IT IS extraordinary that Europe’s railways successfully offer fast, frequent inter-city passenger services, but that several of them cannot provide the speed and reliability needed for mail traffic. Deutsche Post Transport stopped using rail in 1996, and despite a 1998 plan to launch dedicated overnight trains for mail and packages jointly with global parcels delivery group UPS, spectacularly little progress has been made. French National Railways has lost all but its TGV postal services and a single route with classic rolling stock between Paris and Besançon. Postal rail traffic is no more in the Netherlands, and is being cut back in Switzerland.In Britain rail operators are threatened with losing a substantial chunk of their remaining postal traffic. Post Office Chief Executive John Roberts warned at the opening of a £6m mail terminal in Bristol on July 21 that better performance and flexibility were needed. ’I hope you understand that The Post Office’s continued use of rail will not – and cannot be – at any price’, he told guests, adding that even after investing £150m in its Railnet network in the last six years, it was ’on the basis of a belief we would get the service we need.’ The arrangements for mail traffic in Britain are complex, with The Post Office contracting with English Welsh & Scottish Railway to run the trains and negotiate paths with Railtrack. A target of 95% of arrivals within 10min of schedule has been consistently undershot, and only in the last two months has this been approached.Roberts criticised Railtrack for its decision to remove access to the London area mail hub at Willesden over the coming Christmas and New Year holiday because of upgrading work on the West Coast Main Line. He was incensed that ’as a major customer there was not even any consultation about a change that could affect major amounts of our customers’ mail at this key time of the year.’ The Post Office challenged the decision and Railtrack eventually backed down. But the episode damaged rail’s credibility at a critical time – The Post Office must shortly decide whether to replace its fleet of Travelling Post Office sorting vehicles. These are MkI coaches that cannot legally run after December 2002 without expensive modifications to prevent over-ride, and then only for two more years.