During the 19th and early 20th centuries, railways provided a fast and reliable means of carrying the mail. The opening of a new line usually meant transferring the carriage of mail to rail, instead of by coach or ship, to ensure the mail arrived sooner and at more predictable times.

The rail link opened between Wodonga Vic. and Albury New South Wales in 1883 allowed mail to be carried between Melbourne and Sydney in a day, compared to a week long journey by coach in earlier years. Also, railways offered greater security against robbery, particularly for registered mail (which usually contained valuables), compared to coach journeys.

The importance of railways to postal services was reflected in a common practice of locating post offices at railway stations in smaller towns. The duties of stationmaster and postmaster were often combined to facilitate the handling of mail. With the General Post Offices of Sydney and Melbourne being located in the central city area, their mail exchange buildings adjoined the central railway stations for more efficient mail handling.

A special feature of “mail by rail” was the Travelling Post Office (TPO). TPO services comprised dedicated railway carriages specially outfitted for mail to be sorted and postmarked during the journey. TPOs were introduced to Victoria as early as 1865 and the innovation was soon adopted by the other Australian colonies. Most TPOs were phased out by World War II, although some that linked isolated areas continued operating until more recent years. Australia’s last TPO in northern New South Wales ceased in 1985. A video, Australia Post – The Last of the TPOs, was produced to mark the closure of the last remaining TPO service in Australia. 

The Trans-Australian Railway operated a “pay train”, which commenced service in 1915 (during construction of the railway), and continued operating until 1986. The pay train provided stamp sales, money orders and banking facilities for railway employees working along the line. The actual post office was situated in the middle of one carriage, with a public area of about two metres long and one metre wide, and a foothold to reach the counter when the pay train was not operating at a station.

Original illustrated envelope for the inaugural Trans-Australian Railway journey

Railways were important for carrying domestic mail, but they also provided the vital link for overseas mail. Until 1917, Adelaide was the “first and last” port-of-call for most of Australia’s overseas shipping links. From Adelaide, passengers, freight and mail could be transported more quickly by rail to Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and elsewhere in eastern Australia. The Adelaide-Melbourne express train provided the key for the efficient handling of the inwards and outwards overseas mail. On some occasions, it was even necessary to arrange dedicated trains solely to carry the mail between Melbourne and Adelaide.

With the opening of the Trans-Australian Railway in 1917, Fremantle replaced Adelaide as the “first and last” port-of-call and, as a result, reduced the time required to transmit overseas mail within Australia.

The “mail by rail” era came to an end in the mid-1980s. The carriage of non-standard letters and parcels by railways was replaced by a fleet of trucks acquired by Australia Post to carry this mail between capital cities and regional centres. However “mail by rail” has returned in recent years. As part of Australia Post’s commitment to continuously improving environmental efficiencies, the corporation returned to using rail to carry mail between Adelaide and Perth. This has reduced its total annual greenhouse emissions by 2.5 per cent.

Futher reading:
View the gallery of stamps and technical details for this issue
The Trans-Australian Railway: 100 years


This article was produced at the time of publication and will not be updated.

Philatelic Team