The DLR 30 years ago

The DLR 30 years ago

Today is the 30th anniversary of the Docklands Light Railway. It was officially opened by the Queen on 30 July 1987 however due to ongoing issues with the operation of the trains it was decided to defer public services a further month. That date was 31st August 1987. These are some of my views from that very first day of operation in a batch I found recently along with some pictures taken exactly 30 years later!

The main image shows the DLR’s welcome sign at Tower Gateway, August 30th 2017.

The day itself was, as I wrote in my notes, generally a very dull day for August (just as it is too this year,  just after one of London’s hottest August bank holidays for 50 years!) I must have had the Olympus XA3, though a brilliant camera can sometimes expose images wrongly (just like a digital camera does with strong highlights/shadows.) In quite a few of the situations where quick composition was required (it can be set to compensate via the level at the bottom or ingeniously by altering the ISO lever beneath the lens.) Hence some of the photos were quite underexposed/over exposed and difficult to correct accordingly for this post.

Tower Gateway still retains much original DLR form including a dome. Date is 31 August 1987.

Tower Gateway on 30/08/2017- exactly 30 years after it first opened to the public.

The original docks were once a major part of London’s export and import business, with merchandise of every possible kind passing through the area. Their decline probably began somewhat in the late fifties although they were still doing quite well then. It was just perhaps that the rot had not really set in, but it was there and it was due to competition from both road and air transport. By the mid sixties things were clearly on a decline and the early seventies heralded the end of these once busy centres of commerce.

Aerial view of Docklands in the 1950. Source: Picture Cabinet.

Parts of London’s dock network struggled on a bit longer but by the eighties there was just no longer any need for them. The opportunity arose to redevelop and reinvigorate these huge areas of land. The area was very poorly served and the Docklands Light Railway was conceived as a low cost solution to improve local transport links.

The original DLR depot at Poplar. 5th October 1989. The development at Canary Wharf (at left) had barely begun.

Compared to the quite substantial network nowadays, the original Docklands Light was a simple railway with termini at Tower Gateway, Island Gardens and Stratford. Many of the places en route were still in their original form, including the signal box that spanned the tracks at Fenchurch Street station and the huge Regent’s Canal dock at Limehouse, and countless other buildings that have long since been demolished.

The warehouses where One Canada Square would rise were still partially extant (those around the DLR side had been demolished however the ones directly south of Billingsgate market still stood) and it would be four more years before Canary Wharf’s station was built.  West India or Heron Quays were the original Docklands stations and there was little to see other than the semi derelict docks themselves.

The substantial DLR crossing over the South Dock, seen in April 1988.

The docks themselves were as they were built – large expanses of water and the DLR crossed these on huge spans. The striking images of the DLR trains crossing these huge expanses of water have been lost and the trains are now insignificant amongst the developments that have risen throughout the docks. In 1987 the work to fill in much of these docks had begun as evidenced in some of the photographs I have. This included part of the Middle and South Docks. The work to begin infilling and resizing of those immediately adjacent to Canary Wharf, eg the Middle and North Docks, would occur a year or two later.

The original Regent’s Canal dock (with its ship lock still operational)as seen from the DLR. 31 August 1987. Most of the buildings seen in this view are no longer extant.
The new railway accelerated the redevelopment of pretty much everything along its route and what we have today bears little semblance to 1987. The DLR soon found itself under much pressure as the docks were redeveloped and there was no choice but to turn the DLR into a much larger system capable of carrying many more passengers than originally envisaged.

Unit 05 entering Tower Gateway on 31 August 1987. The signal box over the tracks at Fenchurch Street was still operational.

The trains on that very first day back in 1987 were extremely busy as many came to sample this new and unique transport system, whose trains acquired their power by way of underside conductor rail rather than the usual method. The trains themselves were unusual in that they didn’t have a driver’s cab so passengers could sit in front and enjoy the view of the tracks ahead – its still the very thing everyone wants to to! What’s more, the DLR was in some ways a reincarnated Liverpool Overhead Railway though with fourteen instead of seventeen stations 🙂

Unlike most others who came to see the DLR on the 31st August 1987, the very first train that I and others chose to take was suddenly called over to Poplar as it arrived at Westferry. This was train number six. We were informed we had to change at Poplar to continue to Island Gardens. Hence the unusual opportunity (apart from the very early morning first and last train on that first year’s timetable) of traversing the north side of the delta junction.

It was a move that I would experience a few more times over the years as this was sometimes a means of turning late running trains so they or their train staff arrived back at the depot at the allocated time their duty was ending. Of course there were the occasional engineering works that closed the Island Gardens section so trains ran from Tower gateway to Bow Church or Stratford via the north side of the delta junctions.

The remains of the delta junction today, looking east from a westbound DLR train. The old track formation can be seen.

On the introduction of the DLR, Stratford station became the only such station in the world where three different forms of current collection could be seen! These days it can be said to be three and a bit different forms of current collection  with the addition of the Jubilee. I say ‘bit’ because the current collection system on the Central is marginally different to the other tube lines 🙂

Its very difficult to imagine the DLR as it was thirty years ago. There are not many reminders of the original infrastructure, apart from the elevated sections where these have not been expanded or modified. Two sides of the delta junction between West India Quay and Poplar are still used and one can see where the third set of tracks tracks originally went.

The present Tower Gateway. Trains now stop well beyond where the original DLR platforms ended!

Tower Gateway in its original form, 31 August 1987. Note the brick structure housing the ticket machines on the left.

One substantial reminder of the original 1987 system is Tower Gateway which still retains its classic domed roof. However the twin track platforms have  been replaced by a monster single track terminus with platforms either side and the current paint scheme is more ugly than the blue it once sported! The station still has the original booth that held the ticket machines. This brick built structure now serves as stores for the railway.

Tower Gateway 30 August 2017. The brick housing for the ticket machines is now a stores for the railway!

Tower Gateway – entrance to platforms. All the indicators on 31 August 1987 displayed ‘Have a nice day.’ Note the ticket validator.

DLR ticket validator machine at Tower Gateway. Everyone who bought DLR tickets had to validate these!

The elevated sections sport the original blue expansion bar housings that can be seen either side of the tracks where different sections were joined together. These indicate the standard off the shelf parts used to build the railway but were also to ensure the joints didnt move as the track geometry was quite light but had to be rigid, it wasn’t ballasted track you know. I think they used the more common engineering solution of sliding joints with bearings on the DLR’s newer elevated sections with more substantial track engineering to boot.

Bow Church in its original form. The original brick built ticket booth is now a newsagents! A huge canopy now dwarfs the station.

Many of the original stations have changed beyond recognition. The simple arrangement at All Saints and Bow Roads are now superseded by a huge overall roof although the original stairwells down to the platforms remain. Devons Road is almost as it was apart from some minor changes. The platforms  at these three stations still have their 1987 canopies. The more important stations like Poplar station and those on the Isle of Dogs have been rebuilt several times over and very little remains of the original.

The original DLR logo was based on the train liveries.

Talking of the original trains themselves. They sported a simple blue/red colour scheme, which was reflected in the first DLR logo. The current livery is overall red with some stripes and a DLR roundel. Quite ironic for as soon as London’s underground got rid of its red liveried trains (eg the 1938 tube stock) the DLR gets to adopt it!

DLR trains in the red livery the underground apparently despises! Trains seen at the site of the first South Quays station.

The original DLR trains were sold off and can now be seen operating in the German city of Essen working as proper trams. That was an idea that had been mooted for the DLR when plans were first drawn up in the eighties. The DLR’s P86’s and P89’s were sold to Essen in 1999 and had to be modified to provide a driver’s cab and collect current from the overhead cantenary as well as deeper skirtings to enable them to operate as trams.

Part Two (covering both 1st September 1987 and the present day on the DLR)