Sunday, June 14, 2015

Tunnel Visions: The Docklands Light Railway

Every once in a while I hop out of Toronto, land in some other city with some other light- or heavy-rail transit system, and look around at different ways of getting around by rail, whether it's on the ground, under it, or above it all.

London! Home to the mother of metros, the sprawling London Underground, opened in 1863 and connecting the core of the Square Mile with the commuter fringes of Metro-land, and you can't seriously believe I was going to do one of these things about the Underground, can you? Entire books can be, and have been, written about the Underground. Books can be written out individual lines of the Underground, lines which are more complicated and cover more ground than entire systems that have previously appeared in Tunnel Visions. Maybe if I spent a couple of years living in London and using the Tube every day, things would be a bit different, but today it's just not on. I mean, come on. This is the first time I've got out of North America for this. Baby steps.

What's far more manageable on a sightseer's budget is the Docklands Light Railway--a network which you could easily miss, even as a transit fan touching down in the capital. It doesn't have the history or the character of the Tube, for sure, and it's not well-known enough to show up in blockbuster movies even when it would make sense to in the narrative--I'm looking at you, Thor: The Dark World--but it is small enough to hold a picture of in one's head, and concise enough for an outlander to get at least an impression of in the course of a week and a half.

That's small in the context of London, of course. What you've got to remember is that London is gargantuan. The DLR... the DLR is less so.


Two DLR trains pass over the waters of Middle Dock in Canary Wharf, above the skyscrapers of the City of London.

As its name suggests, the Docklands Light Railway was built to serve the Docklands region in the East End, and not Heathrow Airport. It started running in 1987, when the light rail renaissance saw rails being laid across Europe and even bits of North America, and when the Docklands were still transitioning from being, y'know, docks. Today it reaches across the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and beyond, linking Greenwich and Beckton to London City Airport and the claustrophobic, sweaty subterranean hell that is the Bank-Monument station complex. My friends mocked me about it and my desperation to use alternate routes between platforms after the incident, but that's exactly what it is. Come on, tell me I'm wrong.

By the early 1990s the DLR remained fairly limited, with lines connecting Tower Gateway to Island Gardens at the southern end of the Isle of Dogs and from there to Stratford in the north--though even then, the underground connection to Bank and the eastern extension to Beckton were under construction, as was the station at Canary Wharf. It wasn't until 1999 that it was taken south of the Thames through Greenwich to Lewisham, and it hopped the river again ten years later as part of an extention to Woolwich Arsenal. Today, the system touches on wide areas of East London beyond those pockets served by the Tube or the new Overground, and is big enough that it could be dropped down into a North American city on its own and be one of the continent's larger networks. There are plenty of cities over here that would love to have something like the DLR.

In London, though, it's just another part of the patchwork transit that shuffles people across the capital like so many things that are shuffled. Hell, Mark Mason--who's famous to me for performing the not-entirely-sane act of walking the extent of the London Underground on foot--doesn't even think it should be considered part of the same system, and he's not wrong. From the technology it uses to the nature of the route, the DLR feels more like some other city's transit system grafted onto London after some marathon urban surgery session. Considering that that feeling holds clear today, almost a year after I first stepped foot on the thing, I'd say there's a firm point to it. Nevertheless, there is noticeable overlap between the DLR and the Underground--automated announcements, for instance, are shared between them, such as the one that often reminds riders to keep their Oyster contactless payment cards separate from others to avoid card clash. Worthwhile advice, incidentally, as I discovered that my Presto contactless payment card did, in fact, cause card clash.

The future will see it tied more tightly into the transit knots that bind the capital together, though. Construction on Crossrail, the mammoth fifteen-billion-pound project that will route even more suburban trains through London from 2018, is advanced enough that I could see the grand shell of the future station at Canary Wharf and the works underway at Custom House and the portal near Canning Town--connections that will further open up east London. Though I don't imagine many tourists will end up that way regardless. For me, my explorations of the DLR made me wonder when someone would take note of my accent and ask what the hell I was doing out there.


A late-evening DLR train waits beneath the glass roof of Canary Wharf station.

As of this writing, Docklands Light Railway passengers have their choice of forty-five stations to alight at, although Woolwich Arsenal is the odd station out here for being the only one beyond Zone 3 and therefore the only station I never even tried to reach--I mean, come on, if I was going anywhere beyond Zone 3 that wasn't Heathrow, it's be Cockfosters. Of these, seven link up with the Underground--though Canary Wharf's "link" is more theoretical than actual, considering the tales I've heard of people losing their way between one and the other, and the jet-lagged wandering about I had to do before I found it--and other connections enable transfers to the Overground and the Emirates Air Line, because I guess there will always be people who want to see the Millennium Dome from the air without having to get on an airplane. If you're looking for a plane, though, you can pick one out on the London City Airport departures board they've thoughtfully installed at Platform 3 at Canning Town.

There's also substantial integration with mainline National Rail services throughout the system, though I was only to experience it at Lewisham, the terminus of the DLR's branch into Greenwich. When I alighted there, I ran into a tide of people coming from the other end, a veritable Bloor-Yonge transfer's worth of people streaming out of the National Rail station. There were quite a few taxis waiting to pick up fares, but for a suburban transfer station, its commuter parking was surprisingly nonexistent. I come from a Canadian perspective, remember--the suburban stops on Toronto's commuter rail lines feature multi-storey car parks. The only allowance for parking I found nearby was for the Tesco next door, and with a £70 charge for staying longer than three hours, I doubt it's welcoming to commuters. Hell, for that rate you could park in the City, I'd imagine. Though I don't know if there are any parking garages there, between all those old roads with oddly specific names like "Old Jewry" or "Poultry." Not Poultry Road or Poultry Street, mind you--just Poultry.

Given that background, I was gratified to discover that the DLR maintains the English tradition of maintaining odd names that made sense a hundred or a thousand years ago. I mean, it'd never occur to me to name a station "Mudchute," especially existing as it does between calm parkland and undoubtedly super-expensive housing on the Isle of Dogs--but hell, there was a chute there for getting rid of mud during construction a hundred and sixty years ago, and it's not likely to have any competition in the name department any time soon, so why not? Just up the line you'll find Crossharbour, which provided a brief reminder of home, because even disgraced British criminals like Conrad Black need transit stations to lord over, even if he's actually a baron.

One thing that struck me fairly early on about the DLR--in fact, it's the second entry in my notes--is that there are spots where you can easily see one station while in another. Granted, this isn't unheard of outside London, since there are points along Toronto's Bloor-Danforth Line where the lights of the next station are visible in the distance, bright against the tunnel's darkness. But following the pedestrian path through the closely-bounded confines of Millwall Park, Island Gardens Station had only just disappeared behind a bend of foliage when the signs for Mudchute came into view, and East Ferry Road doesn't seem nearly developed enough to sustain a justifiable catchment area for both stations. Aside from a pub advertising cash prizes for trivia night (£1 per person to enroll), it's lined with the sort of brick-solid workmen's homes that have undoubtedly been colonized by professionals who spend their days in Canary Wharf shuffling around other peoples' money.

Appropriately enough, then, Canary Wharf refined the concept beyond anything I was familiar with. From its DLR platforms, the station at West India Quays is clearly visible from Canary Wharf, which itself is clearly visible from Heron Quays, to the extent that the Underground connection at the Jubilee Line applies pretty much equally to Canary Wharf and Heron Quays--staying as I was down by Island Gardens, I frequently found it easier to hike to Heron Quays and be one station closer to alighting.

That is, if you're able to alight at your station at all. It's a good thing that DLR trains allow passengers to pass from one carriage to the next, as on the Toronto Rocket; at Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich (a committee-chosen name if ever there was one) and Elverson Road, the standard DLR trains are actually too long for the platforms, requiring automated announcements reminding riders to move to the center of the train to alight, because allowing people to walk off onto, say, the third rail would be a Bad Thing Indeed™. TfL gets around that by keeping the first two and last two doors shut, but if thirty-two years of life has taught me anything, it's that I'm shocked as hell that you don't see people trying to force them open. Maybe it does happen and the news just doesn't cross the Atlantic.

The DLR's Deptford Bridge station, well done up in concrete, stretches across Blackheath Road.

Another thing that struck me about the DLR is how much variety there was in the nature of its stations. Not architecturally, I mean--the oldest is younger than I am, and so many of them are trapped in that late-20th century glass-and-steel style that can't hold a candle to the sort of stuff that Leslie Green designed for the Underground a hundred years ago. No, in this case I just mean the way they interact with the cityscape around them. Take, for example, the terminal stations at Bank and Tower Gateway--the former accessed by a five-minute march (I timed it) from the District Line and Circle Line platforms through cramped and overheated passageways, and the latter accessed by a five-minute walk from Tower Hill station, though to be fair I started my clock from the platform, and most of that time was spent getting out of Tower Hill station. Once all the other tourists peeled off toward the Tower of London, the route to Tower Gateway was bright and open and much preferable, honestly, and from it the DLR sets off comfortably above the London streetscape.

Much of the DLR is elevated, at that. Along the Isle of Dogs, it only meets the ground at Mudchute--where a man who looks like he's just come from the modern office, smartly casual dress with a backpack slung over one shoulder, alights with a Sainsbury's bag weighed down to translucency and hurries away past a sign bearing Boris Johnson's promise that it's only seventeen minutes from there to Bank--and then only to sink underground to Island Gardens and thence to Greenwich; before the extension was tunneled under the river, Mudchute and Island Gardens were both elevated stations. Island Gardens, beyond its vaguely-nautical flair, is a bit of an imposing station if only becuse of what I presume are ventilation shafts for the tunnels--if it ever shows up on an episode of Doctor Who, presumably they'll prove to be disguised planetary defense laser cannons or something. Other stations, like Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich, are deep enough underground that there's enough room to put the tunnelling shield they used to build it on display, while ones like the Beckton terminus are at ground level.

Then there are places like Stratford, and though it's no Stratford International it's still a riot of walkways and platforms connecting to the Central Line and Jubilee Line, the London Overground, National Rail, and three distinct branches of the DLR itself. Ten months on, I remember it mostly as "busy." I managed to find the platform for the DLR branch I wanted just after I left, and even then it only ran as far as Canary Wharf. The thirteen-minute wait for the next train was the longest I experienced in London, and is leagues better than most American transit agencies I've ridden with. After I lived through those lucky minutes and headed away, the train passed construction sites, former Olympic venues, well-maintained greens and buildings with letters falling off the sides. There was a gritty industrial feeling to it all, I thought, much like Scarborough as seen from the RT.

As in Scarborough, it can get cold on the DLR's platforms at night. After 11, when the trains have pulled back to every ten minutes, there's plenty of time for bracing winds off the river to blow in.


A DLR train picks up new passengers at West India Quay station.

If I could only use one word to describe the Docklands Light Railway, it'd be "automated." Like the SkyTrain in Vancouver and like the future bearing down on us like a shotgun full of robot parts, the DLR's trains drive themselves across the network with no direct human intervention outside of the transit control center. At least, that's how it works as an ideal. In reality, automation is still a fickle, finicky thing, for which everyone can thank their jobs for as long as they still have them.

Like the SkyTrain, DLR trains can be operated by a human when necessary, and on Monday, August 11, 2014 I witnessed a hell of a lot of DLR trains being operated by humans. The previous night, a disabled train at Westferry and a signal delay had halted movement across the entire DLR network, a delay that lasted at least as long as it took me to ride the Tube from Monument to Bow Road and then walk to Bow Church, where I found two trains frozen at their respective platforms with doors wide open. Even when the system wasn't rebounding from a major collapse, I found my path crossing with human staff fairly often, though generally in the form of fare inspectors. I encountered fare inspectors--they may have been the same person, actually, now that I think about it--on the first two trips I ever took on the DLR.

The trains themselves are fairly unremarkable, and if not for the general '80s-retro blockiness of their design and the English accents in the announcements and among the passengers, I could have been back in Vancouver. Presumably owing to London's present cool and rainy climate, there wasn't much air conditioning that I recall encountering along the system, and if you wanted ventilation you cracked a window as if you were on a bus. Their self-driving nature means that passengers can get a good view down the tracks from the front car, but unlike Vancouver, there's no single seat in the middle that makes you feel like the captain of the train.

Still, the rolling stock is small and personal enough that the "Light Railway" part of the DLR's name isn't just an affectation. They're not that much bigger than the new streetcars that have begun to hit Toronto's streets, and which will be the backbone of this city's light railway network if it ever gets off the ground. Still, I don't imagine that many tourists get out to Tower Hamlets, and there are plenty of politicians out there who would be shocked to find that a city as world-renowned as London is willing and able to build light railway networks where they're called for.

Ease of Access and Ease of Use

The way up to Tower Gateway, the original Central London terminus of the DLR.

Once I figured out how to get from Canary Wharf Underground station to Canary Wharf DLR station, things were pretty easy-going from there. The Oyster card is pretty foolproof, and I had plenty of chances to practice on the Underground before I made it to the DLR--hell, the biggest issue I encountered was that DLR stations lack turnstiles, and so there'd constantly be the little voice in the back of my head trying to convince me that I'd forgotten to tap my Oyster card and that I'd really rue this day. As I recall, the biggest problem with tapping in ended up boiling down to "where is the Oyster card reader"--at Heron Quays, in particular, it seemed like there were only a couple of readers, set down at a detour from the escalators that took passengers up to the hull-shaped platform. I made sure to tap on the way out, as well, even though I was travelling on a 7-day Travelcard and may not have needed to. But that's the way it goes sometimes. If we didn't do things we didn't need to, the world would be a lot less odd.

Likewise, it's easy to get into DLR stations. The elevated ones I visited all had escalators and elevators, and I'm given to understand that that sort of access holds true for the system as a whole--considering it opened in 1987, when people had actually started to give a shit about other people, I'd expect nothing less. The stations themselves change from side-platform to center-platform with little rhyme or reason--Canary Wharf DLR has a Spanish solution setup with six platforms, the first time I'd encountered one--but the platforms are all equipped with LED boards telling you where the next three trains are going from there, and how long it'll be until they leave. Still, access isn't ideal--at some elevated stations, like Westferry, changing from one branch to the other means you have to descend from the station to street level, cross a couple of streets, and then climb back to to the far side platform and hope you haven't missed the train.

As long as you're there, though, you'll be able to make it open for you. DLR trains don't necessarily open all of their doors automatically; instead, like the Phoenix Metro and Toronto's newest streetcars, each set of doors comes with a button that you can press to open them, though a lot of the time you'll be preempted by people alighting through the same doors.

Signage on the DLR is of the same quality that I encountered on the Underground, and it shares the same Johnston font. Also shared are the "Travel Better London" posters, though some were not entirely as applicable--the "Remember to Stay Hydrated" one, for starters, which made far more sense in the context of a poorly-ventilated, standing-room-only Metropolitan or District Line train running through 150-year-old tunnels. It stuck with me for a while until I realized the reason it was giving me so much trouble was because "oughta" and "water" don't rhyme in a Canadian accent.

DLR ticket vending machines at Deptford Bridge station.

Generally speaking--I'd prefer to dispense with the hedging, but I didn't visit them all and I'd rather not rely entirely on fallible memory--DLR stations are equipped with ticket vending machines that allow you to top up your Oyster card by cash, credit, or debit, capable of speaking a panoply of European languages like Polish, French, and Swedish, and they had no problem at all with my North American credit card. Considering the way things are going, though, these may be on the outs in another few years; during my time in London, I kept seeing advertisements and reminders about how riders could use bank cards directly to pay for Tube or DLR fares, without having to first load money onto an Oyster. It's the sort of innovation I'd imagine Toronto picking up in, oh, another forty years or so.


A Stratford-bound train waits to depart from the terminus at Beckton.

This write-up was on unfortunate hold for a while--hell, as I write this, it's been nearly ten months since I took off from Heathrow--but I'm still glad I experienced the DLR and the area of London that it serves. I was there for the World Science Fiction Convention, and if it had been anywhere in London but ExCeL, I doubt I'd have wandered into the DLR's territory, something that's probably true for a great majority of the tourists that visit London. It felt off the track beaten by tourists, beyond the places that everyone says you have to go to when you visit there, and consequentially it felt valid to me, more real--that I was experiencing the city as it is when the knots of foreigners aren't gawking, that I could start to feel the pulse of the capital.

Seeing as how I am a foreigner, it's a bit hollow, I know. I don't claim to understand the DLR--a week's worth of disconnected rambles, generally independent of needing to get to a specific place by a specific time, can't match the experience of someone who relies on it from day to day. Having thought about it, though, I feel like no matter where we go in the world, we can only really understand shadows.

Maybe that's enough.

Previous Tunnel Visions
this tunnel visions brought to you by liquor and peanuts.


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  2. Docklands light railway looks wonderful and I think they would be serving passengers in a great manner. Thanks for sharing this great post.
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