Docklands Light Railway: At Dawn, Look To The East

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In our previous DLR article we looked at the DLR routes to the City. It is now time to look further east and see where future enhancement is expected. We now look at the routes through Canning Town and see how both they, and the DLR overall, can be expected to develop.

In our previous piece, we highlighted that the lines into the City are seen to be pretty much at full capacity, although there is some possible development to come on the route from Stratford to Lewisham. With sufficient rolling stock you could, in principle, run 15tph from Stratford to Lewisham. On this route all the trains are also generally 2-car, offering another easy way to achieve a 50% improvement in capacity if longer rolling stock were available. These possibilities aside, there is little that can be done until 2019 at the earliest when most, if not all, of the single track between Bow Church and Stratford is doubled.

Routes via Canning Town

In contrast to the west, there is a lot of potential east of Poplar. Indeed this really could be looked at as a potential two-phase development. The first phase would rectify any obvious deficiencies with the current service. A future second phase would cater for any major growth that may develop. Before looking at future growth here though, we must take a look at the eastern routes via Canning Town.

Beckton beckons

Beckton-Canning Town

The current Beckton – Canning Town service in thick orange is off-peak only. It used to run to Stratford International

The addition of the Beckton branch to the DLR was by far the biggest single enhancement in terms of stations added – eleven in all. It also added the first new route of any significant length. Until then the only extension had been to Bank. The Beckton branch was, in a sense, before its time as it was built in advance of any redevelopment. This meant that in the early days passenger numbers were very low indeed. This turned out to be beneficial, as the branch was used as a test bed for a more advanced form of Automatic Train Operation (ATO) which took a couple of years of operation before it really worked satisfactorily – and could thus be extended to the rest of the DLR.

A consequence of the originally undeveloped nature of the Beckton branch is that passenger numbers at a station can significantly increase with a new development. They can also fluctuate wildly. This is particularly noticeable at Custom House, which is the main station for Excel, but must also affect stations serving the University of East London (Cyprus and Beckton Park). One of the quietest stations is in fact Beckton Park and the next station along the line, Royal Albert, probably only manages significant passenger numbers because the London Borough of Newham have located their main offices nearby.

Newham Council from Royal Albert

Royal Albert station showing the short platform and Newham Council Offices. Undeveloped land is present on the left of the picture (towards Beckton Park DLR station)

From December 2018 Crossrail will serve Custom House, which is also a DLR station on the Beckton branch. One effect of this should be to reduce, or even eliminate, the need for the DLR to run a special timetable when there is a significant event on at Excel. Another will probably be that the DLR will be used more as a feeder for people to get to Custom House to continue their journey to London via Crossrail and less as a feeder to access the Underground via Bank.

The Woolwich Arsenal branch

Woolwich Arsenal-Stratford International

The Woolwich Arsenal branch is now supplemented by an all day service to Stratford International. The off-peak only Beckton – Canning Town service is not shown.

Probably much more important than the Beckton branch is the branch that opened to Woolwich Arsenal. The trains on this route share track with the Beckton trains from Shadwell to Canning Town but then, instead of continuing directly east, go south briefly first. By doing this the branch serves the south side of the Royal Victoria Dock and King George V Dock, as well as City Airport. It then goes under the River Thames to serve Woolwich Arsenal National Rail station.

Woolwich Arsenal is one of the busiest stations on the DLR as it caters to passengers changing there from SouthEastern services. With a new Crossrail station being built at Woolwich just over 200 metres away and Abbey Wood station – the terminus for Crossrail’s south eastern branch – just two stations down the line, it is clear that this is the part of the DLR that will be most affected by Crossrail. It will probably lead to a significant drop in passenger numbers.

The route to Stratford International

The final DLR extension was from Canning Town to Stratford International. Unlike previous extensions this one replaced an existing passenger railway service for most of its length, with only the short extension from Stratford to Stratford International, following a former freight route for most of the distance between these two stations, offering a completely new passenger service. Stratford has become far more of a destination in its own right than could possibly have been imagined when the takeover of the route was planned. Stratford will, of course, also be served by Crossrail but on a different branch to that serving Custom House, Woolwich and Abbey Wood.

Hammer time

In addition to Canning Town and Stratford it is important not to forget the potential importance of West Ham as an interchange station. Whilst there must be some interchange with the Underground, the potential growth here comes from interchange with c2c services. The relationship between c2c and the DLR is easy to overlook. In recent years there has been growth at Limehouse as c2c passengers alight there to continue their journey to Canary Wharf or elsewhere on the DLR and most c2c trains already call there. This has been reflected at West Ham.

From December 2015 c2c have bowed to the inevitable and, partly in order to maximise capacity on their two track railway, every train will call at both West Ham and Limehouse. In fact they will all call at Barking as well (with the exception of just two in the shoulders of the evening peak – and those stops were omitted to placate users upset about losing all their fast trains). As can be seen from the expected level of crowding on each train the London trains will be at their most crowded on arrival at West Ham. It is well known that there is considerable unmet demand for travel to Stratford from c2c stations so, with the Jubilee line very busy at its eastern extremities, it is reasonable to assume that the best route available is by changing onto the DLR at West Ham.

Serving the Beckton and Woolwich Arsenal Branches

With the opening of the new line from Canning Town to Stratford International it became possible to run either a Stratford International – Woolwich Arsenal service or a Stratford International – Beckton service or, potentially, both.

Initially, on opening, a peak service every 8 minutes was run between Stratford International and Woolwich. This made sense due to the peak demand at Woolwich and the impracticality of boosting the Woolwich Arsenal – Bank service. Passengers would at least have an option to travel from Woolwich Arsenal and change at Canning Town, from where they could get to Canary Wharf by either using the Jubilee line or continuing on the DLR to Poplar and changing again. Rather curiously, initially in the off-peak, trains from Stratford International ran to Beckton instead of Woolwich Arsenal. Presumably, off-peak, there was greater demand on that route and it did help provide capacity for the erratic flows to Custom House.

In recent years Woolwich Arsenal – Stratford International has become an established all-day service conforming to the now-standard DLR frequency of every 8 minutes in the peak and every 10 minutes off-peak.

With most DLR stations now having 15tph (peak) or 12tph (off-peak), or better, the Stratford International branch seems to miss out. This is almost certainly due to a simple lack of trains. The Beckton branch, rather strangely, gets 7.5tph in the peak but, because it is supplemented by a Beckton – Canning Town service off-peak, actually gets 12tph off-peak. These trains used to continue to West Ham, but the extra trains for Stratford – Canary Wharf service mentioned in the previous DLR article had to come from somewhere and it was here. It would appear to be fairly obvious that if the trains were available then there would be an all-day Beckton – Stratford International service.

DLR route map

DLR system diagram – simultaneously out-of-date and futuristic

We can now see roughly what the aspiration of the DLR probably is for their ideal service at current levels of use. In fact for years this is precisely the routes shown on the DLR diagram. Currently the Stratford International – Beckton route is non-existent but, as described above, it did used to run in the off-peak. Since then the DLR diagram has not been updated and contains a couple of other out-of-date features. It claims that 3-car trains will not open all their doors at Pudding Mill Lane and it implies that some southbound trains from Bank – Lewisham stop at West India Quay when in fact none do.

Trains Galore – one day

What is abundantly clear is that the DLR really could do with new trains in the near future. This would allow it to run all the routes that TfL clearly aspire to. It would also allow the beefing up of existing services so that they were all 3-car – at least in the peaks.

It has also long been known that the desire is for future DLR trains to be walk-through. Originally it was proposed to stretch the most recently delivered units by adding a long centre section but this approach appears to have been abandoned and they are now looking for entirely new trains.

What is surprising is that at first glance the latest DLR-related press release appears to suggest that there will be new trains within three years. It is easy to overlook but the headline states:

Part of a three-year series of improvements to increase frequency across the whole DLR network

The press release does not explain how this would be achieved and more trains would appear to be essential but, even then, it is hard to take the statement literally and believe that we will soon see more trains to Bank. At times like this it is generally a good idea to have quick look at the TfL Business Plan 2014. If the Business Plan does not indicate that there is money set aside for new trains then they probably won’t happen. Sure enough there isn’t – but there is one very telling paragraph:

Along with the increase in demand on London Overground, demand for the DLR and Tramlink has also risen by 45 per cent and 17 per cent respectively, and we expect it to increase further. To meet this we intend to boost train and tram off-peak and evening frequencies.

The italics are ours and show what a difference a word can make. We still do not have a definite answer to the question of whether new trains are coming or not because it is not unknown for plans to be brought forward as passenger numbers grow faster than initially projected. Page 65 of this Business Plan refers to a “DLR Royal Docks Capacity Programme” with a timeframe well into the 2020s but nowhere in the rest of the plan does it describe what this entails.

All this would suggest that we won’t see any new trains any time soon, but then there is also the fact that way back in May 2015 TfL asked for Expressions of Interest to supply a new fleet of trains for the DLR. IanVisits picked up on this as did more the rail press generally such as
Railway Gazette. Now an expression of interest is not the same as a formal tender, but it does suggest that TfL want at least to be in a position to order new trains should they feel such a thing is necessary.

How many?

Of course the really surprising thing about the invitation for expressions of interest is the number of units that it suggests would be required. That is stated as 40 or 50 vehicles. As the vehicles are full length and cannot be joined together in normal circumstances they are complete trains roughly equivalent to an existing 3-car train. If the upper value is taken then that is actually the equivalent of more than the existing entire fleet. Currently there are 149 units (cars) and one needs three units to make up a 3-car train. The desire for 40 or 50 vehicles may include replacing existing B90/B92 trains, which would account for the equivalent of around 23 full-length trains, but premature replacement would seem unlikely.

It is unusual for London Underground not to get a good 30-35 years use out of its rolling stock unless it is seriously flawed, not fit for purpose or only intended as a prototype. Indeed the last example of mass premature retirement was the 1983 stock for the Jubilee line which was quite unsuitable for the Jubilee Line Extension. It is hard to see why the DLR should take a radically different attitude to rolling stock replacement. It is true it quickly ditched its single car early P86 and P89 stock which it sold on to Essen but, unlike those early units, there seems to be no fundamental reason why existing units cannot continue to remain in service. The last of the B92 stock was only delivered in 1995, which would suggest there is a lot of life left in some of these units.

Consolidation of existing services

Consolidation of existing and recent former services assuming sufficient trains available.
The DLR diagram gives the impression that this, or very similar, is what is actually run.

Clearly doubling the size of the DLR fleet would far exceed any requirement based on reinstating a full Stratford International – Beckton service and making sure all trains were of maximum length during peak hours. Even after allowing for extending all existing Stratford – Canary Wharf services to Lewisham one would struggle to find a need for all those trains based on a service roughly comparable to today. It would thus seem clear that future improvements are planned. The most obvious explanation is to run an intensive peak service to Stratford International with a train every 4 minutes to Woolwich Arsenal alternating with a train every 4 minutes to Beckton. This is not to say that there needs to be a train every 2 minutes at peak times to Stratford International, simply that it is a destination to which additional Woolwich Arsenal and Beckton trains can actually go.

Depot space

Unlike London Underground and London Overground it would appear that DLR depot space is not an issue. The main depot is generally referred to as “Beckton depot,” but it is actually at Gallions Reach. There is also a lot of undeveloped land adjacent to it. As the DLR has a notable record of continual expansion it is presumed that the land has been safeguarded for expansion.

Future developments

The DLR still runs through many areas that are undeveloped and we expect to see considerable further development in the next few years. As the title of this piece suggests, one needs to look to the east (at least of Docklands) to identify these sites. It may be that the unpredictable nature of these future developments is behind the call for expressions of interest in new rolling-stock. The DLR does not want to prematurely buy large numbers of extra trains, but at the same time it wants to be ready to respond quickly to any large development that does take place.

In terms of those potential developments, the largest and most significant is the ABP ports development along the waterfront of the north side of Royal Albert Dock. This is largely aimed at Chinese and Asian business, so it is doubly a case of looking to the east. Planning permission was given earlier this year for the £1.7 billion scheme.

The first phase of the Royal Albert Dock development is expected to open in 2018 with work complete by 2022. In a press release put out by the Mayor in 2013 about the development he managed not to mention the DLR at all, despite the fact that it would be vital to serve this large site. In true Mayoral style, despite no mention of the DLR, the cable car did get a mention – although we struggle to see how this is relevant to the development.

The critical development?

We can only speculate, but it does seem highly likely that the Royal Albert Dock development is the one that has finally made a new fleet of DLR trains necessary. One cannot seriously envisage only a train every 8 minutes in the peak on the Beckton branch once it exists. It is also clear that the existing DLR fleet is already insufficient and there would be no serious possibility of re-allocated trains to the Beckton branch.

One could argue that really the DLR has already left it too late to order new trains. The site will obviously have many construction workers descending on it in the next three years and that on its own could prompt a need for improved services.

Whilst the Royal Albert development is really the only one in the area that is finalised, the 2050 Transport Supporting Paper also makes mention of the Silvertown Quays proposed development around Pontoon Dock. Pontoon Dock is on the Woolwich DLR branch so this would, at the very least, require all existing trains to be 3-car or equivalent but could well prompt the requirement of even more trains on this branch.

General Development in Docklands

Anyone reading the property adverts in the Evening Standard will be aware of the massive residential developments that are appearing almost throughout the area the DLR serves. This is not confined to north of the river, with both Lewisham and Woolwich being affected as well. As few of these high rise blocks will have provision for any substantial amount of parking, a reliable DLR capable of handling the traffic generated would seem to be essential. With many services already full that would seem to indicate yet more trains.

It does not end with business and residential development. For some reason the DLR is attractive to the Arts world. In a Times article entitled “London’s cultural axis is shifting towards the east” (sadly only available by subscription) Richard Morrison describes how various Arts organisations are looking to set up in Docklands. After mentioning a proposal for the Smithsonian to have an outpost in East London he gushes:

It would join the Victoria and Albert Museum (promising a radically modern complement to its grandiose premises in South Kensington), the University of the Arts (planning a campus for 6,500 fashion students and staff, University College London (huge research facilities) and Sadler’s Wells (a 600-seat dance theatre accompanied by the inevitable “hip-hop academy”).

The article continues in similar vein.

If that were not enough, one could hardly forget that the East End has various sporting links not far from Stratford and Pudding Mill Lane stations. With the latter rebuilt so that it can handle large crowds it would seem that the ability to run a frequent DLR train service from Stratford on both the relevant DLR routes would be essential. Of course this has been done before but in future this will need to be handled as “just another sporting event” in the ordinary course of things and not something the nation has been spending five years preparing for.

Below is a speculative map where both the routes serving Stratford International have been doubled as well as maximal service to Lewisham and via Bow Church (which assumes no single track sections). This is really just about as far as the DLR can go with capacity. Only the section from Canning Town to Blackwall has spare capacity, but there is no obvious way of sensibly using this. Of course as we all know it is easy to draw a speculative map. Whether an intricate system such as the DLR could be timetabled for such a service, if it were one day desirable, is another matter. Nevertheless it would appear that, if the transport powers-that-be are serious about 50 additional trains, something like this must be what is being contemplated.

Maximal DLR

Suggested maximal service that could be offered on the DLR. Each line represents a train every 8 minutes (peak), every 10 minutes (off-peak).

Better stations

It is not only new trains. It is proposed that Beckton Park, the main DLR station that will serve the Royal Albert Dock development, should be rebuilt. It is also proposed to rebuild Royal Albert station, which is one of four remaining stations on the DLR that has a short platform. Like Gallions Reach, another station with a short platform, there would appear to be no technical reason why the platforms weren’t lengthened earlier. It is just that both stations were very little used and were on a viaduct so it was hard to demonstrate value-for-money.

Pontoon Dock is also pencilled in for a station upgrade for the development there. Both Canning Town and Custom House, which would be indirectly affected by higher usage elsewhere, are also on the list of stations for which improvements are proposed.

Beyond 2020

There is very little publicly available documentation about plans for the DLR beyond 2020. Most of what there is comes from the Mayor’s 2050 vision Transport Supplementary Paper.

Close Tower Gateway Proposal

Proposal in Transport Supplementary Paper to close Tower Gateway and run affected trains to Bank

One of the major DLR developments in around 2020 will be the Bank Station Upgrade. The third fairy godmother to come along and help the DLR is London Underground or, probably more accurately, their contractors, Dragados. By improving on the initial station plans, Dragados included proposals to substantially improve access to and egress from the DLR Bank platforms. Although nothing has been said about increasing the frequency, the 2050 Transport Supporting Paper suggests the closure of Tower Gateway and running all trains to Bank. The argument is that not many people want to go to Tower Gateway.

What is slightly curious about this proposal is that it is not planned to happen until around 2050, if a business case can be made for it. One would have thought that if a case can be made for it in 2050 then a case could be made for it in 2025. Another curiosity is that a sum of £80 million is suggested as the cost for doing this. It is strange that closing a line should cost so much money. As well as the stated proposed station underground with a direct link to Tower Hill it is probably the case that money would be required for an additional turnback siding at Bank. This would give more resilience and allow small delays to be more quickly rectified by reducing the layover time when necessary.

Platform Edge Doors

One of the things that is quite remarkable about the DLR is the total absence of Platform Edge Doors (PEDs) despite the trains being automatic and there normally being no member of staff at the front of the train. If the system was opened today it is unlikely that this would be allowed and, even if it was, a case could probably be made on the basis of reduced delays and disruption for having them at certain stations anyway.

New trains are expected to have doors over 30% of their length compared to the current 20%. Given that normally 50% of a train’s length is the maximum that be used for door openings (because the doors have to go somewhere when open) this is a substantial difference. In reality the value of 30% is unlikely to get higher in future. Obviously it wouldn’t make sense to install platform edge doors until the stations were entirely served by the new trains. It may make a lot of sense from that point onwards, however, at busy stations with Bank and Shadwell being more obvious examples.

Night DLR

It has been publicly stated quite a few times that the intention is to run a night service similar to the Night Tube on the DLR. It is not clear how much of the network would be covered or what frequencies would be run. One advantage of the DLR is that very few stations would need to be staffed, so it should be a relatively cheap service to implement. One suspects that it will start with the letting of the next franchise though, which is not due until the early 2020s.

The ongoing consolidation phase

As can be seen, the DLR’s immediate future will be one of consolidation and intensification, rather than the construction of new extensions. In ten years time this will likely mean it joins the many Tube lines that are considered to be “maxed out”. This is because the DLR came along and solved the transport issue in Docklands, but ultimately there is only so much a little bit of light rail can do. The Jubilee line has also come along, but that too is now full. Crossrail will come but will not be expected to dent the DLR ridership levels for more than a couple of years. By building the DLR before the developments a lot of the network could be built on viaducts but that will no longer be possible. It seems that “the next big thing” may need to come along in the 2020s.

The demand for better public transport in Docklands seems insatiable. The DLR was once the solution but, despite continually rising passenger numbers, it is more and more becoming just part of a solution rather than the totality. It remains to be seen whether Docklands will continue to grow, or whether somewhere else – such as Old Oak Common – will provide the continual expansion London seems to forever need.

If that expansion goes elsewhere, of course, then it will be interesting to see what happens from a transport perspective. Will there be the equivalent of a DLR? Or was the DLR just a one-off, a quirk of a combination of circumstances? Only time will tell.

Written by Pedantic of Purley