Never mind the mail train, what about my post?

I'm still waiting for a letter posted with a first-class stamp less than six miles from my house five days ago
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The Independent Online

Another British bastion bites the dust. I've just heard that the Royal Mail is scrapping all its trains in favour of road and air transport. Where will it end - stagecoaches, lamp lighters, sawdust on floors, proper crackling on pork, ladies' maids, Corner Houses and now Royal Mail trains gone, all gone.

And good riddance to them with the possible exception of crackling. Having been soundly chastised for the elegiac piece I wrote last week recommending a return to horse-drawn transport - "Dear Mrs Arnold, get a grip, get a life, get a Mini" - I have resolved to go with the flow of progress.

A month ago I was feeling depressed about the talk of bus conductors being scrapped. Another nail in the coffin of good old British tradition, I thought, and got on a No 19 bus where the conductor spent the entire journey sitting in the front seat talking to his girlfriend on his mobile while we all had free rides.

Besides, it's only the idea of mail trains that makes you go all weepy and sentimental and start quoting great chunks of Auden. How does it go? - his is the night mail crossing the border, bringing the cheque and the postal order. Letters for the rich, letters for the poor, the shop at the corner, the girl next door etc.

But for that poem with its satisfying clickerty click rhythm and the elevation of Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs to celebrity status alongside Dick Turpin, Robin Hood and Raffles, mail trains are not exactly part of the national consciousness. If they looked special - antique wooden wagons with big gold lettering like the one Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang kept targeting - there would be a reason to mourn their passing, to hanker after the golden age of rail travel. There's nothing remotely romantic about mail trains these days. Seventy years ago when Auden wrote that poem, specially commissioned by the Post Office incidentally, he had a good excuse to eulogise and rattle on about the great she-monster racing past cotton grass and wall and boulder, shovelling white steam over her shoulder. Apart from being carried in a swaying scented howdah on top of an elephant to the Lake Palace of Udapur, there is no more romantic method of transport than steam.

Once, memorably, I managed to combine both. I had a week travelling round Rajasthan including Udapur in a vintage train that had once belonged to a maharaja. It was called the Palace on Wheels, and it was being pulled by an even older steam engine. I don't remember if it had a mail coach, but if it had and the Royal Mail had modelled their fleet on it they could quadruple what they get from delivering letters by carrying tourists instead.

This is idle talk. What we're looking for is the most efficient means of sending and receiving letters, and if the service I'm currently getting is anything to go by the sooner those night mail trains are scrapped the better. I'm still waiting for a letter posted in north London less than six miles away from my house with a first class stamp five days ago. Hang on, that wouldn't have gone by rail. It would have gone by road, whereas the letter I sent to Inverness yesterday, which would have gone on the mail train, was there this morning at half past nine. There's something wrong somewhere and I think I know where it is. Most Post Offices have two letter boxes outside them, one for second-class mail, the other for first class and abroad. I saw the post man emptying ours the other day not, to my surprise, with two bags - just one. There are certainly two mail boxes and two doors because he opened them with two keys but all the letters went into the same bag.

"Excuse me," I said politely. "Shouldn't you be keeping the first and second class letters separate?" Why, he said, not very politely. "Well," I said, a little flustered, "because presumably they go to separate places to be sorted. The first class letters in the fast lane and the ones for abroad..." "Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?" interrupted postman Pat. "I just collect them, see. What happens when they leave this bag is none of my business." And off he went. I'd like to say he was whistling a merry tune about his black and white cat as he went, but he wasn't.

I think I can guess what happens when those letters leave the bag. They are piled, unsorted, on to the Inverness mail train where, in the fullness of time, they make their way back south. Bring back pigeons.

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