Nuts and Bolts in Mail Rail

06 May 2016

How do you get a hidden railway ready to open? Project Administrator Anna Keast finds out from Steve Farrow, Construction Manager for Mail Rail…

Floodgate in Tunnels-under Mount Pleasant

Floodgate in the Mail Rail tunnels under Mount Pleasant

Mail Rail’s environment is truly unique. While this is part of its magic, it poses distinct challenges for our construction team, readying it for the public to visit (and ride through!) in 2017.

They’ve been busy restoring, excavating and stripping out the depots, tracks and platforms, all the while taking care to leave behind the industrial heritage that makes it so special. I spoke to Blue Sky Building’s Construction Manager at Mail Rail, Steve Farrow, who told me how works are going.

Steve Farrow, Construction Manager for the Mail Rail project

Steve Farrow, Construction Manager for the Mail Rail project

What kind of work are you doing in Mail Rail at the moment?

At the moment we’re at the strip-out stage. We’ve got demolitions men stripping out light fittings, ducting, knocking walls down – that sort of thing. Images will be projected onto the platform walls and I’ve got to take certain things out to allow this, but I’ve also got to leave certain engineering elements that are important for the public to see.

From a construction point of view there’s no logic to it. The Postal Museum Head of Collections comes down and lets me know what he wants to keep, and if I think there’s something he might need I give him a ring and say, “you better have a look at this”. Certain memorabilia and tools for example – Royal Mail seem to have a tool for almost every job you could think of.

Equipment found in Mail Rail

Some of the equipment found in Mail Rail

TrackSystems are laying sleepers and rail for Mail Rail. They’ve got a locomotive delivering new rails and taking old ones out. It’s mainly the curves that have been worn out, particularly because of the weight of the old Royal Mail maintenance truck. So we’ve had to take some spare straight rails away that were stored down there, put a curve on them, and then bring them back again and re-fix them.

I think the biggest thing for me is coordinating the locomotive movements. I’ve got people working in the tunnels and I’ve got to make sure that the loco doesn’t interfere with their working and vice versa – so I have to make sure that I know exactly where the train is at all times. I have a coordination meeting every morning at 7:30 and then I issue tunnel permits accordingly, so that’s quite a challenge.

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Mail Rail schematic that lit up to show which sections of track had power at any time

What is the main challenge for the Mail Rail construction project?

Mount Pleasant is the busiest postal depot in London, and I have to remember that all the time. We have a lot of interface with Royal Mail, and obviously we have to make sure that if we isolate any electrical circuits for construction works they don’t affect Royal Mail services.

For example, I have to make sure that the circuits that I cut off on the platforms, so that we can knock the walls down, are maintained underneath the platforms – where Royal Mail have pumps keeping that area dry. Water’s slowly trickling through the tunnel shell – it can’t be helped – and it percolates underneath the platforms through a series of pipes. It takes a lot of liaison and a lot of time, so communications skills are one of the biggest things.

Monday was a big day – we started the six huge piles for the foundations in Mail Rail. I’ve never done a metre pile before; that’s a big diameter pile. These are in the Mail Rail engineers’ workshop, which will be the new welcome area. They’ll go down 20 metres, which is quite a depth, and they’re drilled from inside the workshop, so logistically that’s a big issue. There’s a lot of liaison with Royal Mail to get the equipment in and then to get it out again, and there’s a lot of earth to remove from site.

Workstation in the Mail Rail workshop

Workstation in the Mail Rail workshop

How is this project different from other projects you have worked on before?

I’ve done quite a bit of work for English, Welsh and Scottish Railway in the past, so I have done railway work and I’ve always liked that type of work – it suits me, hopefully I suit the job and I enjoy it.

I was part of the Project Team at Jorvik Viking Centre in Coppergate, but that was all brand new construction with the displays all laid out to a set pattern. What you’re doing with Mail Rail is much more complicated because your artefacts are already here and we’re enhancing what you’ve already got.

I’m delighted to be part of this project, I really am. I enthuse about it, because I’m passionate about engineering, I have a life-long love of stamps and I’m interested in railway.

I’ve never done anything like Mail Rail before so it’s really something special. And socially I’m very happy to be on this project because it’s Heritage Lottery Fund money and I think it’s going to a good purpose.

Where the archives are at the moment is not ideal, and you’ve got some wonderful records in there, which I have been privileged to see. They need a good home, and at the Postal Museum across the road, we intend to give them one.

Detail of 1980s Greenbat Train in Tunnel

Detail of 1980s Greenbat Train in Tunnel