diamond geezer

 Friday, August 31, 2012

The Docklands Light Railway is 25 years old today. The Queen went for a ride back in July 1987, but it wasn't until 31st August that the general public came aboard. The London Docklands Development Corporation wasn't expecting their fledgling railway to be quite such a big hit. The first trains had only one carriage, the platforms were little more than elevated shelters, and there were only two short lines. Both ran to Island Gardens, the green line from Tower Gateway and the red line from Stratford, with both following former or existing railway lines for much of their length. Trains ran every seven and a half minutes during the day, which on the Stratford stretch is better than we sometimes get today. There was no Canary Wharf development at the time, except on the drawing board, so the tracks curved like a monorail across docks that still echoed East London's maritime trading past.

A series of three leaflets were produced at the time, which for 20p allowed DLR riders to look out of the window and enjoy "A Journey Through History". They're brief but lovely, and just a bit rail-geek-tastic. Head over to Harry's's website and you can print them out for a journey today, as well as explore several other leaflets from 1987, beyond and before. There are lots of photos of the original stations too - so modern, yet so dated. A few related websites you might enjoy include thetrams.co.uk, London Reconnection's pictorial celebration of the DLR at 25, Clive's Underground line guide and the original passenger timetable.

A heck of a lot's changed on the DLR since those early days. Six new extensions have been built, tracks have been realigned, stations moved and trains extended. So much change indeed that it's hard to find much evidence of 1987 out there at all. I've been out trying to uncover some, probably inexpertly, and I'm sure you'll tell me what I've got wrong or missed out. But I do know that the three stations which most resemble their original selves are on the Stratford branch, including my local station Bow Church. Let's have a look around the network for evidence...

Red line
Stratford: Terminus of the 25-year-old railway, but the too-small single platform was completely replaced by a grander structure in the summer of 2007.
Pudding Mill Lane: Not an original station. Was added, in a safeguarded loop, in January 1996. Scheduled for Crossrail-related rebirth next year.
Bow Church: A true original, although dressed up and extended since. The giant grey shelter above the entrance is 21st century, but the brick kiosk between the lift entrances is original. One of the large white globe lights remains, the other recently disappeared presumed smashed. It's the platforms that would feel most familiar to 25-year-old passengers, even though they've been extended to two carriages and then three since [photo]. The curved blue roof covering used to be commonplace at all DLR stations, now it's rare, although only the section nearest Bow Road is original [photo]. But for the best example of ye olde 1987, check at the bottom of the stairs at the entrance to the southbound platform. One staff telephone remains, securely locked inside a metal casing, with "For Docklands Light Railway employees only" on a red and blue background in the original font.
Devons Road: A short distance down the line, somewhere you'd never go unless you were local, another original. Designwise it's the twin of Bow Church, although the street level entrance is narrower and split level, and as yet unaugmented by an overarching shelter. Again the platform has blue curving shelters, which have survived because the station abuts the road so can only be extended southward [photo]. And yay, there's another original staff telephone, in an identical position, in case you have a key and want to ring in to some long unstaffed HQ.
Langdon Park: A recent addition, again in a safeguarded location, opened as recently as December 2007.
All Saints: The third of the 25-year-old survivors, and similar in style to the other two - brick kiosk, narrow stairs, curved blue shelters, ancient staff telephone. And one huge change since 1987 visible from the asymmetric platforms - the towers of Canary Wharf poking above the local housing estates. [photo]
Poplar: The hub of the DLR network, then as now, although the "Delta Junction" close by has since been replaced by a spaghetti junction of flyovers. Wholly restructured in 1994 to accommodate the Beckton extension.
West India Quay: An early rebuild, extended in 1993 from two short to four longer platforms.
Canary Wharf: Was due to open in 1987, but emerging plans for Docklands meant it was already being redesigned when the rest of the line opened, and the six platform trainshed didn't see service until 1991. Check the two fire escape staircases at each end of the station, because they're still labelled with 21-year-old signs reading "Push Bar To Open" and "Warning Automatic Railway Electrified Tracks". Not quite original, but a lovely echo of the past. [photo]
Heron Quays: Entirely rebuilt as part of the Lehman Brothers building between September 2001 and December 2002.
South Quay: Entirely rebuilt alongside a less bendy section of track in 2009, to accommodate three-carriage trains.
Crossharbour: Almost original, but not - it's been revamped.
Mudchute and Island Gardens: Nothing remains of the original DLR stations, built atop the viaduct of the old Millwall Extension Railway, although the viaduct remains through Millwall Park. Reopened at ground level/underground in 1999 when the DLR extension to Lewisham was completed.

Green line
Tower Gateway: The platforms suffered a complete rebuild recently to accommodate one long train rather than two shorter trains. But the domed entrance up via the escalators from Tower Hill, that's pretty much original, and still very of its time. [photo]
Bank: No no no, this was the first DLR extension in 1991 (which famously cost millions more than the entire original network four years earlier).
Shadwell, Limehouse and Westferry: Sort-of original, but each relentlessly extended and upgraded (including new canopies) so that 1980s features are very hard to find.
West India Quay to Island Gardens: as above

Some might argue that the DLR's 25th birthday, at the height of the Paralympics, is its finest hour. A 100%-accessible railway linking almost every important Paralympic venue... if it hadn't existed LOCOG might have needed to build it from scratch. The DLR recorded its highest ever ridership earlier this month - more than half a million passengers in one day - and made travelling to the Games an absolute breeze. Those of us who live round here sometimes take its simplicity and reliability for granted, whereas we should instead realise how lucky we are to have this child of the 80s on our doorstep.

As the DLR's silver jubilee passes, the only sad thing is that there are currently no serious plans to extend the network any further. With political and economic considerations stifling growth I guess we'll have to make do with excellence over aspiration... on the 25-year-old train that Londoners still can't resist sitting up front and pretending to drive.

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