Princess Royal Distribution Centre
This is a mammoth depot, situated alongside the West Coast Main Line, 6½-miles from Euston, amongst a sea of railway sidings. It formed part of a £150 million investment by Royal Mail in the early 1990s to transform the company’s nationwide postal distribution network. Formally named "Railnet", this scheme was geared towards speeding up the postal service by the "containerisation" of mail, where letters would be transported in purpose-built trays rather than traditional mail bags, upon a nationwide network of integrated road, rail, and air transport. For rail, it signalled the end of mail being carried upon scheduled passenger trains and considerably reduced the volume handled at railway stations; rather, the post was to be transported within purpose-built rolling stock that served dedicated platforms at large Royal Mail depots.
At a press conference on 15th December 1993 (ref: The Railway Magazine, February 1994), British Rail and Royal Mail formally announced a new partnership, which involved a ten-year contract for the nationwide transportation of post. This centred on the opening of a gigantic rail-served mail hub at Willesden — supported by smaller regional depots — and the procurement of a brand new sixteen-strong fleet of four-vehicle electric multiple units dedicated to the carriage of mail. Hitherto, the capital’s mail was handled at BR’s London terminals, but the advent of the depot at Willesden would end this practice, and all such operations were to be transferred to the latter.
A contract worth more than £50 million for building specialised Royal Mail rolling stock — designated "Class 325" — was awarded to Derby-based ABB Transportation, with the fabrication of body shells subcontracted to "Bombardier Prorail" of Wakefield, West Yorkshire. The electric units were designed to feed off 25kV AC overhead wires and 750 DC third rail, and would be used in combination with existing BR locomotive-hauled rolling stock that had been modified for containerised mail. However, unlike the latter, the units would be owned by Royal Mail, not BR. Additionally, the Class 325 units were not Travelling Post Offices (TPO), where mail was sorted on board; however, the latter would still exist after the new fleet’s introduction.
A large area of Willesden Yard, occupied by a mass of tracks under the name of "Brent Sidings", was selected as the site for Royal Mail’s flagship hub. The project was managed by "Royal Mail Property Holdings", the design of the building subcontracted to architectural firm "Broadway Mlyan", and construction work completed by "Tilbury Douglas Construction Ltd". The hub was built to have an operational area of 10,000 square metres and a clear height of 11-metres, with seven rail-served platforms of 263-metre length and forty vehicle loading bays. The forecast was that 380 vehicles and 37 trains daily would serve the hub, and allow existing Royal Mail operations at Euston, Liverpool Street, Paddington, and Kings Cross stations to be discontinued (ref: Observer Business Magazine, Thursday 30th November 1995).
In the December 1994 edition of The Railway Magazine, it was reported that grading of the hub’s Willesden Yard site was nearing completion, road access was in place, and that the first sections of steelwork for the main building had been erected. Completion of building works were marked by a formal ceremony held at Willesden in November 1995. The hub had yet to be equipped with fixtures and fittings; the forecast was for the site to have equipment installed, systems tested, and staff trained within the subsequent six months, and be fully operational in October of the following year (ref: Observer Business Magazine, Thursday 30th November 1995).
The then new rail connection to Royal Mail’s Willesden hub (also known as "Stonebridge Park") came into use on 23rd September 1996 and, from Monday 29th of that month, mail handling formerly undertaken at the London terminals was taken over by the depot (ref: The Railway Magazine, December 1996). On 20th May 1997, an official opening of the Willesden site was made by Princess Anne and, as a result, the hub was named the "Princess Royal Distribution Centre".
It was expected that one in five items sent through Britain’s postal system would be handled at the Princess Royal. To support the centre, a series of regional hubs were brought into use as part of the "Railnet" project:
Tonbridge [Opened: 10th October 1994]
Shieldmuir (Motherwell) [Opened: 16th February 1998]
Low Fell (Gateshead) [6th March 1995]
Dallam (Warrington) [Opened: November 1997]
Doncaster [Opened: 21st April 1997]
Bristol [April 2000]
Stafford [2nd June 1997]
[Opening dates from multiple editions of The Railway Magazine]
A hub was also planned to be established at Peterborough. However, it was reported that the cost of track and infrastructure works there prevented the scheme from moving forward (ref: The Railway Magazine, June 1997).
Royal Mail’s railway contract was carried out by BR’s "Rail Express Systems" (RES) business sector, which also had the operating licence for Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal train. As part of rail privatisation, the UK Government accepted a bid from a consortium under the name of "North and South Railways — led by "Wisconsin Transport Corporation Ltd" — for RES. This consortium eventually bought up the majority of BR’s freight operations and created the commercial brand "English, Welsh & Scottish Railway" (EWS). As a result of the RES buy-out, EWS took over the contract signed by Royal Mail and BR in 1994. A major investment was made by EWS in 1998 for Royal Mail and charter train markets (the latter of which was also a former RES operation) by the ordering of thirty high-speed diesel electric locomotives to replace the incumbent Class 47s. The then new fleet was designated "Class 67", was built by Alstom in Valencia, Spain, under contract by the Electric-Motive Division (EMD) of General Motors (GM) in Canada, and deliveries started in late 1999. Ultimately belonging to "Angel Trains" leasing company, the Class 67 diesels were capable of 125 MPH running and were intended to maintain the intensive services and tight schedules demanded by the contract with Royal Mail.
On 6th June 2003 Royal Mail announced that, from March of the following year, post would no longer be carried by rail (ref: Railways: Royal Mail Services, House of Commons Library, April 2010). The reason given was that of cost, the logic stated at the time being that the company could achieve the same quality of transport from both road and air at a lower price. It marked the end of the £150 million "Railnet" scheme and also resulted in the contract — originally signed with BR — ending two years early. The last postal trains were scheduled to depart the Princess Royal Distribution Centre on 31st March 2004; however, most trains ran for the last time on the night of 9th January of that year. There was one outlier, the locomotive-hauled Low Fell (Gateshead) to Willesden Princess Royal, that remained operational until June 2004, last running over the night of 4th/5th of that month (ref: The Railway Magazine, August 2004).
In June 2004 — the same month in which the last EWS-operated mail train ran — the training of drivers from GB Railfreight (GBRf) commenced on the Class 325 fleet, signalling a possible return of mail to rail. It was subsequently announced that GBRf had been awarded a contract by Royal Mail to run four daily services throughout December, between Willesden and Glasgow via Warrington, to transport about 4% of the Christmas post (ref: GBRf Wins Mail Deal, railwaypeople.com, 1st December 2004). After December, just one train a day in either direction, Monday to Friday, would operate, and the contract was set to run until March of the following year, at which point Royal Mail would consider a possible extension. In May 2005, Royal Mail and GBRf signed a new contract for the running of at least two trains each night between Willesden and Shieldmuir, lasting until March 2006 (ref: Railways: Royal Mail Services, House of Commons Library, April 2010). A series of extensions took the contract up to 2010, but the operation was a mere shadow of its former self, with two nightly trains running compared to the forty-nine prior to 2004.
On 1st June 2010, the Royal Mail contract was awarded to EWS' successor, DB Schenker. This stipulated the running of seven Mail trains on the West Coast Main Line, with scope to increase this number should there be demand. This contract was subsequently renewed on 1st June 2015, and included the running of six daily services on the West Coast Main Line and two on the East Coast Main Line.
13th March 1999
A Class 319 body shell and a Networker cab: the dual voltage Class 325. No. 325003 is seen at the northern-most platform of the cavernous Princess Royal Distribution Depot. Nearly a quarter of a century after this photograph was taken, No. 325003 was still plying the West Coast Main Line, albeit now lacking yellow stripes on either side. The occasion of this photograph was the "Red Nose" rail tour of the "Branch Line Society", which saw Class 313 unit Nos. 313056/057 visit the depot.
© David Glasspool Collection