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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

What next for Mail Rail?

The Royal Mail is to sell off the Post Office Underground Railway, better known as Mail Rail. For the uninitiated, this is basically the Crossrail project (the East-West rail link across London that is as eagerly anticipated by commuters as it is delayed by politicians and dreaded by taxpayers). The only differences: it exists in reality, not just as a gleam in John Prescott’s eye, and it only carries sacks of mail. Millions of them per day. Like Crossrail, however, it is too expensive – the Post Office says it is simply not economic to run any more.

The Times [to which Samizdata does not link], asks in today’s Leader for ideas on what use may be put to such a railway, bearing in mind it is only tall enough to carry passengers if they lie down like guests in a Japanese capsule hotel. Surely the collective ingenuity of Samizdata can come up with some good ideas?

Here’s two to start the ball rolling:

  • Cross-London packet sevice. Surely it could continue in its present role if anyone – private individual, corporation, courier or freight company – could use it. Modern barcode technology could make it easy to identify the right packet to serve up at the receiving station. Mail Rail is infrastructure; if the Post Office opened their pipes to competing “content”, like telcos and ISPs do, then perhaps the infrastructure would be viable, and even extended?
  • The real Crossrail. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to widen a tunnel that already exists than to build a new one? Everyone knows that Crossrail is desperately needed if London is not to sieze up – and risk losing companies migrating elsewhere to restore the balance. Everyone also knows that the £4bn estimate is likely to be spent several times over before the system goes into service – these projects always overrun. Isn’t this a good opportunity to cut costs?

The usual prize (kudos, not cash) for the most innovative suggestion.

9 comments to What next for Mail Rail?

  • How about we take all our email, print it out on paper, put it in paper envelopes with actual physical addresses (which are so much easier to read than IP addresses). Let’s call it “mail” since it is less than e-mail.

    Then we could have this “mail” transported in the Crossrail system. At the other end, giant scanners could read the paper “mail” back into digital form for our computers.

  • Actually, the way that modern tunnel borers work, it would be cheaper to create a new tunnel than to widen an existing one, probably a lot cheaper. I’m not sure it would even be safe to try to alter an existing tunnel, and it couldn’t be done using any of the standard boring machines. That isn’t how they work.

  • Crossrail will certainly increase property values (especially in parts of East London) by many times the cost of building it. (This has happened already with the Jubilee line extension). The trick is to actually attempt to get the property developers to fund it. (Large amounts of Tokyo have been built by railway companies, so this isn’t an especially new idea). One way or another we do need Crossrail / Thameslink 2000 / Crossrail 2 (Chelsea/Hackney). Build these three projects and London’s transport problems would largely be solved.

    London is full of tunnels that are much too narrow and everyone wishes were wider. If the London Underground had wider tunnels then its capacity could be made a lot greater and London would have rather fewer transport problems. But, in terms of width we are stuck with what he have, as Mr Den Beste notes.

    Just as one final observation, the last system in which mail was sent under a city through pneumatic tubes was closed (in Prague) just a couple of years ago. It was very widely used until the end of communism, after which use dropped considerably and eventually pretty much vanished completely after moder communication technology became available.

  • Invest heavily in employing pygmies to work in central London.

  • Pizza delivery system. Bulk food delivery system, generally.

    Replacement sewer (well, they do say our excellent Victorian sewers are finally running out after serving well beyond their design life.)

    A long, thin obstacle course for testing self-propelled robots. This could be run as a tourist attraction with cameras on the robots’ “heads” and more cameras mounted inside the tunnels. There would have to be some sort of recovery system for breakdowns, but presumably they had something like that for the broken trains.

    If you had sufficiently sophisticated Von Neumann robots they could fight each other to cannibalise raw materials. Eventually they might tire of human control, take over the tunnel, then London, then the world. Then we wouldn’t have to worry about anything any more.

    But I think the privatised parcels service is best. Just because the Royal Mail can’t run it at a profit doesn’t mean no one can.

  • Out of interest: why doesn’t Samizdata link to the Times? (sorry if this is in a FAQ somewhere)

  • Malcolm

    Because The Times charges foreign users for access to its web site, and we’ve got a lot of foreign readers. We wouldn’t want to encourage them to inadvertently click on the button that, in the small print, declares that you’re in the UK, and thereby illegally bypasses the whole payment thing.

    So by and large we try and find other news sources to link to for a story, and where this isn’t possible we credit The Times but we don’t link to it as a matter of editorial policy.

  • Thanks for the clarification. I might actuallty follow that policy myself in future, because it is pretty objectionable to charge users based on where they are from.

  • There is in fact a plan to build Crossrail without raiding taxpayers’ pockets. Link here.

    Once again the idea is to fund it from increases in property values.