Who remembers Red Star Parcels when you could send your worldly goods by train?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, we used to deliver a lot of our post by rail. Before the late 1980s, our newspapers came by train. Such was the importance of Travelling Post Office trains, mail trains used to have priority above all other trains at the signal box. Both our newspapers and post rely on road transport, a retrograde step given present-day environmental concerns.

Before the likes of Amazon had their own delivery networks, you either sent your parcels to the Post Office or choose a courier. Further to the Royal Mail, there was Roadline (formerly British Road Services’ Parcels division). Manchester Corporation and its successors also had a parcel delivery service.

In many cases, rail remains the only correct way of transporting bulky items or tanks from A to B. For smaller goods, railway companies have traditionally had parcels offices at staffed stations. As road based delivery options rose in popularity, parcels offices became more of an anachronism. In the UK, this was exacerbated by de-staffing smaller stations.

In April 1963, British Railways had a trick up their sleeve. Via Rail Express Parcels, they offered two services. One was their standard door to door service. Your items were picked up from your home or workplace and whisked away to the recipient in a yellow British Rail lorry or van. The parcel would reach the railway station before being loaded onto a train with a trolley known as a BRUTE.

Thereafter, your parcel will be dropped off at the closest destination station to your recipient. The parcel would be carried away from the train in a BRUTE trolley to the Red Star Parcels Point. Then the consignment would be carried in a yellow BR lorry or van for the last few miles. This would take a day or more.

By far, Rail Express Parcels’ most memorable brand was Red Star Parcels. This was the premium service which offered same day delivery. With online retailers, next day or same day delivery are offered as delivery options – albeit via some underpaid courier’s van.

Whether you chose Rail Express Parcels’ Red Star, Night Star, or the Collected and Delivered services, your worldly goods were stored in a luggage van. This was seen at the front or the rear of the train. In diesel and electric multiple units, parcels were stored in the guard’s compartment.

Red Star Parcels

Red Star was a different piece of Dairylea altogether. Instead of letting your friendly Rail Express Parcels van driver collect your items, you made your own way to the station. Using Stalybridge as our example, the customer journey was as follows.

  1. Our customer drives to Stalybridge station or catches a Greater Manchester Transport bus with the parcel in tow. S/he has told the recipient of their train’s pending arrival;
  2. S/he walks past the two ticket windows to the Red Star Parcels desk (left of the ticket windows) before choosing a suitable time and handing over their parcel to the counter assistant;
  3. Supposing our recipient is waiting for their parcel at Leeds New station, the parcel is loaded onto the customer’s chosen scheduled rail service. A run to Leeds would have been straightforward, with there being direct trains from Stalybridge;
  4. Supposing s/he wanted to send some items to Whitstable, this may have been more complicated. In 1982 for example, this could have been routed via Stockport and London Euston, with a cross London road transfer needed between Euston and Charing Cross stations;
  5. On arrival at the parcel’s destination station (Leeds New for arguments sake), the recipient could drive or take a Metro West Yorkshire bus to their collection point. On the Trans-Pennine express trains, a Class 45 Peak loco with half a dozen or so carriages would have sent the parcel in 10 minutes shy of an hour;
  6. Half an hour after departure, our fellow in Leeds is ready to pick up their parcel.

The beauty of Red Star Parcels wasn’t its use of dedicated parcels trains. Parcels were sent on scheduled passenger trains in hours rather than days. Before the mid-1980s, parcels would have been stored in the luggage carriage – usually after the locomotive, or the last carriage of the rake.

In 1982, 600 stations (including Stalybridge) had Red Star Parcel Points. Others in Greater Manchester included Bolton, Manchester Victoria, Manchester Piccadilly, Wigan North Western, and Stockport.

At first, Red Star parcels were carried on express trains. They were also carried on parcels trains – either in loco hauled or single diesel multiple unit forms. By the late 1980s, they were also carried on stopping services.

Night Star: the overnight option

In addition to Red Star, there was Night Star which was launched in 1982. This offered an overnight door-to-door service with a money back guarantee. Once again, this used scheduled rail services. For example, a Night Star parcel from Stalybridge to Holyhead would have used the late night boat train for the Dublin ferries.

Night Star has its roots in City Link’s Next Day and Door-to-Door services. A subsidiary of Orbit Cargo Services, City Link was formed in 1969 to offer inter-station transfers. As Red Star could only shift parcels on direct trains, a rail-based parcel delivery from Bedford to Guildford would have been impossible before 1969. With City Link, their vans would have carted your parcel from St Pancras to Waterloo to meet the Guildford train.

With City Link a reseller of Red Star’s services, and a potential thorn in BR’s side, British Rail launched Night Star.

Red Star Plus

In Greater London and along the Midland Main Line, there was also Red Star Plus, which offered door-to-door same day delivery. Instead of making your own way to the station, a motorcycle courier would pick up your parcel from home or work, then take it to the station. The parcel would be loaded onto a train of your own choice.

The service operated on weekdays with consignments priced according to weight and zone. Parcels were shipped from Kettering, Bedford, Luton, St. Albans and Wellingborough stations to Greater London (via St. Pancras station).

Decline and demise

The run-up to, and ultimately rail privatisation, led to the demise of Red Star Parcels in its rail based form. With increased competition from private courier firms, Red Star Parcels was sold to its management for a £1 in 1995. Rail Express Services, which carried some of their parcels, would later be sold to Wisconsin Central – as part of their English, Welsh, and Scottish Railway subsidiary.

As for Red Star, its network of 600 stations were whittled down to principal mainline stations, thus denying smaller principal stations their link to rail based parcel services. In 1999, it was sold to Lynx Express, whom in turn were taken over by UPS in 2005. Red Star’s rail based service ceased operations in 2001.

Is there still a market for a Red Star style service?

With our roads being clogged, the need for a rail based parcel service is greater than ever. Today’s internet-led service industries are favourable for rail mail and same day deliveries by rail. For online retailers, a Red Star style service could be another favourable delivery option. Instead of parcel counters, lockers could be used (as seen at supermarkets for Amazon and eBay orders).

As for capacity, today’s trains are more frequent but smaller (with bus style timetables). With a British train timetable of 2019 having more frequent services than its 1989, there is potential for Red Star Mark 2. Any notion of a Red Star revival isn’t without its drawbacks. Besides the additional cost of connecting stations to a Son of Red Star style network, luggage space on present-day trains is inadequate.

With internet shopping playing a major part in our daily lives, the need for a rail based supply chain is greater than ever. Perhaps we need to reinstate luggage coaches to our inter-city trains and parcel lockers on multiple units. Before we do, let’s make sure the trains are reliable with fewer passengers having to stand up. A same day delivery with a 30 minute delay wouldn’t win friends with potential customers.

Before I go…

Do you have any memories of Red Star Parcels or any of its associated services? Did you handle the parcels, or did you send your parcels via Red Star and the like? Feel free to comment. I shall leave you with this clip by John Levene, who wrote, produced, and provided his vocal talents for this promotional film.

S.V., 13 February 2019.

Red Star/BR totem sign (Guildford) image by Andrew Bowden, 2011 (Creative Commons License: Attribution-Some Rights Reserved).

6 thoughts on “Red Star: When Parcels by Rail Were Faster By Far

  1. I worked on rail express parcels/ red star/ and mag star as a driver then in the office it should never have been closed it was ahead of its time and yes without a doubt it would be profitable to reopen it as the speed of the trains of today would enhance the service,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anthony,

      I would say its last owners scored a bit of an own goal when it ceased rail operations. They quit at the very point when online shopping was about to take off.

      As internet shopping is the norm rather than the exception, a rail based parcels network could be a boon. Instead of using road vehicles to Amazon lockers, why couldn’t (a new) Red Star offer rail based options? From, for example, Logistics North, you could have vans feeding into a railhead at Bolton station.

      If I wanted to pick my Amazon order at Ashton-under-Lyne, the parcel could be put on the Wigan – Stalybridge train at Bolton. After being dropped off at Ashton, the parcel could be taken to the ticket office or placed in a locker by the porter or ticket barrier staff. Then I could go to the locker or the ticket office (on production of a paper docket or an e-docket from a suitable smartphone app).

      If we still had Red Star, the service could have been used to deliver PPE via TPE to Tameside Hospital (via Stalybridge station). Essential supplies – a week’s food for instance – could have been delivered to rural stations. For example, using the Dingwall branch of TESCO, extra delivery slots could have been added to Kyle Line trains with vans to the town’s station. Customers could choose to collect their items at Strome Ferry or, if self-isolating in Gairloch, have the shopping delivered by road from Achnasheen station.

      Finally, with today’s faster line speeds and our increased use of online shopping services, mail by rail should be reconsidered on Network Rail metals.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

      Like

  2. Yes in the 1980s I broke an MG ZA saloon car for parts and sold the two front wings to a some distance away. They went by Red Star. All I had to do was write the address in marker pen on the actual wings! No wrapping, no packing. Simple and efficient.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. i am amazed someone has not taken the opportunity offered by Covid 19 to re employ the seating that cannot be occupied because of social distancing.
    Rail companies havbe been taken completely unaware here and there must be scope for alternative use of space.
    It is ludicrous to run empty trains for any reason and off peak services should be utilised for commercial carriage.

    Like

  4. I worked at St Pancras Red Star office, and later in the Sales office at Great Northern House. Great part of BR that kept lorries off the road & gave a great, fast delivery service.
    Sorely missed.

    Like

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