It used to be that everybody knew about the mail train. Letter writers depended on it. Government officials praised it. Small towns, linked to the world by it, cherished it.Bandits held it up.

Once, after World War II, 30,000 mail clerks worked the trains across the United States. Now there are only two mail trains left in the entire country. They run at night between Washington and New York, one each way.

Friday there will be no mail train. The last mail train runs tonight.

"You can imagine our feelings about this," said Sidney Fingerhood of Ardmore, Pa., a tall, white-haired man with glasses and a light blue cap. He was filing letters into pigenholes the other evening in an ancient railway postal car at Union Station before the 10 p.m. departure for New York. "All these years doing this exceptional work and now, kaput, as it it's unnecessary." His voice caught, his head bent; but as if shifting mental gears, he stood straight, proudly, and rifled the letters into their slots with the speed of an Old West card dealer.

"Those days - they'll be noting like that anymore," said John Kay of Philadelphia, the car's ruddy-faced, pipe-smoking foreman, who worked pigeonholes on the opposite wall. Johnny holes on the opposite wall. Johnny Kay, 41 years on railway post officers, or RPO's, used to handle what the railway mail clerks call "big action," on the New York to Pittsburg run. "The Pitts," he called it, affectionately. He spent 28 years on "The Pitts." He was off on the night the speeding Red Arrow derailed in 1947 at Benington Curve near Altoona, Pa., killing six railway postal clerks.

When New York-Pittsburgh ended in 1971, dislocating 440 postal clerks, John Kay got on the New York-Washington run. "The Wash," he calls it. There were 23 ment the other night in the two mail cars of Train No. 4 (the rest of the train consisted of two baggage cars and a passenger car for railroad personnel). Like kay, many of the men had joined "The Wash" when their lines were terminated.

"This is the residue or the dregs of the railway post office, take your choice," said Kay. Joe Pandofino, 25-year mun from Brooklyn, veteran of the defunct New York City to-Montauk, Long Island mail run, shouted, "It's the Marine Corps of the post office." SOme others shouted, "Yeah, yeah."

When the men quieted, Kay talked about the pride railway postal clerks take in their work. "Back in the '50s." he said, "the Reading terminal in Philly went up in flames. The mail ears were sitting in the yard, just like this. Two mail clerks stayed with their train until they got all the mail unloaded, while fire raged all around them."

In those days, there was more excitement. Catching mail "on the fly," a service that ended in the late 1960s, helped glamorize the job. As a train sped past a small town, usually at night, the mail clerk had to snare a mail pouch, hung on a rail-side crane, with a steel "catcher" arm. At almost the same time, he had to throw off a pouch. It took practice, and tales of missed catches and pitches are legion.

"One night we were working in a fog," said Kay, "and I threw off a pouch where I though the crossing was. They couldn't find it for five weeks. It went in a lady's backyard and her dog dragged it in the dog-house."

Sidney Fingerhood said he once threw a pouch and hit a pole alongside the tracks. The pouch bounced back under the train's wheels. "All I saw was a snowstorm of torn mail," he said.

Pondolfino said, "On the Montauk line, roming west into Bayport, there was this bar and grill with a neon sign. I'd see the sign and get ready to make the catch. One night the sign was out. I missed the catch."

In the long history of the business, some slightly bizarre stories have been passed along. In his book, "Mail by Rail," Bryant. A. Long, A revered railway postman, told of a novice clerk who put out the "catcher" arem and hooked a semaphore post that zipped into the car and almost knocked him out. Dazed, the fellow got up and heaved out a pouch, then looked back in distress as he saw it crash through the station's bay window.

A clerk on the old Omaha & Denver line made an almost fatal pitch near Lincoln, Neb., according to Long. The man's key chain became entangled with the cords of several heavy sacks he was throwing out. He went out the door with the sacks but grabbed the safety rod across the mail-car door and clung to it until colleagues could pull him back in.

But for all the unforeseen happenings, there were infinitely more ontime deliveries as railway mail service came to provide the swift dependability that its 19th-century advocates had envisioned.

These included Montgomery Blair of Maryland, postmaster general under Lincoln; William A. Davis, credited with using a modified baggage car to sort mail in July 1962 between Hannibal and St. Joseph Mo., and George B. Armstrong, as assistant postmaster in Chicago, who is generally considered the "father" of the Railway Mail Service. Armstrong perserved despite Chicago Tribune editior James Medill's first impression that the government would have to "employ a regiment of soldiers to follow the cars and pick up the letters that would blow out of the train."

Actually, mail clerks' problems were to prove more serious. "One year in the early 1900s, 78 mail clerks were killed," John Kay said. "This was a dangerous job, working in wooden cars with pot-bellied stoves. There'd be fires and crashes." The wooden mail cars, usually placed near the head of the train, often took the brunt of crashes.

Clerks also were harassed by bandits. In one of the most famous mailtrain robberies, more than $2 million was taken from a Chicago-Minneapolis train at Roundabout, III., on Friday the 13th of June, 1924. The robbery was arranged by none other than a postal inspector, William J. Fahy.

Between periodic catastrophes, the business of moving mail went smothly. "Mail inside a rail car flows like water through a pipe," Kay said. "It's a race against time, you enjoy it. Nobody watches the clock around here. When you cross a bridge or go through a tunnel, you say, "How'd we get here so fast?'" (KEY OFF)ay fell silent. He puffed on his pipe and looked as if the memories were rolling past in his mind. The work has been his whole life. He said he learned at the side of little, white-haired Johnny Handshaw, fast filler of pigeonholes, or separations. "He used to cover 180 separations blind. By that I mean the separations were never marked like they are now. He knew which zones went where. He'd just stand there and work his mail."

Kay met his wife, Angela, on a lay-over one night in Binghamton, N.Y. "She worked in a restaurant where the clerks met," he said.

Kay said he enjoyed all good fortuene on the railroad, and never once did he have to lay over in Kiskiminitas Junction, Pa. He said, "That was where you had to walk a mile and a half to get to a town, Schenley. But that was a shortstop job. That's what we called 'em, shortstoppers. They'd only go part of the way. A guy going out of Pittsburgh would get off at Kiskiminitas Junction, then would wait to go back on another train. We always felt sorry for anybody who had the Kisky job."

As time passed, hardships declined, but so did the entire service. "Ten thousand jons were cut out in one day in September 1967," Kay said. The number of railway postal routes, once 1,500, and the number of railway postal cars, once 4,000, dwindled to the Washington-New York route and seven available cars. On the two cars that go in each direction each night, about 130,000 pieces of mail go north, and about 109,000 come south. Now the U.S. Postal Service says it will save more than $1 million a year by halting the last mail train; the mail will go in trucks and railway baggage cars. Many of the men will retire; others will be reassigned by the Postal Service.

As this day grew nearer. Kay said he would meet fewer and fewer people who knew that a mail train existed. One of the few remaining clerks licensed to carry a gun, he wears his licensed to carry a gun, he wears his 30-calibre Smith & Wesson revolver. But he said, "I don't think the bandits knew we were around anymore.

"Still, there's nights, you can look at an envelope and tell, you can have $1 million with you. The Hope Diamond came down from New York by registered mail, right in the mail car."

"The Hope," said Fingerhood, looking over his shoulder, "came down on Train No. 137." The year was 1958, the postage $152.75.

"Yeah, the Hope traveled on "The Wash,'" said Kay.

As departure time neared, the men worked rapidly, filling separations with such markings as Times Square, Canal St. Sta., Williamsburg Sta., World Trade Building. Julius Hettleman, 68, of Baltimore, a 35-year man, sorted in unison with Jeta Thomas, of Cumberland, Va., another 35-year man veteran of the Washington-Bristol, Tenn, line. "Coming through, coming through," Bernie Bernstein of Lanham, Md., pulling two large sacks down the aisle. He wore a T-shirt with the inscription on the back, "End of an Era." John Kay, sensing a small emergency at one end of the car, shouted, "Down the table, help pouch. Down the table, help pouch."

At 10 p.m., when the train moved forward noiselessly, none of the men looked up from his work.(KEYWORD)