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

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Several R.P.O.s connected a Flushing-Harwich Seapost run
to England until 1939. Of great interest are four steam
tramway R.P.O.s (Burgh Haamstede-Zijpe, Rotterdam-
Hellevoetsluis, Rotterdam-Zuid Beijerland, and Spijkenisse-
Oostvoorne, with reverse runs, on the Rotterdamshe Tramweg
Maatschappij). They use box-like cars with five small, high
windows (and a door) on each side; five earlier runs on the
Arnhem-Zeist route (NBMaat) used electric tram cars.

Noncay.—Ahoux. three hundred clerks man the two hun-
dred-odd R.P.O.s on the Norwegian State Railways, the ser-
vice being designated Reisende Posfekspedisjoncr. Important
lines are Oslo-Trondheim and Oslo-Kornsjo (into Sweden).
Mails are divided to line segments and sorted in small cars.
Clerks, interchanged with those in post offices, work a forty-
hour week; and enjoy excellent single-room layover facilities
(government-furnished) plus twenty-one days' annual leave.

Poland.— Th^TQ. were only six Poczt. Wagonie (R.P.O.s) re-
ported in 1937; many more doubtless exist now. Numerous
new postal cars have been built in double-quick time since
1945; full cars contain large and small case boxes and pouch
table; others use half of a passenger coach. Poland had R.P.O.s


before we did, and by 1863 had lines from Warsaw to
Czestochowa (connecting to Vienna), Bydgoszcz (to Berlin)
and Grodno. Present routes also include Bielsko-Kalwaria
(?); but the heavy line W^arsaw- Leningrad has always been op-
erated by the Russians.

Portugal.— About twenty-eight Ambulantes.' Postmarks, at
least early ones, show no routes.

Sardinia.— There is doubtless R.P.O. service from Caorliari
to the island's north end, but available records of Sardinian
posts deal mostly with Piedmont, its former mainland prov-
ince (now Italy). Turin-Genoa Posie Amb. ran there.

Soviet Russia (also Latvia, Estonia).— Poshtovy Vagony
(postal cars) of Russia operate over a vast network of railways,
although no current information could be obtained from
Soviet representatives. The Trans-Siberian Express from Mos-
cow to V'ladivostok, Siberia, carries an R.P.O. route which is
perhaps the world's longest. Beside the P.V. Leningrad-War-
saw (see Poland), other rotites connect to Moscow and all
other centers; lines are designated by number only, there
being at least seventy-eight routes. Terminals (depot sorting
units) exist at many points. About five Postvaguns operate in
Soviet Estonia (Tallin-Sadam, Valk-Tallin), and several in
Latvia (Ritupe-Riga, Riga-Valka), as well as in Lithuania and
the Ukraine.

Spain.— At least forty-one Ambulante traverse Spain, in-
cluding Irun-Madrid, Malaga-Seville, Madrid-Vigo (an ex-
press run). Others are on slow mixed trains, even showing
"MIX." [tren mixto) in the cancel. (TRANVIAS/BARCE-
LONA, a tramway postmark, is applied to car-letter-box mail;
it is not a trolley R.P.O.) Postal cars are about forty feet, divid-
ed into working and storage sections; mailbags are hung on the
walls and sealed as in England. The fast Midnight Mail from
Madrid to France has three compartments manned by six uni-
formed clerks (wearing tan smocks). Permanently labeled
porcelain headers are used by letter clerks, with "dis" ofTices

*Or Ambulancia.


printed in red on each; while their mailbags are colorfully
embroidered with embossed letters in red, yellow, and blue.

Szveden.—The Postkupe Svenska operates a highly efficient
network of some 217 P.K.P.s (RPOs) -which are designated by
number (independent of train number). Huge seventy-five
foot,, forty-ton cars are often used (among the very longest)
containing cases with all sizes of boxes as well as pouch racks
like ours, overhead racks for parcels, and numerous cupboards,
important loutcs are P.R.P. 9 and -IG (Stockholni-BoUnas),
81 (Goteborg Malmo), and 308 (Boden-Kiruna), the latter
going far north of the Arctic Circle and using electric loco-
motives of the Lapland Railway. The eight hundred clerks
sort mails much on the United States principle, using a large
R.P.O. schedule (Tidtabeller for Jarnav.igsposterna and
scheme (Forteckning), each covering the whole of Sweden and
incorporating ingenious maps and diagrams. There are about
fifteen men to a car, carefully trained and interchangeable
with post-office staff; they receive annual leave up to thirty-five
days annually but have no layoffs. Most lines are electrified
and are on the S^vedish State Rys.

Switzerlond.—K.F.O. operations, designated both as Bahn-
post and Ambulant in bilingual postmarks, include the
Zurich-Basel line and an express nm out of Geneva. Most
lines are electrified, including at least one usino- single electric
cars— the Stansstad-Engelberg segment, Luzerne-Engleberg

Tinkey.—The Turkish "Mobile Service" system has just
been converted into a complete modern R.P.O. network for
the first time, under supervision of Virgil Jones (a P.T.S.
superintendent from Kansas) and his United States Postal
Mission; there are over one hundred runs. A scheme and
complete R.P.O. schedule of Turkey were both issued last
year, and the Isianbul-Adana became one of two trunk
R.P.O.s out of Istanbul, replacing primitive route-agent
service— the other is the Istanbul-Ankara.

Yugoslavia.— There are about one hundred and fifteen
lines, with some R.P.O.s over three hundred miles long; routes


include Sarajevo-Burgojno, Tuzla-Doboj, et cetera. Cars on
long runs contain two beds, a sliower, and an ice-cooled food
cupboard; clerks receive free board and lodging on layoxers,
as \ve\\ as a "subsistence allowance" higher than that of travel-
ing officials!


^w5/ro//fl.— Authorities state that the only R.P.O.s still op-
erating in this subcontinent are those of New South Wales,
except for one very unusual one, operating only once a month,
attached to the Pay Train, Trans-Australian Raihvay (post-
mark reads just that); Pay Train 1 runs from Port Augusta to
Watson, and Train 2 from Fisher to Kals;oorlie. The N.S.W.
lines, using late-fee letter slots, consist of the SOUTH (Sydncy-
Junee), WEST (Sydney-Dubbo), NORTHWEST (Sydney-
Werris Creek-Narrabu) and NORTH (Werris Creek junc-
tion-Glen Innes) "T.P.O." runs. However, very recently re-
ported were a Sydney-Brisbane and Sydney-Albury run, and a
Quoran-Alice Springs T.P.O. (South Australia, 1948) in addi-
tion. Clerks work in uniforms, including officer-type caps,
and work at permanently labeled cases (^vith large compart-
ments for parcels). Cancels read "T.P.O. 2 NORTH/N.S.W.-
AUST." et cetera. The first T.P.O.s operated about 1870 and
at one time traversed most states of the Commonwealth;
but T.P.O.s in Queensland, Victoria, and Tasmania quit in
1932. (South Australia had a "P.O. RAILWAY" postmark-
ing mail as early as 1867.) Early T.P.O.s used two compart-
ments of a passenger car painted "ROYAL MAIL VAN" and
used candles; when letters were burned by the latter, kerosene
lamps were put in.

Indonesia (Java).— At least one line, the North Borneo
R.P.O., operates out of Batavia, Java. Clerks use large-holed
sorting cases but no racks.

A^ezu Zealand.— One main-line R.P.O., only, still operates—
the "T.P.O. MAIN TRUNK" (postmark incl tides "Auck-
land, N.Z."), from Auckland to Wellington. Many shorter
lines once operated, including branches of this one to New


Plymouth, Thames, and Woodville; also from Wellington to
Napier via Woodville. On the South Island there was a main
line from Invercargill to Christchurch (via Dunedin) and
two branches out of Christchurch. Long called Railway
Travelling Post Offices, these services began in 1878. The re-
maining 426-mile main line uses modern four-truck cars on
fast trains, with two senior clerks— called "train agents"— as
the crew. A detailed local service is given at all stations. A
small restroom equipped with stove and many 'conveniences
is furnished the clerks, who travel .SOO.OOO miles a year; service
was suspended in World War II. Clerks from post-ofTice mail
rooms man the R.P.O., workino: five weeks in the office for
each one on the road. Trains leave at 3 P.M. both ways, make
sixteen stops.

Philippine Republic— About tw^enty-eight railway postal
clerks now run on the newly-restored routes in the Philippines
under direction of Vincente Gonzales, Chief, Railway Mail
Service (Bureau of Posts); these consist of the Manila-San
Fernando and Manila-Naga City R.P.O.s (ManilaRR) on
Luzon, and the Iloilo-Capiz R.P.O. (Philippine Railway) on
Panay Island. The 378-kilometer Manila-Naga line is the
longest, and carries two clerks in each direction. Operating
practice, which was under the U. S. Railway Mail Service for
many years after 1899 and used the same official postmark
designs, closely resembles ours. Until the Japanese invasion
in 1941, the Manila-Naga Camarine Sur operated in addition
to the other R.P.O.s; all were taken over by the Japanese but
operated almost entirely as closed-pouch service. Earlier there
were as many as ten lines— many of them organized by our
military forces in 1898 or by an R.M.S. postal mission then
(see Chapter 1 1). Some Spanish routes operated still earlier,
but no records seem available.


We must apologize to our good friends to the south, as well
as those in the other two continents, outside of India, for our
inability to include specific information on their very interest-


ing and progressive railway postal services— both because of a
lack of space and an extreme paucity of available data other
than technical postmark information. Korea, despite its new
significance in world affairs, has apparently never had R.P.O.s
according; to its Consul General.

South America has interesting Ambulancias in Bolivia and
Chile and extensive R.P.O. services in Argentina, Brazil,
Colombia, Peru, British Guiana, and most other countries.
The "Transvaal T.P.O.," one of two in South Africa, is
particularly interesting— a long run from Johannesburg to
De Aar. Japan has some twenty-eight routes, using small
compartments in view of the passengers, in which clerks sort
into big-holed cases; many lines are electrified. China had sev-
eral routes before its collapse, including the Pieping-Yukuan
and Shanghai-Nanking R.P.O.s and a Yangtze seapost route
(publicity exhibits for an expansion program even included
model R.P.O. cars).

Chai'ter 16


When I've made my last trip in the new tin train,

And have tied out my last sack;
And have headed west toward the land of rest,

From whence no once comes bark,
It would soothe my dream to be pulled by steam

On that ride down the Glory track.

— Robert L. Simpson

The bright future prospects of the
P.T.S. are closely linked with the im-
pact made upon the Service by today's
innovations— and, conversely, with the
impression made by the P.T.S. upon
the nation at lars^e, as revealed in con-
temporary literary and artistic media
and in its contribution thereto of so
many distinguished professional lead-
ers. In closing, an appraisal of these
interesting trends is fitting.
The sudden advent of air mail, with a speed factor completely
offsetting the time saved by transit-sorting when long distances
are involved, has presented an unprecedented challenge to
the future of mail distribution en route. From the very first
experimental balloon-mail fligiit in pre-railroad days (1835)
up to the inception of mail-plane trials aroimd 1911 and
establishment of our first air-mail route in 1918, an implied
threat to the future of R.P.O. service as we know it has existed;
and the expansion of air services since has intensified it. For-



tunately, the Railway Mail Service— as the natural channel for
transit mail— was very early assigned the task of establishing
"air-mail fields" to sort the air mail; for it had to be kept
separate from ordinary letters, and post offices obviously could
not furnish the facilities. Handily located right at each major
airport, the A.ALF.s soon became a vitally important part of
the Service.

Today the Postal Transportation Service operates nearly
forty Air Mail Fields manned by o\er t^velve hundred clerks.
The complex special schemes needed for sorting air mail,
which cannot as yet be routed to distributing lines, eventual-
ly assumed their present form (listing definite dispatches for
each first- and second-class office, but massing others on dis-
tributino; centers). A.iNf.F. clerks handle in the mails manv
rare items and unusual articles having vital time priority.
Biologicals, cut flowers, anti-borer insects (with a life cycle
too short for sea transport to Hawaii), wasps for pollination,
fresh poultry, bees, ne^vs mats, and urgently needed spare parts
are quickly rushed by them to all corners of the earth. They
are expert sorters; at Omaha (Nebraska) A.M.F., for example,
clerks work New York City air mail out to stations bet^veen
planes and often take 1,000-card examinations 100 per cent
correct, at up to forty cards per minute.

In spite of trials, such as their unreasonably low salary
classification, A.M.F. clerks do yeoman service in the hours
between their long commuting trips (in post-office trucks or
by such little public transportation as exists). Since most air
mail must finish its trips to smaller offices by land, they pouch
on all nearby R.P.O. routes and distributing offices. The "fly-
paper fields" are already developing tales and traditions of
their own in the P.T.S. pattern. A favorite story at Jackson-
ville (Florida) A.M.F. deals with former Postmaster General
Hannegan's unexpected visit there while waiting to change
planes. He walked in and greeted Clerk J. B. Glover with
"Fm Bob Hannegan, the Postmaster General." Grover, not
even glancing upward, retorted, "Yes, and Fm President Tru-
man." Only after insistent explanations was he convinced,
amid many a hearty laugh at his confusion.


Years ago, however, farsighted railway mail clerks became
convinced that the A.M.F.s were not enough— that for maxi-
mimi cross-coimtry speed to the ultimate degree air-mail ser-
vice should be combined with actual distribution aloft in the
planes. It is not known who first suggested the idea, but it
was probably put forth well before the first ne\vs of such ex-
periments (overseas) reached this country in 1928. For the
world's first Flying Post Office was not the one recently oper-
ated across America as a result of such sugsrestions; it was ac-
tually the Stockholm-London Air Post Office, which operated
intermittently from June 18 to September 6, 1928, from
S\veden to England via Malmo. Actual sortino: of letters aloft
was performed by expert clerks from the Stockholm G.P.O.
on ten flights, sponsored by the Swedish Air Traffic Associa-
tion (English and Swedish postmarks).

Here in America a planned attempt to have a clerk placed
on a plane (to sort mail between Forth Worth and San An-
tonio, Texas) was first put forth by Superintendent C. J.
Taylor of the Ilth Division, R.M.S., in the early 1930s; but
Washington disapproved the suggestion. About 1935, Walter
W. Mahone, of the Rich. Sc Clif. Forge (CR:0) in Virginia,
introduced perhaps the first R.M.A. resolution for sortation
on planes; and by 1939 the Association was approving similar
resolutions at each national convention. That same year ac-
tual non-stop catch-and-delivery service by planes was intro-
duced around Pittsburgh experimentally on May twelfth (the
permanent service began August 12, 1940); All-American Air-
lines operated this rotite to Huntington, West Virginia, and
others to eastern Pennsylvania for ten years. No clerk was
carried and no letters distributed, but the flight mechanic (or
sky clerk) did "sort" small pouches of mail en route into the
rubber containers which were thrown off at way points; mails
to be "caught" were placed in similar containers hung in a
ring of nylon rope which was hooked up by a second rope from
the plane and reeled upward. One hundred twenty-five stops
were served, but service was discontinued on June 30, 1949.

Clerks renewed their efforts to put clerks aloft as the result
of the "pickup service" impetus, but Department officials re-


jected all such suggestions as impracticable until early in 1 943.
At tiiat time Postmaster General Walker broke ^vith tradition
to declare that studies were being made of "distribution of
mail en route in transcontinental airplanes" and that railway
postal clerks— excellently fitted for the work— should be used
therein. Although other air-mail officials scoffed by saying
that letters would slide out of the case whenever the plane
banked, plans ^vere steadily perfected and were publicly an-
nounced by Postmaster General Robert Hannegan in Janu-
ary 1940; and on March thirty-first, Fairchild Aircraft re-
leased its "Flying Mail Car" plans.

At 1 P.M. on September 25, 1946, the first flight of the
experimental "Washington, Dayton R: Chicago Flying Post
Office" (TWA) actually took off from the Washington Na-
tional Airport, and mails were sorted aloft for the first time in
America. I'he specially equipped cargo liner had been on dis-
play since 9 A.M., and elaborate ceremonies preceding the
take-off had involved Postmaster General Hannegan, Second
Assistant Postmaster General Gael Sullivan, and Air Mail,
W'ar Department, and T.W.A. officials. Mr. Sullivan and the
other officials on board the flight sorted the air mail (mostly
collectors' covers) out to states and directs in the compact case;
but no postmark was applied- the mail was canceled in W^ash-
ington, with special cachets used. Arriving at Chicago in
three and one-half hours, the plane was then routed to Pitts-
burgh and New York. On October first, another F.P.O. flight
was operated clear from Boston to Los Angeles on American
Air Lines* Midnight Expediter; and on the same day the Fair-
child Packet (Flying Mail Car) got its chance. United Air
Lines flew it from New York to San Francisco in exactly twelve
hours; and on October third, it was routed to Seattle and then
back to New York the next day. The Packet's squared fuselage
accommodates a unique semicircular letter case, two pouch
racks and a table, mail chutes, ten overhead boxes ^vith gates,
intercom phone, and a special cushioned chair for sorting
while seated. Soothing color schemes, fluorescent lighting,
and other modern devices are used.

All Flying Post Office operations were suspended after


October 4, 1946, and have not been resumed at this writing;
but officials involved declared the experiment an unqualified
success, and its permanent establishment has long been ex-
pected. No definite routes have yet been authorized, nor any
mail postmarked aloft (although cachets, only, were applied
on the Expediter). Carrying up to twelve thousand pounds
of bag mail in addition to that for sorting (an estimated one-
fourth of total), the service could greatly speed up all long-
distance air mail in conjunction with C.P. feeder routes. If
air mail is ever to travel as speedily as (he air-line passenger,
flying post offices are an obvious "must" (cf. Armstrong ex-
cerpt. Chap. 7).

To sum things up, careful studies seem to indicate that the
triumphal entry and advance of modern air-mail facilities rep-
resent an encouras;inCT challenQ;e— not a threat— to the future
progress of our railway post offices and of mail sortation in
transit generally. And this is said even with all due regard to
the dire predictions of both clerks and officials, here and there,
who in recent years have painted dark pictures of our R.P.O.s
becoming nearly or totally extinct— with "all first-class mails
being sent by air" in closed pouches. The living proof that
such fears are groundless is found in the postal systems of
Canada, France, and Norway, where all long-distance letter
mails have been sent by air mail for years, yet with almost no
curtailment whatever of their flourishing R.P.O. networks
having resulted! Most letters travel not over three hundred to
five hundred miles or so, and over such distances R.P.O.s are
faster than planes in elapsed mail-transit time— for sorting in
transit, plus elimination of truck hauls to airports, overcomes
the speed differential of air travel. The advent of air mail
has encouraged a corresponding upsurge in the use of surface
mails; and furthermore, when air mails are grounded by bad
weather, still more traffic is thrown to the R.P.O.s. And it is
essential that R.P.O.s be preserved for such eventualities, as
well as to handle newspapers and other time-value mail, and,
further, to deliver air mail to all the many smaller destinations
that have no airfields! The case for the future seems self-
evident: A co-ordinated network of R.P.O.s, H.P.O.s, and


Flying Post Offices must, and certainly will, furnish the back-
bone tor the Postal Service of Tomorrow.^

The second great modern innovation in mail transportation
is the new Highway Post Office— welcomed by all railway mail
men with open arms, in sharp contrast to the coming of air
mail. True highway-borne R.P.O.s, these new mail-sorting
buses are equally popular Avith the public and are operated
under laws designed to protect short-line railways from com-
petition. The expansion of this new service has "top priority
in Post Office Department planning," with at least one hun-
dred more routes projected in addition to the similar number
now operated. Detailed analyses of costs and operations of
the hypos or higli-wheelers, as the clerks call them, have proved
them to be a magnificent and permanent success after nine and
one-half years of close observation. The one factor of elimi-
nating mail-messenger costs and delays (for the H.P.O. drives
direct to post-office doors) at stations has saved the government
thousands of dollars. It is planned to re-establish most dis-
continued R.P.O.s in this new form and to place H.P.O.s on
many long star routes.

It will amaze most of us to learn that America's first sorting
of mails on moving highway vehicles occurred in 1896! These
early, horse-drawn "H.P.O.s" were called Collection R: Dis-
tribution Wagons in the cities and Lxperimental Postal
Wagons in rural areas. The first of these were two vehicles,
each designated simply as "COLLECT'N &: DIST'N
WAGON NO. 1," which began operation simultaneously in
New York and in Washington on October 1, 1896; they were
manned respectively by Clerks J. P. Connolly and R. N. Jeffer-
son, among others. Operated not by the R.M.S. but by city
post offices, these wagons performed local city distribution
along with the streetcar R.P.O.s, with which they were co-
ordinated, but they concentrated on collecting and sorting

^At present, universal three-cent air mail for long distances would be economi-
cally fantastic. Figures from both the Postal Transport Journal and Railroad
Magazirie reveal that the air lines are paid as much (and sometimes far more)
for transporting all air mails as the railways— unsubsidized— are paid for
carrying ten to eighteen times as muchi


drop mails en route to the post office. The idea was borrowed
either from the R.M.S. or from a similar service in Berlin,
Germany, the latter having apparently been the first such ser-
vice on record. The usual letter cases and pouch racks were
installed, and wagons pouched on outgoing R.P.O. trains
(supposedly relieving post oflices of up to 50 per cent of out-
going distribution). Actually, business firms hopelessly
swamped the wagons, seeking these early dispatches, and both
wagons were soon transferred— to Buffalo and St. Louis, where
tliey were discontinued in 1903 or 1904 {Note 20).

The odd Experimental Postal Wagon Service had its be-
ginning April 3, 1899, at Westminster, Maryland— the inven-
tion of E. W. Shriver of that post office. Its first eight-foot,
two-horse wagon was painted in blue and gold ("U. S.
POSTAL WAGON") and fitted with a counter, drawers, and
fifty-eight-box case. It served a thirty-mile rural route out of
Westminster, delivering mail direct to patrons in sixty-three
rural hamlets (largely fourth-class post offices, then discon-
tinued) and farm stops. The clerk or "postmaster" not only
expedited his carrier deliveries by doing his usual preliminary
sorting while traveling, but also sold stamps and money orders,

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