Gatwick Mail Centre

2nd October 2007 , 7th November 2007, 16th January 2008

We have arranged for three visits by members to the Sorting Office at Gatwick. Two have already taken place; the third is on 16th January 2008. For each of the visits, Royal Mail have arranged for a senior engineer, now in a management position, to be our guide, which, certainly for the first visits, made them very interesting and informative.

After giving a general overview of the Gatwick operation, we went into the main hall, the size of several football pitches. Here six main sorting lines are installed, each capable of handling 32,000 letters per hour but normally running at 28,000 per hour. For letters up to A5, the machines line up the letters, read the postcode, determine whether they are first or second class and finally sort them according to the destination Sorting Office. The speed at which they go through the process is quite amazing, but our guide could not tell us the mph ! Guessing, about 40mph. Larger envelopes, packets and letters with un-identifiable postcodes are rejected. Large envelopes and packets are, effectively hand sorted. Those needing a postcode are shunted into a remote reading line and the image sent by wire to a Post Coding Centre, which is in Birmingham. Here they are individually read on a screen by an operator, a postcode added or identified and the signal sent back to Gatwick where the coding is added and the letter re-joins the stream. Having been sorted, the letters are placed in trolleys, known as Yorks, and are wheeled to the dispatch bays ready for, mainly, overnight distribution.

Whilst the whole operation is largely automated, there is still quite a lot of manual handling. Thinking of the current talk about improving the “efficiency” of Royal Mail, it is not easy to envisage how much of this can be eliminated. However, those of us who visited the erstwhile Brighton Sorting Office about 12 years ago saw tremendous advances. Perhaps the pity is that whilst we in the UK invented and pioneered automatic letter sorting, all the machinery at Gatwick is German.

Altogether, a most satisfying visit and hoping that the final group find it as interesting.

R Norton