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Mail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service online

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quarterly meetings, with a mnil representative speaking for
each T.P.O. The T.P.O. "Whitley Committee," a group of
labor and management representatives (dubbed the staff side
and the official side), forms the basis of their very successful
collective bargaining. Abotit 98 per cent of all sorters belong
to the U.P.W. (all but the most distant provincial members
are in the T.P.O. Branch). Enjoyable social gatherings, in-
cluding an annual Iron Road Revels, feature branch activi-
ties. The branch has also made admirable proposals, in inter-
national contacts, for temporary exchanges of postal person-
nel between British and overseas railway mail routes— an idea
bound to provide better mail service and more international
good will throughout the world wherever applied.

Both the T.P.O. Branch and the British Government have
done much in the way of publicizing the T.P.O.s through lit-
erature, radio programs, and the cinema. Each month the
branch issues an attractive printed journal of eight to twenty
pages, the Traveller— ^n outgrowth of a mimeographed
T.P.O. News Letter (published for its members in the armed


forces from 1941 to 1946). Featuring illustrated articles on
R.P.O.s of the world as well as union news, it has a subscrip-
tion list (in Britain, America, and elsewhere) three times as
large as the branch membership! Ron Smith of the Down/Up
Special is its editor, and he is assisted by William D. Taylor,
formerly active as branch secretary. The government pub-
lishes numerous booklets of the T.P.O. service, as listed in the
Bibliography, mostly free to the public; one is a beautiful
volume bound in transparent plastic and printed in three
colors (for the T.P.O. Centenary), and another features a
map of all T.P.O.s (which reminds us that the United States
Government has never issued such a map). The T.P.O.
Branch publishes a booklet for new union members assigned
to road duty; also numerous magazine and newspaper fea-
ture articles on the T.P.O.s have been published, as well as a
106-page book, English T.P.O.'s, by C. W . Ward. For the
history of Britain's T.P.O.s, we must refer all readers to the
pages of this excellent volume (Note IS). A new list of current
British T.P.O. routes is in Appendix I.

A complete short motion picture, Nifi:Iif Mail, was produced
by the G.P.O. Film Unit in 19.S6 to picture the srorv of the
Down/Up Special; it has been viewed by many in both Britain
and America. Just tt-n years later (December 14. 1946) the
British Broadcasting Corporation featured a special program
with actual sound effects and interviews on board the same
T.P.O. There is also a well-known, very attractive painting
by Golden entitled 'T.uston Station: Loading the T.P.O."

Since Britain's (and evidently the Tvorld's) first T.P.O. was
first inaugurated on January 6, 18.^8, its railway mail services
have given 1 1 2 years of magnificent service to the public. Space
forbids consideration here of such unique British institutions
as the famed Post Office Railway (an automatic, unmanned
electric tube railway, hauling closed mailbags onlv, under
London's streets), and the popular "railway letter" service by
which railway conductors handle specially stamped letters out-
side of the mails. And thus we take leave of the fascinating
Travelling Post Offices of "tliis realm— this England" with the


words of the distinguished poet W. H. Auden, from whose
epic poem Night Mail we have quoted at the start of our
chapter, still ringing in our ears:

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb—

The gradient's against her but she's on time . . .

Chapter 15


From the frozen wastes of Lapland
To the rice-lands of Cathay:

Even there the mail trains rumble-
Even there the tired clerks sway . .
- B.A.L.

—Courtesy Postal

Aside from the continental United States
and Great Britain, doubtless the most sig-
nificant countries to us from a railway mail
standpoint would be Canada and Mexico-
plus, of course, the outlying United States
territories, where R.P.O. operations differ
markedly from those in the States. A brief
study of the systems in each of these three
areas, plus a short review of that of India (a typical Asiatic
country), will follow. Very brief summaries of other national
systems will be tabulated in conclusion.


Canada's modern network of nearly two hundred R.P.O.
lines is intermediate in character between the United States
and British systems, but the American influence has the edge
by far, for Canadian lines are closely synchronized with ours.
About twelve hundred men, officially designated as "railway
mail clerks," man the coast-to-coast layout; but they are ap-
pointed by promotion from the post offices, as in England.



They then, however, become a permanent part of the Rail-
way Mail Service, as Canada still officially entitles its opera-
tions. The R.M.S. is part of the Post Office Department, as
in the United States, but is headed by a chief superintendent
at Ottawa (in English fashion)— currently, Mr. "\V. G. Ross.
Of the transcontinental mail channels, perhaps the most
important chain from east to west coasts (3,770 miles) is com-
posed of the following R.P.O.s:

1. Halifax 8: Moncton R.P.O. (Can.Natl., 189 miles).
Nova Scotia to New Brunswick.

2. Monc. & St. John (Can.Natl., 89 miles), in New Bruns-

3. St. John & Montreal (Can.Pac, 482 miles). New Bruns-
wick to Province of Quebec.

4. Mont, k Toronto (CN, 336 miles). Province of Quebec
to Ontario.

5. Tor. &: Ft. William (CP, 812 miles), in Ontario.

6. Ft. Wm. & Winnipeg (CP, 419 miles), Ontario to Mani-

7. Winn, k Moose Jaw (CP, 398 miles), Manitoba to Sas-

8. M. J. & Calgary (CP, 434 miles), Saskatchewan to

9. Cal. k Vancouver (CP, 642 miles), Alberta to British

Of these, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th lines listed are all long
ones, broken up into two or three divisions, as in the United
States; but, in contrast to our practice, each division is named
as a subsidiary R.P.O. The division titles are used only in
schemes and on slips or labels, not in schedules (thus the St.
John R: Montreal comprises the St. John &: Lac Megantic,
Lac Merantic k Sherbrooke, and Sherbrooke k Montreal
clerks' runs). As in the United States, all R.P.O. lines were
apportioned long ago among fifteen administrative areas (now
sixteen, wiili Newfoundland added), but these are called
postal districts, not divisions— usually designated by the name


of the headquarters city. Despite the fact that all long-dis-
tance ordinary letters have been carried by air for three years
now, the R.P.O.s are thriving.

Canadian R.P.O. schemes are termed distribution lists or
sortation books; much larger than ours, they are sturdily
bound in cloth board. They are issued for each province in
a convenient and handy alphabetical form (as in our earlier
official schemes, now unfortunately obsolete). Spaces between
each line permit instant insertion of ne^v post offices. However,
no mail routes are listed for the large-city offices, and the
scheming of "dis" offices, Avithout using either that abbrevia-
tion or asterisks, is a bit confusing to our eyes. The Schedules
of Mail Trains, likewise much larger than ours, are models
that we could •well emulate; timetables are clear and detailed
(direct lock bags for nearby points are bracketed with station
of dispatch), and the svmbols for frequency of ser\'ice are
superbly simple. Instead of using over t^vo hundred complex,
arbitrary letter-combination symbols fas does our P.T.S.)
the Canadian R.AT.S. numbers each weekday from 1 to 6 and
combines them with "Dy.*" (daily) and "Dv." (dailv except
Sunday; thus, "daily exc. Sun., Mon., R: Sat." is Dy.-l 6). Clerks
memorize the principle instantly.

Some Canadian R.P.O. cars— their seventy-two-foot ones-
are almost the world's longest. Most cars closely resemble ours,
evcent that they are usually lettered only "MAIL AND EX-
PRESS" or something equally noncommittal. Inside the
appearance is practically identical, but the lock bags hung for
letter mails differ markedly from our pouches (a huge, per-
manently attached lock and bolt is used to close the top in
accordionlike folds). Facing slips are folded, as in former
United States practice, for use in the slide-in label holders on
all bags. Slips are larger and thicker, and the same handy
registrv labels and good strong tTvine are used as in Fmjland.
The public is not permitted to purchase stamps from R.P.O.s.
C.P. routes, designated B.C.S. (baggage car service), some-
times carry registry conx'oys.

Canadian R.P.O.s usuallv deliver letters overnight, via
first carriers, to any point within four hundred to eight hun-


dred miles. City sortation on night trains likewise works
Montreal or Toronto mails out to carrier routes for the first
daily delivery. Now performed by railway mail clerks, the
city distribution was formerly done by "city sorters" bor-
rowed from post offices; semicircular cases in the car end are
often used. Several terminals exist (at Toronto, Regina, and
so on), which resemble ours; but local post offices run them—
not the R.M.S.

Tea is the favorite beverage en route, and regular hotels
are patronized at the end of the run, where sizable layovers are
gi\en. Layoffs are a bit shorter than in the United States,
however, for clerks must put in forty-four weekly hours of
actual road duty (without study allowances). Eighteen days'
annual leave is given. Duties in the car are rotated among the
men, including the duty of local exchanges by the catching
arm, which is just like ours. Clerks take regular case exami-
nations, using practice cards (up to twenty-five hundred per
province) printed and sold by the Post Ofiice Department;
passing is 90 to 95 per cent, but for promotions, 97 per cent.
One card-exam per year is required, and clerks use many
study methods, varying from "adaptations of Pelmanism" to
just plain memory work. Five questions each are asked, at the
same examination, on Canada's P. L. R: R.; on the instructions
to clerks; and on specific train connections for letters between
given points. Salaries are considerably less than those of
the United States, but living costs are also lower; higher pay
is being sought.

Canada's interesting types of R.P.O.s include some unusual
boat and part-boat runs and some still more remarkable "in-
ternational" routes, for Canadian R.P.O. cars are used inter-
changeably with ours— plus four busy narro'iv-gauge R.P.O.s
in Newfoundland. But most roiues in Ne'wfoundland are
not only boat lines but still retain English titles, such as the
Argentia R: N. Sydney T.P.O. (.S.S. Bar Haven) or Cabot
Strait T.P.O. ; its former boat was sunk by enemy action
when on its run October 14, 1942, killing 137. The four
unique slim-gauge R.P.O.s in Ne^vfoundland include the
Newfoundland Railway's 545-mile "Express" or St. Johns


k Port aux Basques R.P.O., Avhose three clerks are often snow-
bound and dug out by dog teams; their R.P.O. and others were
pictured on former NeAvfoundland stamps. On idyllic Prince
Edward Island— the province with no crime, divorce, poverty,
or liquor— the unique Charlottetown R: Sackville R.P.O. (CN)
makes connection to the mainland via railway, the car-ferry
steamer Prince Edward Island (also shown on a stamp) then
rail again; two other rail R.P.O.s serve the island only. Then
there is the "Muskoka Lakes Steamer" (MLNavS:HCo),
with clerks running from Gravenhurst to Port Carling
and Rosseau, Ontario. Two similar routes in British Colum-
bia operate: one is the Robson 8: Arrowhead R.P.O. (.S.5.
Minto), and the other is variously entitled the T.P.O. Bur-
rard Inlet, the Indian River R: Vancouver, or simply as the
"Burrard" or "Burrard Inlet," B. C, post office (its present
postmark)! The latter distributes patrons' mail to docks but
is operated as a post office and not by the R. M.S. —it consists
of a mail boat (usually the 5.5. Scenic), operated for twenty-
five years by Postman-Captain Anderson, And the Quebec,
Natash. R: N. Shore (ClarkeSSCo) on the St. Lawrence has
three unique "Seapost" and "Poste Fluviale" runs (see Appx.
I for list of these and of all Canadian R.P.O.s).

Best known of the many international routes is perhaps the
DRjH's Rouses Point 8: Albany (for United States-operated
lines are named after points in this country only), which ac-
tually runs from Albany to Montreal, P. Q.; like many other
such runs, it uses United States clerks and postmarkers and
serves no Canadian local stations. One such United States
route operates entirely in Canada except for a mile or two in
Buffalo and Detroit— the Buff. & Chicago, East Div. (NYC-
MC); Canada's Ft. Erie S: St. Thomas R.P.O., on same tracks,
gives the local service. Canada, similarly, has many routes
entering the States, like the CN's Island Pond R: Montreal out
of Island Pond, Vermont, or completely crossing one of them—
like her remarkable St. Johns R: Montreal R.P.O. (CP), trav-
ersing the width of Maine for hundreds of miles, exchanging
mails with United States lines but not serving: local offices
(they receive mail from nearby R.P.O.s).


The most incredible of all border R.P.O.s is doubtless the
amazing joint operation ot the P.T.S.'s VVarroad & Duluth
R.P.O. and Canada's Fort Frances &: Winnipeg, comprising
the CN raihvay from Duluth lo Winnipeg. '1 he two R.P.O.s
overlap for almost a hundred miles in Ontario and Minne-
sota. United States clerks run from Duluth to International
Falls, Minnesota, and cross into Ontario via Fort Frances
to Crozier, where they get off — after delivering even the
Canadian local mails, in international sealed sacks, between
the Falls and Crozier. Canadian clerks take over the run at
that point and work west^v•ard to cross the border again be-
tween Rainy River, Ontario, and Baudette, Minnesota; and
they in turn serve several United States to^vns from Baudette
to Warroad, Minnesota, inclusive! These offices, "schemed"
to the Warroad Sc Duluth, are actually served by clerks of the
Canadian route only, who use and deliver regulation United
States pouches (left by the United States crew) for each town.
The "Canucks" also handle much mail for Penasse, Minne-
sota (via W^arroad), our northernmost United States post
office, for which all mails must be carried throuo;h Canada.
Finally the train crosses into Canada again via South Junction,
Manitoba, and on to Winnipeg.

Some complex and interesting variations from standard
practice are necessary on such routes. Many items must be
segregated for customs inspection; direct letter bags for offices
and R.P.O.s across the border, in either direction, must be
prepared as sealed tie sacks; local offices are served by pouch
or sealed sack, depending on country traversed, regardless of
which nation's clerks are on duty; and periodic counts of inter-
national parcels and the complex foreign registry regulations
must be observed to the letter. Since United States lines enter-
ing or nearing Canada "pouch on" many Canadian offices and
lines, and vice versa, border lines of both countries must carry
scaling presses and equipment to prepare the needed sealed
sacks. United States clerks "put up" Canadian provinces, us-
ing sortation books and cards from Ottawa, exactly as they do
tiieir on-n examinations; but Canadian clerks do not learn
United States states. Each country must dispatch mails in its


own bags only, and return the other's empty; vari-colored
tags are used to denote each class of international mail.

Mail carrying by rail in Canada dates back to 183G, when
the first railway was built (Laprairie to St. John's, P.Q.); most
railroads began carrying mailbags as soon as constructed.
Route agents began sorting local mails on the St. Lawrence
k Atlantic Railroad (as well as on steamers) about 1851. The
first true R.P.O., the Niagara Falls R: London (Grand Trunk),
began operating in 1854; and by 1857 forty clerks were run-
ning on fourteen hundred miles of route throughout eastern
Canada, although an 1865 report lists only seventeen actual
R.P.O. lines. As late as 1874, however, lines like the Toronto
&: Windsor (GT) used no letter cases; letters were thrown
loose into the large parcel and paper boxes (resembling the
ones once used in the United States). The first R.P.O. in
western Canada, the 132-mile Winnipeg Sc Brandon, began
operating January 2, 1886; on June 28, 1886, the first through
R.P.O. train left Montreal for the Pacific Coast.

The clerks' union is the Dominion Railway Mail Clerks'
Federation, founded about 1885 as the regional (Eastern)
Railway Mail Clerks' Association of Canada at St. John, N. B.
In January 1917 it was consolidated with the Western Rail-
way Mail Clerks' Federation (founded 1912), at Winnipeg, to
form the present organization. About 1921 it affiliated with
the Canadian Federation of Postal Employees, and in 1944
with the Civil Serxice Federation; however, it withdrew from
the former federation after an "unfortunate" strike of postal
and railway mail clerks about 1924, sponsored by the C.F.P.E.
Like our N.P.T.A., the D.R.ISLC.F. believes in encouraging
the highest standards of performance of duty by each clerk,
expressed in the words "W^e must give as well as take," in order
to deserve and better secure the improved conditions for
which the organization often successfully bargains.

It, too, is comprised of divisional associations, one to each
postal district, and of branches at all important railroad
centers. About 80 per cent of all clerks are members, and a
full-time secretary serves the federation at Ottawa. Here, too,
is published its well-printed journal, the Railway Mail Clerks


which is published in English and French editions cleverly
bound together witli separate covers and titles. Enjoyable
outings are held jointly by the D.R.M.C.F. and the N.P.T.A.,
including friendly Toronto- Buffalo area family picnics.

Electric rail fans will be interested to know that one rail-
way mail clerk is assigned to the trolley-operated Port Stanley,
St. Thomas R: London B.C.S. (LR;PS) in Ontario to convoy
registered mails on Train 48 from London to St. Thomas;
and that until 1938, operating postal cars of the former
Windsor R: St. Thomas (CN) were hatiled by trolley locomo-
tives, likewise, from London to St. Thomas. Previously, cars
of other R.P.O.'s had been similar hauled; but Canada never
had any true trolley R.P.O.s supplying either local or city
stations. However, several C. P. runs are trolley.

The Dominion's railway mail clerks, dubbed "Canada's
Night Riders" by Deputy P.M.G. Turnbull in a recent radio
address, have to contend with (as he pointed otit) cars that
"sway, roar, bounce, lurch, scream around curves, jerk like
a busting broncho"— in addition to the lo-^v salaries and long
hours. We can leave them Avith no better parting salute than
one which Mr. Turnbull quoted as oft applied to them: "The
key men who swiftly dispatch the nation's business . . . who
race against time and win."


In all the outlying territories of the United States, only one
R.P.O. still remains— and even that is not a P.T.S. operation!
The Postal Transportation Service, which was operating fotir
interesting rail and boat R.P.O.s in Alaska and Puerto Rico
in 1949, closed out the last of these operations in 1950; and
the 10 short former R.P.O.s of HaAvaii, such as the old Aiea
& Waianae (Oahu RR?) had disappeared long before. (Lines
formerly operated by the R.M.S. in Cuba and the Philippines,
however, are still flourishing; as detailed later— but under in-
dependent governments.)

The transition of Alaskan postal service to 100 per cent
closed-pouch operation with air routes as its basis is now com-


plete; rail and boat services carry little but non-first-class
mails, and operate about weekly to monthly as opposed to
daily air operation. With even ordinary three-cent letters be-
ing carried mostly by air, and with official disapproval toward
any increased frequency of R.P.O. running or to establish-
ment of H.P.O.s as the fixed policy there, the death-blow to all
distribution in transit was inevitable. The infrequent R.P.O.
services were made to appear quite useless because of such
handicaps, in comparison with the air lines' overpowering
speed and frequency factors.

Very interesting, however, is Alaska's longest rail-operated
closed-pouch route, the Fairbanks R: Seward C.P., which was
an R.P.O. until May 1950; this connects the very center of
the Territory with its south coast. The other two R.P.O.'s
were steamboat runs, with mails sorted by a joint employee.
The Juneau, Sitka R: Skagway (J. V. Da\is Boat Line), 496
miles through the coastal bays, served the present and former
capitals; it had weekly service on each of two sections until
its steamer burned in 1947— listed as "Suspended" thereafter,
it was oflicially discontinued in May, 1950. The other boat
line, the Nenana R: St. Michael R.P.O., operated bi-weekly in
summer until discontinued Oct. 15, 1949; it traversed the
famed Yukon for 1,028 miles as our longest boat R.P.O. (the
St. Michael end w^as closed-pouch). The joint employee
served on two Alaska R.R. steamers, the Alice and Nenana,
using a postmarker reading "ALASKA" at the bottom in-
stead of the usual "R.P.O."

Alaskan R.P.O.s had to contend with the highly unorthodox
ways in which Alaskan mails were and are handled as com-
pared to operations in the States— dispatches of mail-bags ad-
dressed to no-office points, "catches" made by the train from
hand-held train-order hoops, the rigid exclusion of ordinary
parcels and much printed matter from mailing to most areas
in \vinter, special regulations for mailing gold dust and
bullion, and mails for railroaders at section houses formerly
delivered hand-to-hand.

Trains on the Fairbanks &: Seward C.P. operate over the
470-mile Alaska Railroad on probably the most leisurely


schedule on record. The R.P.O. and passenger trains used to
take only 32 hours for the run, with both lunch and over-
night stops; but this breakneck speed was reduced to a 37-
hour trip well before the last day of R.P.O. service— when
Clerk John F. Rowland finished his final run on May 22, 1950.
Contrary to a common impression, the Fair. Sc Seward was a
short-lived R.P.O. of comparatively recent origin; it was not
established until May, 1936, when Clerk J. B. Carson inaugu-
rated its career of just 14 years with a borrowed postmarker.
The line was a mere newcomer among the many boat R.P.O.'s
Alaska then boasted— the Alaska S.S. Co.'s 2070-mile Seattle
&: Seward (now C.P.), the Seward S: Unalaska on the S.S. Starr,
and many others (Note 13). Clerk Rowland, who furnished
us much of this information, was transferred to the Seattle R:
Portland R.P.O. in Washington and Oregon; and he now
runs on this Union Pacific line.

Today, Fairbanks R: Seward C.P. trains leave Seward north-
bound on Tuesdays and Saturdays (the Saturday trip was the
R.P.O.) and on days when steamers arrive, at 8:30 A.M. as
always. Of the mail which is loaded on before leaving, the
clerk used to distribute some 20 to 30 pouches and sacks re-
ceived here— including mails addressed to the Nenana R: St.
Michael, Nenana Dis, and so on, for Avhich he did advance
sorting; he occupied a 30-foot compartment with five racks,
and dispatched nearly all of his own outgoing long-distance
mail by air. Fully 50 per cent of the mail received is addressed
to no-office localities— which, however, are practically all listed
in the second half of the very unusual "standpoint scheme"
which is the only one issued for Alaska. The end of all R.P.O.
service has worked havoc with this scheme, for no longer can
any office be schemed to a distributing line; however, it has
always listed the offices alphabetically in Canadian fashion
with summer and winter services (manv no-office points were
routed only to some R.P.O.). The clerk used a self-compiled
local scheme also.

By 1 P.M., our train arrives at the fast-growing metropolis
of Anchorage; and it stays here all afternoon and all night.
(The R.P.O. stayed there both Saturday and Sunday nights,

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