The Docklands Light Railway and the London Docklands

The London Docklands is the name given to some areas of eastern and south-eastern London. Till the middle of the 20th century, the Docklands was where the various docks and dockyards used to be. Though the docks were originally built and managed by a number of private companies (for example, East India, West India, etc.), it was not till 1909 that it all came under the management of the Port of London Authority.

Redeveloped London Docklands near Canary Wharf. For those used to seeing a predominantly Georgian London, this view of the city can come as a bit of a surprise !

Today, the area is a mix of the commercial and the residential, and old housing estates and newer steel and glass structures as a result of massive efforts at redevelopment of an area that used to be predominantly labour class. The introduction of the Docklands Light Railway or DLR in 1987 fulled the development of an area that did not have good transport connectivity. The Docklands area has always been a trade hub for centuries; today, it is a hub of a different kind—the central business district of London is located here.

Tower Gateway DLR Station

The DLR is a fully automated light metro or light rail system to exclusively serve the Docklands area of London. It is quite distinct from the London Underground, and is also part of Transport for London. During my year’s stay in London in 2008–2009, I remained ignorant of the DLR largely because the Tube Bus took care of most of my travel requirements and I rarely travelled to the Docklands area.

Then one day, while returning to Central London from a day trip to Greenwich, the DLR turned out to be the most convenient mode of travel, and to use a clichéd term, travel was never the same again. It is a trip that I still remember, as a very different London emerged through that journey, very distinct from the Victorian and Georgian London that I had come to associate London with and love.

Such was my fascination for the DLR, that on one rainy and cloudy day, I spent a few hours travelling by the DLR, getting off at stations that caught my fancy and exploring the Docklands area on foot. I saw a very different London that day. A quieter London, steel and glass apartments, residences converted from warehouses, an airport by the river, colourful buildings, and so much more.

Presenting a sampling from that lovely day of a very different London courtesy the DLR journey that I took in July 2009 ! :-)

With very few exceptions, all DLR stations are small, compact and functional. The Tower Gateway DLR Station hardly seemed like a terminus with just 2 platforms and it was deserted.

The Tower Gateway DLR Station

Colourful poles at the Stratford DLR Station

The trains were empty when I travelled in the early afternoon, but this was not the case in the evening, when I got caught in the office rush hour. These trains are a class apart—they are completely automated, and that means that these trains have no drivers. It has one of the most advanced automated railway systems in the world and has a practically accident-free reputation.

The interiors of a DLR train

Since the DLR trains I travelled in were empty and do not have drivers, I got a chance to sit at what would have been the driver’s seat. The next two pictures are taken from that perspective.

University of East London

Coming out of a tunnel near Gallions Reach DLR Station

I also shot a video of the journey from Limehouse to Westferry Station, which you can see below. This has been shot from what would have been, I guess, the driver’s seat  if there had been a driver in the first place. The tall buildings that you can see in the background are the iconic buildings in the Canary Wharf area.

One of my favourite DLR stations is Royal Albert, as it has a very picturesque location—on the banks of the Thames. And across the river is the London City Airport. I spent a very happy hour there watching and photographing planes land and take off. From what I could make out, the London City Airport has a single runway and planes often had to, literally, wait in queue before taking off. Swissair, British Airways and Air France were the 3 airlines observed here.

A DLR train rounds a curve on its way to the Royal Albert Station

The London City Airport

The East India Quay DLR Station is another station where one can see dramatic views of the redevelopment happening in this part of London, with factories and warehouses either being demolished or renovated for residential purposes.

View from the East India Quay DLR Station

Residential dwellings still exhibiting the factory roofs in the Crossharbour area

I don’t know what these are, though I presume this has something to do with ships and docks.

The Grand Union Canal at the West India Quay Station

The DLR stations in the Central Business District are a symphony of steel and glass and  very corporate with some stunning architecture, colour combinations and the textures. The results are simply awesome.

View from the northern end of the Heron Quays Station

The stunning red, steel and glass combination of Canary Wharf Station

It had just finished raining when I reached the Limehouse area. The sun, clouds, the deserted boats made for an interesting photo-op.

The Limehouse Marina

Sailors society near Limehouse. I particularly like the way the continents are mentioned at the base of the arch

I hate comparisons, but as I walked through the London Docklands and travelled by the DLR, I couldn’t help but compare it with Navi Mumbai and the Central Railway’s Harbour Line in Mumbai. The very first picture in this post reminds me of part of Navi Mumbai, until one looks closer and sees the dirt and grime and the poorly maintained structures in Navi Mumbai. As for the second comparison, the areas that the Harbour Line passes by in Mumbai have a rich heritage and history but you wouldn’t know it as the stations don’t display it, the trains don’t show it, and the travellers don’t care as they are too busy getting from point A to B. What a waste !

I’m sorry, I got a little sidetracked, but the above comparison was inevitable and unconsciously done.

I would love to see what this area has become today, 3 years after I saw it. The London Docklands would be a hotspot of activity right now with the 2012 London Olympics and the DLR would be stretched to capacity transporting people to the various events being held in East and Southeast London.

PS: do tell me about your impressions of the different London seen through this post. And if you have travelled by the DLR, then please share your experiences here. :-)

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30 thoughts on “The Docklands Light Railway and the London Docklands

  1. wow!!!! this is a completely new and diff perspective on london!!! as to the comparison, i guess it was inevitable!!!!! not just our harbour line, all our train routes have such an interesting heritage and the routes are so beautiful, they can be major crowd pullers… but no one seems to be bothered enough to do anything about it…. i dont think we will see any change in our lifetime :(

    • Thanks, Anu. Glad you enjoyed the ride and hoped you watched the video.

      As for comparisons, for once I want to make a positive comparison Anu and not a negative one. Why does any comparison about our beloved city have to be negative? Why? :-(

  2. Since most of my friends are the financial types ;-) I’ve always stayed in the docklands area with them when visiting and have travelled on the DLR a lot. Canary Warf has to be one of my fav. places in London. I love the tall buildings and you can smell and see the money all around. It’s such a powerful place with everyone you meet there walking to get someplace as if on a mission. Great post!

    • And since most of my friends were either students or artists, I was always hung around central London ;-) But you’re right, when you say that one can smell and see money/power at Canaray Wharf. As for the attire… suffice it to say that I was the only only one in jeans and a kurti :-) What I also liked about this place was these strategically placed huge tubs of colourful flowers, which would break the monotony of steel and glass and suits and laptops.

  3. Sudhagee, i got blown over reading about and ogling at the DLR stations. You say they have no drivers? Some advancement that! Those are all fascinating images, each and everyone of them; some are indeed poetry in symmetry!

    I appreciate that you hinted at a comparison with the poorly maintained structures and buildings in India. If you pause to think for a moment, the facilities this side of the earth are usually equally remarkable to begin with, before they fall into the callous hands of the criminally negligent maintenance staff, dirty spitting and defacing junta and the corrupt authorities responsible for their upkeep. Structures of Navi Mumbai are classic examples of the very rot.

    • Glad you enjoyed the tour, Umashankar. When you do visit London, do not forget to include a DLR ride as part if your itinerary, and of course an exploration of the Docklands. The “driverless” trains did bring up a sense of unease initially, but once the train got moving and I saw the precision with which each stop was approached at, that just melted away.

      You have gone to the core of the problems with the facilities in India. I have an additional point to make in the way we treat our public spaces: the English care for their surroundings, we don’t. We do not take ownership or pride of anything that does not belong to us. We want to be the first, the biggest at everything, we never want to be the best at anything. :-(

      • I swear its going to be the DLR and my DSLR!

        Never mind the devil-may-care Indian attitude. Its there because of the foolproof hard-coding to self-destruct every 100 years or so. I don’t know whether I’ll be still around in 2047 or not. What I am sure of however is that India won’t be around. Go ahead, call me a villain. But this is what every villain out there is hell bent to do.

        • DLR and DSLR will be an unbeatable combination. And I look forward to reading your account and comparing notes and photos :-D

          Kal kya hoga kisko pata, so why worry about 2047?

  4. Such wonderful pics, excellent video and an amazing narration..the pic of the empty DLR amaze me, as out here in Kolkata all the trains are surprisingly over crowded..I doubt if ever we will be able to see such a thing in our country unless we put and end to our ever increasing population..

    • Welcome here Ranita and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Delighted that you liked the post, the pics and the video.

      The population is not the problem, the attitude of the population to its surroundings is. You only have to see China and even Japan (which has higher population density than India) to see their attitude towards public spaces. :-)

    • Glad you liked it, Sabyasachi. Touristy London is beautiful, but then so is this. Many people perhaps feel that they haven’t gone all the way to look at steel and glass and modern structures, especially when there are older structures around. I love London—the historical part as well as its modern contemporary part.

  5. That was another cool London tour you took us on. The driverless trains fascinate me. I’m so glad you got sit where the driver would have, or else how would we have gotten to see those super cool pictures. Sitting there must have been very exciting, I’m sure. :)

  6. No, I didn’t travel by the DLR :( But you more than made up for it with your lovely narration. As for the comparison with Mumbai, I was struck by another one, this time maybe it is positive, depending upon the perspective: the factories and mills of Lower Parel yielding place to fancy apartment towers and swanky malls. So where did the poor of London go when this development started? I remember your post on this one, Sudha about relocating the masses to house the filthy rich.

    And I have told you once and telling you again, be prepared to be named the travel writer by the London Tourism department or whatever it is that they call such a body Your love shows through every word and phrase. :D

    • I think there is a difference between Mumbai and London here. In London, the warehouses have either been converted into apartments or torn down and replaced with new buildings. The existing older housing was not touched. In Mumbai, the houses were provided by the mill owners to their workers. So when the mill land was sold, the workers and their families had to go as they had no place in the new development scheme. What is common between the two places is the conflict between the two—the original residents and the newcomers.

      The next time you go to London take a ride by the DLR and sit in the driver’s seat. It’s a experience that cannot be described. As for becoming a travel writer for London’s Tourism Board, I don’t need anything official do I now? :-D

  7. I travelled through LONDON through lovely stations on DLR on your
    blog avery different journey automated trains & no records of accidents one feels sad to be in India where there is no safety in any mode of travels enjoyed

    • Glad you liked the article, Arnavaz. Travel in every country, every place is different and I like every experience and do not like to compare. Do you remember that rtrain journey from CST to Bijapur in that passenger train? After we all got over the initial shock, it was a pleasant journey and we all actually relaxed. India has a lot to catch up on, but India also has a lot to offer. It only depends on what we are willing to take away from it.

  8. Train journeys in London – is something I am definitely going to undertake. The DLR is amazing and the view of the city is sunning.
    As children I enjoyed the train journeys in our country, more so , because of the lovely country side with rivers and bridges, mountains and tunnels , not to mention some delicious food served in some of the stations down South. In comparison, London looks so squeaky clean and sanitised- not a speck of dirt or paper anywhere.
    loved all the photos-limehouse marina is fantastic

    • You first go to London, ok? ;-)

      London is not squeaky clean, far from it. I’ve just published the better photographs. You want to see squeaky clean, you go to Switzerland. It is sanitised, nay antiseptic even :-P

  9. Ah the DLR and the Docklands! I almost wished I worked there once after I attended an interview at Thomson Reuters. I was taken in by the glass and the gloss and it wasn’t until I found myself with a workplace opposite St. Paul’s that I realized how lucky I was that I hadn’t succeeded at the Reuters interview. The charm of London is in its history, in all the little cobblestone alleyways and the majestic arches. I love the modernity infused in it too, but my heart is still a sucker for the old stone buildings that have seen so much!

    I like your blog :)

    • Hello QM, lovely to see you here and delighted that you like my blog. :-)

      Like you, I love the cobblestoned alleyways and majestic archways of London. But inspite of being a stone and brick type of person rather than steel and glass (if you know what I mean), I could not help being impressed by as I am more a the Docklands area, particularly Canary Wharf. But would I like to work there? Definitely not. I have worked in 2 organisations so far, and both my workplaces have been in old stone buildings with a lot of character.

      Can I say that I am a teeny-weeny bit jealous that your workplace is opposite St. Paul’s ?

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  11. Aww Sudha !!! .. I come to see your posts whenever I miss London :)

    I have lived in so many places and yet I miss only two places in world London and Mumbai.

    • Thank you, Alpa. That’s a very nice thing to say.

      London and Mumbai are my favourite cities in the world. Though I live in Mumbai, a part of me lives in London too and I miss it every single day. And like you I revisit my old posts and photographs. :-)

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