The fabled British “postie” of the Agatha Christie novels is now a much diminished figure, reflecting a broader crisis in Britain’s once “gold standard” postal service. Like its counterparts in other countries, the Royal Mail has taken a hit from the new communication toys of the Internet age. It has also been a victim of policies made on the hoof, such as the disastrous marketing gimmick to rebrand itself in 2001, only to be forced to revert to the old name within months.

Yet, compared to India, Britain still has a fairly robust service. For all its flaws, the Royal Mail — founded in 1516 — is remarkably reliable with the standard Second Class mail delivered within three days, and the First Class the next day. There are also guaranteed “same day” services.

Despite a proliferation of private providers since 2006 when the Royal Mail lost its 350-year monopoly as the British postal market became fully open to competition, it remains the preferred choice of people. It still delivers 99 per cent of all items posted in the U.K. through its vast network.

However, judging by media headlines that routinely refer to the Royal Mail as the “Royal Mess,” one might think it is the world’s worst postal service, mired in losses, inefficiency and costly labour disputes. It is constantly being mocked in the media for its “Third World standards.”

There is no doubt that the Royal Mail’s best years are behind it and the future looks uncertain with plans to privatise it — a move first contemplated by the erstwhile Labour government but abandoned in the face of strong opposition.

In recent years, the number of delivery cycles has been sharply reduced — in central London it is down from three a day to one a day. Hundreds of post offices have been closed, and attempts to “modernise’’ it by cutting down jobs and changing work conditions have led to frequent strikes. Losses have been mounting and stood at £333 million in 2010 — up from £200 million the previous year.

According to the report of an independent review, privatisation is the only way to save it. Critics, pointing to the poor record of the railways since privatisation, say it is a prescription for a costlier and more inefficient service.

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Postal systemAugust 28, 2012

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