Customer announcement: The Docklands Light Railway is inching ever closer to getting a new fleet of trains. When they arrive, these new carriages will have air-con, walk-through carriages, and even mobile charging points. As if we needed any more reasons to travel on this particular part of London’s transport network. The DLR has already gifted us charmingly odd station names, some equally memorable ‘Train Captains’, and door buttons that actually do something.
Ridership is what helps determine the scale of a railway, and given that the DLR had over 120 million passenger journeys in 2016/17 (the latest year-on-year increase), you’d be forgiven for thinking this ‘light’ railway must be getting pretty damn heavy. But still buyers and renters flock to the one-time post-industrial wasteland that the network links up. And that is the legacy of those cute little carriages.
For there is no Docklands, as we know it, without the DLR. As the oldest of its rolling stock (which dates from the early 1990s; the original cars from 1987 are all gone) enter their twilight years, we headed east to give them some renewed love. Down every line and through every station we went — performing, in effect, a sluggish rendition of the DLR challenge.
“That’s what happens if you don’t listen properly on the DLR!”
The man gestures — for the benefit of his companion — to what is perhaps his strongest illustration to date of a long-held conviction re: having your wits about you when riding the TfL network. Exhibit 94: two naïve young things, crushed along with their wheelie suitcases in the doors of a B07-stock DLR carriage (2008). We’ve had multiple announcements that this is Elverson Road station — that the first set of doors will not open — so start walking down the train ASAP. Were they heeded? No.
The DLR, with the possible exception of a raucous night bus, is the only mode of transport in the city which is an endless generator of this sort of chat about itself. Londoners love its quirks and its inconsistencies; its multiple branches and the multiple bewilderments they throw up. To figure out the multi-level situation at Canning Town station is just one mission in this game; understanding why eastbound trains from Bank don’t stop at West India Quay is just another, more advanced, one.
“I’m on the DLR…” a man breathes excitedly into his phone. “No, the DLR… D-L-R… yeah, the one that’s like a monorail… I know, right?!”
The sheer novelty of it all never wears off for some — and for children and grown-up-children alike, the imperative is to score that front seat to practice the classic illusion of ‘driving’ the train. While it’s a key maxim of London Underground etiquette to never sit directly next to another passenger where it can be avoided, on the DLR it is perfectly acceptable — nay, expected — to muscle in on any empty or even half-empty seats at the front of the train. Because of… you know… the driving thing.
We even suspect we’ve spotted some front-seat thrill-seekers taking the Bank to Woolwich Arsenal route solely to experience two stretches of pure rollercoaster at the first and last stations: winding, dipping track that sinks into the very belly of each terminus. Although, personally, we think you can’t beat the impression of racing road traffic on the easternmost stretch of the Beckton line: where the rails run right down the middle of a dual carriageway.
All of this is possible because, of course, the traditional driver’s cab doesn’t exist (although there are, on renewed inspection, some emergency controls to be taken hold of if need be). Yes: the reason you can shotgun the front seat is that DLR trains are automated, and without human staff on them.
… Or so many people think. In actual fact, Passenger Service Agents (formerly known by the more swashbuckling title of Train Captains) patrol each service, bringing the banter. We find one, Jacob, who it turns out has recently become a minor East End celebrity thanks to his Barry White impressions. Another is kind enough to provide us a weather forecast. “The next station is Pudding Mill Lane,” comes his announcement on the PA. “Good to see so many of you wrapped up today. Later in the week, watch out for that area of high pressure, with even colder conditions.”
As well as dispatching trains at stations, it’s the PSA’s thankless duty to defenestrate fare-dodgers. Nowhere on London’s internal transport network is mid-journey ticketing as heavily enforced as on the DLR. Before we know it, the weatherman is thundering down on one young offender, radioing in the British Transport Police to pursue the scamp through the streets of Langdon Park.
Speed, security, weather forecasts: the DLR has given us plenty to be thankful for. But it’s also inspired the unfortunate tendency of some Londoners to claim they live in ridiculous-sounding or non-existent suburbs that they've learned from the Docklands' travel map. There's nothing as absurd as being told by someone that they live "in Custom House for ExCeL", for example.
Which isn’t to say we don’t love going through all those curiously-named places. Like when you cross the Greenwich Meridian, and things get progressively exotic. A line marked on a building facing East India station heralds your passage into the eastern hemisphere, and soon the likes of Mudchute are giving way to the likes of Cyprus, which turns out not to be in the Mediterranean at all, but in the London Borough of Newham.
Then there are those places that aren’t really places at all — named as they are after bits of former docks. “We are now approaching King George V,” says the announcement (which some on board appear to mistake for a confusing prophesy about royal succession after Elizabeth II).
But what hidden treasures all those places you’ve never been to seem have up their sleeves. Whether it’s London’s only lighthouse (Canning Town), the quirkily landscaped Thames Barrier Park (Pontoon Dock), or Billingsgate Market (Poplar), sightseeing using the DLR means all sorts of unfamiliar attractions. Just from the train’s windows, we can pick out the highest church clock in London, and a Brutalist block designed by Erno Goldfinger that isn’t Trellick Tower. The DLR is east London’s answer to the open-top bus tour.
Appropriately enough, this self-contained transport system has maps which appear almost to dismiss any notion of London beyond the fringe of the Docklands. Like a heretic's model of the universe, these have at their centre something unexpected. No longer does the metropolis seem to orbit the West End, as per the tube maps. That old-school view, here, gives way to the idea that it is Canary Wharf — that great blazing ball of economic firepower — that’s the real centre of London's solar system.
The maps are just part of the DLR’s philosophy that wherever its rails go, the brand must follow. Great looping curves of track are matched by the bold geometry inside the carriages; stations, trains, and signage are coloured in a trail of turquoise and red that put you in mind of a child’s building blocks. In the modern Docklands, construction is king — and Canary Wharf’s almost lovingly OTT station is the ultimate expression of that philosophy. “This is what a big, modern, functioning city should look like,” its great girders seem to say. “On a tube train, the open-door buttons don’t do anything. The DLR doesn’t stand for crap like that.”
You see, there’s not much pretence in this part of London, what with its workmanlike history. Sure, the era of dockers unloading freight may be gone, but there’s still some serious cargo to be seen on the trains here. One man is spotted lugging around what appears to be an seven-foot flagpole. Another seems to be uprooting his entire family and all their worldly goods in a convoy of suitcases.
What the next generation of EMUs (Electric Multiple Units) to grace the DLR will look like is naturally dependent on who wins the contract to build them. We know the carriages will serve at least 45 stations. We guess they’ll be helping fulfil maybe 150 million passenger journeys a year. We hope they’ll help preserve that cheerful, hard-working vibrancy that the network and its surrounding area have been giving off for the DLR’s first 30 years.