A Brief History Of The DLR

By M@

Last Updated 19 April 2024

A Brief History Of The DLR

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DLR driver view
Every Londoner does this at least once...

Do you remember the first time? Your first ride on the Docklands Light Railway (DLR)? For many, it's a magical experience, whizzing along on elevated lines through the East End and former docklands, marvelling at the lack of driver — perhaps even pretending to be the driver.  

But where did it all come from? How has it developed over the years? What were the names of the first two dogs to ride the DLR? And how on earth was the Queen allowed in the driver's seat just a few months after a DLR train smashed through barriers to dangle over the side of a viaduct? Let's find out in a potted history of the DLR...

A tilt shift image of the DLR near the royal docks
Image: Matt Brown

1836: Work begins on the DLR! Nobody knows this at the time, however, because they're all focussed on something called the "Commercial Railway" (renamed the "London and Blackwall Railway" when it opens in 1840). The line runs out of the City calling at Shadwell, Limehouse and West India Docks, among other places. Sound familiar? 150 years later, the DLR would open along the same old viaducts. So while the DLR is one of London's more recent rail routes, its infrastructure is among the capital's oldest.

1968: The old London and Blackwall Railway rolls no more. The closure of most of London's docks has removed its purpose.

1973: Nobody expects the abandoned docks to stay abandoned for long. Even as the last ships pull out, the corridors of power are abuzz with talk of redevelopment. In this year, we get the first whiff of the DLR as a means to service a redeveloped Docklands. Consultants Travis Morgan & Partners sketch out plans for a "minitram" to trundle into Fenchurch Street, where it would connect up with the Fleet line (a new tube line then under construction, which would later morph into a re-routed Jubilee line).

1976: The plans are quashed in favour of taking the Fleet/Jubilee line all the way out to the docks. Parliamentary powers are gained to extend the Jubilee to Fenchurch Street and thence Surrey Docks, Isle of Dogs, North Greenwich, Royal Docks and Woolwich Arsenal. None of this 'minitram' nonsense.

1980: Having snatched the nation's free school milk, Margaret Thatcher also claws back the full-fat version of a Docklands tube line. The government demand a cheaper solution. Back to the minitrams, then.

1981 (Jul): The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) is established to oversee the redevelopment of the docks. In cahoots with London Transport, they consider a range of options. Possible City termini include Tower Hill, Minories and Aldgate East (with the tantalising possibility of hooking up with District line tracks to run into central London). Docklands termini include Tiller Road (west of Millwall Dock) and Cubitt Town (tip of the Isle of Dogs). Branches to Mile End and Poplar were also proposed.

1982 (Jun): Something close to the nucleus of the network we know today is finalised. Trains will run from Tower Hill and Mile End to Island Gardens. The plan would later be tweaked to run from Stratford rather than Mile End. It is expected to cost about a quarter of the original plans to extend the Jubilee line, eventually weighing in at £77 million.

1982 (Jun): While all this is going on, Captain Harry Gee lands his four-engine de Havilland on a makeshift runway at Heron Quays. The stunt is a bit of a test for whether a Docklands airport might work. The plane lands without incident and is later able to take off. The proof-of-principle would eventually lead to City Airport a few miles east in the Royal Docks.

A plaque to Harry Gee's plane landing at Heron Quays
Image: Matt Brown

1984:  The first hints at work on the 7.5 miles of track begin in June, when Dave Wetzel, the GLC's top transport man, ceremonially drives a digger a few metres at a work site in Poplar. Meanwhile, GEC/John Mowlem are awarded the contract to build the fully automated light railway. Work proceeds quickly and efficiently.

1987 (10 Mar): Testing of the new network is going well... right up to the point where a train smashes through the barriers at Island Gardens, leaving it dangling "20ft in the air" (some remarkable pictures here). The crash is initially blamed on unauthorised manual testing, rather than any problem with the software, although that story seems to be incorrect as Jago essays in this excellent video. Remarkably, only three months later, the line is deemed safe enough for this to happen...

The queen opens the DLR in 1987
The Queen becomes the very first passenger to play at "driving the DLR". She looks utterly enchanted. Image: TfL

1987 (30 Jul): The line is officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who reportedly pops 40p in the Island Gardens ticket machine to pay her way, as does Prince Philip. The royal couple experience a couple of minor glitches on route, when the automatically driven train pauses too long at one station, and stops a little short at another prompting an alarm. Both embarrassments are quickly corrected by manual override. None of the Queen's subjects can ride the line just yet. A month's delay was announced three days before the royal ride, to iron out just these kinds of hiccup.

1987 (31 Aug): Finally, it's the big public opening day! The first trains roll out of Poplar at 5.17am, "packed with train buffs". Who is the first to board? It's reportedly a dead-heat between Matthew Dreisin (20), a student from Hendon, and his friend Rupert Lipton, a tele-sales operator at the Daily Telegraph. Both leap on together. Meanwhile, Hackney butcher James Maynard is the first to be thrown off the DLR, after accidentally boarding a test train. A shout-out too, to Christine Hanks, who serves as 'Captain' on that inaugural journey. (Her two mongrels Buddy and Ella are also on board, and therefore become the first dogs ever to journey on the DLR.)

Tower Gateway DLR station
The unmistakably 1980s postmodern entrance to Tower Gateway. Image: Matt Brown

1991: Long before it opened, transport planners were considering extensions to the DLR. One of the earliest proposals was for a new terminus at Bank, which is colossally better connected than the isolated Tower Gateway site. The plans, floated as early as 1985, came to fruition this year with a tube-style tunnel running out of Bank up to the existing viaduct. The City of London had originally objected to the plans, fearing overcrowding at Bank. It instead proposed a new station between Cannon Street and Monument, but the Bank plans wins the day. This set-up requires an update to the trains. The original rolling stock is not qualified to run through tunnels, so new units are ordered. Meanwhile, the redundant cars are sent to Germany, where they still carry people around Essen.

1994: The first eastward extension opens, linking Poplar to Beckton along the north side of the Royal Docks. Much of the route is sparsely populated, but it's hoped that the DLR extension will spur development.

DLR train over water in docklands
A DLR train passing through Canary Wharf. Image: Matt Brown

1996 (15 Jan): Pudding Mill Lane becomes the first new station in two years, opening south-west of Stratford, mostly to serve local commercial custom.

1996 (9 Feb): A bomb planted by the Real IRA explodes near South Quay station, killing two people, injuring over 30 and severely damaging the line. A plaque at the station remembers that awful day.

1999 (20 Nov): The DLR takes its first dip under the Thames, thanks to a £200 million extension from Island Gardens to Lewisham. New stations open at Cutty Sark, Greenwich, Deptford Bridge, Elverson Road and new platforms at Lewisham.

2000: The opening of the ExCeL exhibition centre at the north of the Royal Docks brings a fresh wave of custom for the DLR.

2005 (2 Dec): The southern side of the Royal Docks gets its own link, with an extension from Canning Town to King George V. The extension not only serves new housing developments, but also the increasingly busy City Airport.

A dlr train with the Thames Barrier behind
The DLR enters Pontoon Dock station on the Royal Docks southern extension. Image: Matt Brown

2007 (9 Dec): Langdon Park becomes a johnny-come-lately addition to the Stratford to Poplar branch.

2009 (10 Jan): The airport branch is further extended, this time arcing under the Thames to emerge at Woolwich Arsenal, which opens today.

2009 (2 Mar): Tower Gateway reopens after a year-long closure in which its platform configuration was reworked.

2009 (26 Oct): South Quay station reopens on a slightly new site. The original proved impossible to reconfigure for three-car operations, so a new station was built a little to the east.

2011: Numerous possible extension routes have been proposed over the years, but nothing quite as ambitious as the ones on this map, which appeared on "an obscure part of the TfL website" in 2011. It includes proposed extensions to Dagenham Dock, Forest Hill, St Pancras and, most surprisingly, Victoria. Nothing ever came of these back-of-the-envelope suggestions. We're not sure the word "Docklands" could have withstood such non-dockish expansion. Then again, large chunks of the Northern line are south of the river.

A map of the DLR and proposed extensions
Proposed extensions from 2011.

2011: After extensive modifications to tracks and stations, three-car trains are introduced on the line, greatly increasing capacity.

2011 (31 Aug): The most recent extension to the DLR opens, connecting Canning Town to Stratford International, via Star Lane, West Ham, Abbey Road, Stratford High Street and Stratford. The line arrives just in time to serve the huge new Westfield shopping centre at Stratford, and a year before the London Olympics and Paralympics put increased pressure on transport links in this part of town.

2013: TfL places punning posters at Abbey Road station to reorient confused Beatles fans.

A poster explaining how Abbey Road (DLR) is not the famous Abbey Road
Image: Matt Brown

2018: Opening of the DLR's newest station (sort of) at Pudding Mill Lane. A station had existed here since 1996, but it had to be shifted to make way for the Elizabeth line portal. The opportunity was used to build back bigger, which came in very handy when the ABBA Voyage arena opened next door in 2022.

2024: New five-car trains are gradually introduced across the network. They differ in many ways from the existing stock. There's more capacity, obviously, but you'll also find USB chargers, air conditioning and a DLR-turquoise livery. Could have made them a bit prettier on the outside, mind.

A new DLR train in a depot
One of the new trains in Beckton depot for testing. How long before some wag writes Pentonville Road, Euston Road and The Angel Islington on those first three cyan panels? Image: TfL

2024: Mock control panels are stuck onto the front consoles so children (and most adults, frankly) can pretend to drive the train.

2026: All new DLR rolling stock should be on the rails by now.

2028: Construction begins on the much-talked-about extension to Thamesmead.

2032: The new extension to Thamesmead opens, through a tunnel that is the most easterly fixed crossing on the Thames. A new station at Beckton Riverside also joins the club.

2062: The entire Docklands Light Railways and tube network are decommissioned after 98% of passenger journeys become unnecessary, thanks to complete immersive reality.