diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 01, 2017

The Docklands Light Railway is 30 years old this summer, and TfL are celebrating with a new map.

The official 30th anniversary was on Sunday, three decades after the Queen first took a ride. Thanks to teething problems with the automated systems, however, the real 30th anniversary is on August 31st, three decades after the first paying passengers finally made it on board.

You can read all about the Queen's first DLR trip on TfL's new blog, Experience London, which "highlights some of London’s hidden gems, including lesser know cycling and walking routes, river trips and other great leisure experiences in the capital." This is also where you can download the new Destination DLR leaflet, which features "30 things to do via the Docklands Light Railway". And this leaflet - now available in several stations - is also where you can grab yourself a copy of the new DLR map. If you can't find a leaflet, the new map's also on the TfL website.

The Experience London blog's quite good if you like family-friendly leisure tips, or entering competitions almost nobody else In London has noticed. The Destination DLR leaflet's quite good, especially if you have East London offspring with a summer holiday to fill. But we're obviously going to spend our time talking about the map. The map may or may not be good.

The key change with the new map is that it uses different colours. Using colours on the DLR isn't new, the very first DLR map 30 years ago used green for the line from Island Gardens to Tower Gateway and red for the line from Island Gardens to Stratford. But the map soon switched over to using the DLR's trademark blue instead, so for the majority of the network's life all the lines on the map have been the same colour. No longer.

The increasing complexity of the DLR network has made use of a single colour increasingly confusing. The extension to Beckton, the extension to Woolwich and especially the extension to Stratford International - all of these made it harder to work out from the map precisely where your train might be going. Ever-changing service patterns didn't help, indeed a single colour map enabled the DLR to run flexibly on weekdays and at weekends as appropriate. But when service patterns stabilised, and the designers tried separating out the lines into distinct blue threads, that's when things got really complicated.

The previous map showed a line from Stratford International to Beckton but also to Woolwich, from which another line went to Bank, from which another line went to Lewisham, from which another line went to Stratford... it looked like blue spaghetti. Particularly at Poplar and Canning Town there were blue lines heading everywhere, like one of those 'follow the muddled threads' puzzles you enjoyed solving as a child. Too much information can be as confusing as too little.

Enough is enough, the cartographers have decreed, let's do colours.

There are three colours. They're all shades of bluey-green, or greeny-blue, depending. One appears to be the usual DLR blue, one is distinctly darker and one is distinctly lighter. The lightest shade is almost too light - perfect as the filling in the 3-line sandwich between Shadwell and Westferry, but unhelpfully faint elsewhere when it appears by itself. Had the designers used three completely different colours the lines would be a lot easier to distinguish, but only if you're not colour blind, which I guess is why they've used three shades that vary in contrast instead. Better for all, but also worse for most, that's how this works.

The three colours make a lot more sense on the right-hand side of the map - dark for Lewisham, medium for Beckton and light for Woolwich Arsenal. Alas this simple categorisation doesn't work so well at the other end, where all the colours intermingle awkwardly. The geography's all wrong too, with Stratford apparently very close to Bank, and Lewisham far too close to Woolwich. But this is because the new DLR map is a long thin rectangle specifically designed to fit into the space above the door on a DLR train... it had to be distorted otherwise it wouldn't fill the gap. Sadly no attempt has yet been made to create a better, less-stretched map for the public to download or view.

DLR designers do make squarish maps, like this Route finder displayed on every DLR platform. This map is better proportioned, made possible because all the poster frames on DLR platforms are portrait rather than landscape. It also means the maps displayed on DLR platforms can have Stratford at the top and Lewisham at the bottom, which is clearly easier to understand... but currently they still only use the same old shade of blue. Perhaps an update is coming later, but for now the public is being fobbed off with an in-car diagram rather than a specifically-designed 30th anniversary map.

The new DLR 30 map also adopts a new tactic for coping with The West India Problem. Trains from Bank don't stop here, whereas trains from Stratford and Lewisham do - a messy situation here addressed by the use of inconsistent arrows. One arrow is solid, whereas the arrow in the opposite direction is dashed, a convention which normally means 'only some of the time' but in this case means 'all of the time'. It's such an odd use of arrows that separate text has had to be added in red underneath, a sure sign that the designers know their diagram doesn't convey the information properly by itself.

The new map also continues the illusion that trains from Stratford go to Lewisham, when this is only the case for some trains during peak hours. For the vast majority of the week trains from Stratford terminate at Canary Wharf, which the designers could have shown by means of a dotted line, or a different line colour, or some other representation, but have chosen not to.

It might be illuminating to compare the new DLR map with maps for other hybrid TfL networks. The Overground map inside Overground trains is one of the ghastliest crimes against topology ever committed - elongated, twisted and perverse - whereas the Overground map on the website is roughly square and a lot more friendly. The map for the Tram network on the website, however, is as long and thin as that used inside the carriages... but then it is a simpler network, so that's OK.

The tram map already uses two shades of green, one to show trams from Wimbledon and the other to show trams that go round the Croydon loop. It used to use four shades of green, which must have looked hopeless to the colour-blind, but on the latest version of the map those four lines have been merged into two. That's simpler to follow, for everyone, but also conceals the complexity of the underlying service pattern. Meanwhile the Overground map has only ever used the one colour, that characteristic shade of tangerine. At least six distinct Overground 'lines' exist, but nobody's ever dared distinguish them separately on a map, and there wouldn't be enough on-brand shades of orange to go round anyway.

Nobody's ever dared to give the Overground lines customer-friendly names either, only horribly unmanageable combinations of the multiplicitous termini. Dalston/Highbury & Islington - West Croydon/Crystal Palace/Clapham Junction/New Cross, anyone? Individual names will have to emerge one day, surely, but for now the 'simplicity' of having everything indistinguishably orange has won out. Croydon's tram lines, meanwhile, did get numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4, which helped when trying to work out if your tram was going to IKEA or not, but on the latest map this distinction has disappeared.

Is it time to give the three DLR lines names? The Canary Wharf line, the City Airport line and the ExCel line, maybe. Except that's no help whatsoever travelling west, in which case it'd be more useful to call them the City line, the Tower line and the Stratford line. Alas, the routes are so mixed-up that geographical names would never work, so maybe numbers or letters or some other non-specific attribution would be better. At least there are no plans to extend the DLR at any point in the near future, so the situation can't get any worse.

One final thing. The DLR may have a new map, but the tube map won't be changing. That'll continue to use the usual blue for the whole of the DLR, just as it uses the usual green for trams and the usual orange for the Overground. TfL's overall colouring system reveals a web of inconsistencies, with the new DLR map merely muddying the waters further.

I'll leave the last word to Danny Price, former boss of the Dangleway and since promoted to TfL's Director of the DLR.
`The DLR has been an integral part of east London for 30 years and we are proud of the contribution it has made. With a growing population, and continuing redevelopment in the area, the importance of good transport links is clear. With improvements such as a new generation of trains from 2022 and initiatives to make our customers' lives easier, such as the new clearer DLR line map, we will ensure the DLR continues to meet those growing needs.'
The new DLR map may be "easier to read", as the press release crows, but that's no triumph when they could hardly have made the previous spaghetti harder to follow.

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