags were then projected through an opening in the body side to land on the carriage floor, for mail despatched from the TPO on the move, folding metal brackets called traductors were fitted at body side doors . The traductors enabled bags to be hung from the carriage and scooped up by line side nets. Both receipts and despatches were often carried out in the same operation almost simultaneously.  Mail bags exchanged by apparatus were enclosed in stout leather pouches to avoid damage.

On the larger TPO’s multiple sets of apparatus enabled sizeable despatches and receipts of mail to be made.

The increasing line speed of trains with a consequential increased risk of impact damage together with changes in letter circulation and road transport arrangements gradually brought about the demise of apparatus working on the TPO’s. The last exchange took place at Penrith in 1971.  With the disappearance of the apparatus also went the particular skills and expert job knowledge of the staff who operated it.  It had been their task to accurately pinpoint the precise location of the train at the crucial moment - at speed and in darkness so that the extension of the net or the lowering the bags did not result in disaster.


The daily task faced by the Royal Mail is daunting in statistical terms .  Every working day (Monday to Friday) about 79.9 million letters are posted in the UK.  Of these , in the region of 22 million are inland letters posted at first class rate.

Royal Mail currently aims to deliver 92.5% of all First Class mail by the next working day (geographically and transport constraints prevent a full 100% target).

A good deal of commercial mail is now pre-sorted by large customers and enters the Royal Mail system ready for transportation. However, there is still a massive flow of stamped and metered mail which floods into approximately 100,000 posting boxes and across about 20,000 Post Office counters.  The journey of a letter can start at any one of these collection points and finish at any one of 24 million postal addresses in the UK.  It is the essential task of Royal mail to ensure that the journey is completed quickly, efficiently and accurately.

The system deployed to undertake this task is large and complex.

It involves all modes of transport,  mail trains (including 10 TPO’s),      30 charted aircraft and 28,000 Royal mail road vehicles are the key elements. There is also a massive human resource involved - over 150,000 staff are employed to sort and deliver the mail. A major part of Royal Mail’s infrastructure are the 74 major sorting centres which all have a high level of automation.

There are over 1500 Post Towns in the UK.  All of these normally have one or more delivery office from which Postmen take out the mail to individual addresses. It would be impractical and uneconomic for all Post Towns to send mail directly to each other.  The collection of mail is therefore concentrated at over 100 key locations where outward sortation takes place.  Within this total are the 74 Mail centres mentioned above and it is through these that the vast majority of mail is processed.

Outward sorting centres will send mail direct to distant Post Towns when the volume of mail justifies this, where there are insufficient letters to justify a direct despatch to an individual Post Town,  the mail will be consolidated with other mail for the same Postcode area and sent to as a residue to the designated sorting centre for that Postcode area .

Most First Class mail is posted late in the day. This means that for long distance mail there may be insufficient time to get mail for the smaller Post Towns to the designated sorting centres for further processing in time for delivery the following morning . It was the role of the TPOs to overcome this constraint of time and distance.

It can thus be seen that one of the main aims of the circulation system is to forward mail as quickly as possible in order to lessen the effect of peak flows on transport links and transfer points.  TPO’s main function until January 10th 2004 will be to provide a First Class service to those parts of the UK that can not currently achieve next day delivery by other means,  until the Transport Review project is fully implemented.

Under Postcode-defined circulation each of the remaining TPO’s have a designated range of Postcode areas for which they sort mail. Postcode areas are grouped to form Divisions within each TPO. The mail sent to each TPO Division is sorted en route and is despatched from the train at the appropriate places.  TPO’s provide intermediate processing - all mail received will have already been given a preliminary sortation into Postcode areas before it is received on the train (the only exception being a small amount of mail posted directly into the TPO carriages by customers at stations).

Many Postcodes areas within the UK are provided with service by at least one TPO Division,  some areas are served by several TPO’s .

The 10 TPO’s are a strictly limited resource and are expensive to operate, running only at night and using specialised railway rolling stock. Of necessity, they often have to be the option of last resort when mail routes are being planned by Royal Mail. About 1.75 million letters are currently sorted nightly on the TPO network,  although further large amounts of mail are carried as stowage by the trains to which TPO’s are attached.

In Quality of Service terms the TPO’s are invaluable and it was previously thought that it would be very difficult for Royal Mail to achieve over 92.5% next day delivery for First Class mail without the on-board sorting of letters provided by the TPO network, however, this has now changed with the concept of the Transport Review Project.

Transport Review will see the demise of mail carried on rail,  the opening of a New National Road Hub at Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT) near Rugby and other Road based hubs.

The new Distribution network will see better utilisation of Royal Mails National road fleet,  Distribution hubs and Air network on a 24 hour, seven day week,  52 weeks per year basis.


The present reduced network of 10 TPO’s now covers the mainland of Britain. The extremities of the TPO network are now Carlisle, Newcastle Plymouth & Penzance. Greatly reduced from the halcyon days of the TPO network back in the 1940’s !

The significant interchanges of the TPO network now take place at Bristol, Warrington and Doncaster and the Princess Royal Distribution Centre (PRDC) in London. The PRDC will remain as the major UK hub until the new national road hub is fully operational in 2004.

All TPO operations take place on dedicated Mail trains provided under the terms of the current letter mail contract between Royal Mail and EW & S. It is now several years since the running of the last TPO attached to a passenger train. TPO rolling stock is owned by EW & S . Royal Mail specifies its requirements for the routes stopping places and timetables of the TPO’s and EW & S plans and operates the services .

A close working relationship exists between the two organisations and frequent liaison, both at working level and at formal meetings, ensures the smooth running of the service.

The TPO fleet ranges in age from 22 to 40 years and now  comprises 70 + vehicles.  These specially built vehicles are of two basic types - sorting carriages (numbering 69) and stowage carriages numbering (37). Most carriages have posting boxes (for First Class Mail only) on each body side; the late posting fee which used to be required for this service was abolished many years ago.

In the sorting carriages one side of the vehicle is equipped with long banks of pigeon-holes,  known as sorting frames.  Smaller pigeon-holes are provided for the sorting of letters, whilst packages and large letters are sorted on the larger frames or Desks.  Each row of pigeon-holes is labelled by means of long flexible strips called “fillets”. On the opposite side of the coach, multiple  hooks are provided for the hanging of open mail bags into which bundles of sorted letters and individual packets are dropped. When mail bags are full, they are sealed and labelled and taken to separate stowage vans where they are neatly stacked to await despatch at Rail Hubs and stations en route.

The Manager of the TPO has to carryout his duties without the benefit of an Office.  Each coach has a lavatory and limited facilities - Hot Water Boiler and a Small Oven / Food Warmer.  Some Stools are provided for the sorters, but most prefer to work standing up. All projecting fixtures and fittings are padded,  so as to avoid injury to staff from the motion of the train.

Technology has not passed TPO’s by , as all TPO Managers now have mobile phones and Laptop computers.  This enables them to contact Central Post Office control or EW & S customer Service Centre in Doncaster,  should they experience any problem during the nights operation. This also enables the Management team at PRDC to be able to contact the Managers en route or at their distant points,  should they need to.

The Managers use their Laptops to send all their nightly operational reports at the end of the journey via a phone line back to TPO Section in PRDC. These reports would include such things as, Special Delivery discrepancies, EP reports, the time of arrival at each station or hub en route,  Rough riding and any staffing information.

With the introduction of Priority Services , now known as Special Delivery. Twenty Five sorting coaches had to be modified to support the Track-Trace equipment that this new service required.  Inverters had to be fitted, to provide the 220 volts of power that was required to run the Intermec Printer and Laser Data Terminal 4-Slot Cradle, on board the TPO. Since the introduction of Track-Trace equipment in 1995,   the TPO network has seen a steady increase in PS / SD traffic processed on a nightly basis.   For example the Great West, North West & North East Down TPO’s process as much, if not more SD traffic on a night,  than some of their Mail centre counterparts,  where they actually down-load their LDT’s .

During the last few years some TPO’s saw a dramatic increase in their 1C workload,  especially those emanating from the PRDC.

This was due to several factors

Several new Mail Centres were opened,  these being;  Gatwick, SEAMC, Leeds & WOEMC to name but a few, the introduction of Access Strategy and the national Simplified Sorting (SiSO project)

This was due to the reduced number of selections for the different roads on the new IMP/IMPEX  machines,   the raising of the Residue Mail standard from 100 to 300 items per bag,   ditto for the increase in flat traffic on TPO’s,  also the Access strategy where we ( Royal Mail ) encourage our customers to post mail later has been another reason why TPO’s are receiving increased mail volumes from Mail Centres.   

Geography to this day, is still a major factor, when determining what traffic gets vouched to the TPO network.

Of the 380 or so Royal Mail staff who are employed on TPO duties, most have to lodge away from home for at least two periods a week.

Working in teams ranging in size between four to forty,  the normal pattern of duties is Monday - passenger train to distant point, returning on the TPO Monday night;  TPO to distant point on Tuesday and Thursday nights;  TPO from distant point on Wednesday and Friday nights; lodge at distant point during Wednesday and Friday. Most lodging is done at places over 200 miles from home (e.g. London staff at Carlisle  or  Newcastle - staff in Bristol - staff in Newcastle).

The only TPO staff who do an “out and back” working on a nightly basis are the  Penzance-Bristol-Penzance TPO staff.

The working conditions and lifestyle made a career on the TPO’s a special calling , one to which only relatively few found that they could adapt to. Once settled, the average TPO crew member tends to stay - often for very long periods . (Recent retirements from TPO’s have, in some cases brought to an end careers of more than 40 years of riding the rails).  All TPO crews are recruited from existing staff at Royal Mail sorting centres. TPO duties are open to both sexes , although the number of women working on board is still relatively small.

TPO staff rightly consider themselves as the ‘Cream de la Creme’ of Royal Mail sorting staff and take great pride in their ability, in most cases, to sort faster and more accurately than their colleagues in stationary sorting offices.

The nightly challenge of completing the sortation of all traffic on board by the due despatch point engenders a particular pride of craft and a strong sense of loyalty and comradeship amongst TPO staff.

Although the TPO network provided a vital link in a modern mail transportation system, its working is steeped in tradition. Nowhere is there more evidence than in some of the names of individual TPO’s, In many cases these have not changed since the days of the pre-nationalisation and in some cases, the pre-grouping railway companies.

Thus the Great Western TPO implies Brunel’s line from Paddington, the North Western TPO links Euston and Carlisle and the Midland TPO runs between Bristol and Newcastle. These names, still retained by Royal Mail are the official designation of the trains, are in stark contrast to the more mundane Railway train reporting numbers.


Recent developments have signalled the end of mail on rail despite a new 10 year contract being agreed back in 1996 between Royal Mail and British Rail / EWS for the conveyance of letter mail traffic.

The start date of this new contract was geared to coincide with the entry into service of the biggest ever piece of railway infrastructure dedicated to mail handling – PRDC, which is obviously the major rail/road interchange facility in the UK.

Originally the PRDC interchange was comprised of a seven-platform rail terminal,  which has now been reduced to five.

The reduction in platforms will facilitate the increase of the current forty one loading docks for road vehicles to Fifty six. 

The key TPO services that ran from the London main passenger termini , transferred to the new interchange , thus removing all mail operations from London stations.

The present TPO fleet is maintained by EW & S to keep it serviceable until at least the end of the present Royal Mail/Railway contract in 2004.

What ever challenges come the way of the TPO’s,    they will continue to be met as they always have done,  with dedication & professionalism  demonstrated by both Managers & Staff alike,  combined with a wry smile and a sardonic sense of humour,  right to the ‘End - of - the - Line.’


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