Blast from the Past: A Precariously Positioned DLR Train


On March 10th 1987 a test run on the then-under-construction Docklands Light Railway (DLR) almost ended in disaster, when the train failed to stop at then-terminus Island Gardens. With overrun protection still incomplete, the train was left hanging precariously over the end of the the viaduct.

DLR Island Gardens Crash

The DLR train hanging over the edge at Island Gardens in 1987

Luckily no-one was injured, and in May Modern Railways confirmed that the accident was primarily caused by unauthorised testing before key modifications had been carried out at Island Gardens itself. Had these been in place the train would, naturally, have been correctly arrested and stopped.

At the time the accident raised some questions, both in the press and elsewhere, about the safety of running “automatic trains” on the line. This was rather unfortunate for the DLR and its backers as, with a certain amount of irony, a key contributing factor to the accident was the fact that the test train had been driven in manual mode. Had the completed buffer stops been in place, and the automated driving system completed and used, then it would likely not have happened at all.

The image below shows Island Gardens, taken from our photo piece marking the 25th anniversary of the DLR last year, as it was in 1987. It gives some idea as to how the elevated station, which was built on the site of the old North Greenwich railway station, looked at platform level at the time the line opened. The station was re-sited in 1999, as part of the work to extend the DLR to Lewisham.

The (now demolished) Island Gardens station in 1987

The (now demolished) Island Gardens station in 1987, courtesy Andy Neal

The article below about the accident, from which the image at the head of this article was taken, appeared in the London Daily News on March 11th 1987:

A Test run on the new Docklands Light Railway line ended on the brink of disaster last night when a train crashed through barriers and was left hanging 20 feet in the air.

It failed to stop at the Island Garden terminus on the Isle of Dogs – part of a showpiece line which is due to open in July using driverless trains.

Three people on board escaped unhurt as the engine ploughed through a barrier at the station and overshot the line.

The accident could have been much worse. The station is yards from the playing fields at George Green Comprehensive, where a local football game was in progress, under floodlights, when the train crashed.


The railway, which runs to Tower Hill and Billingsgate, has been undergoing trials since November. Trains are capable of reaching speeds of more than 50mph.

Last night a spokesman for the London Docklands Development Corporation promised there would be a full investigation.

Mr Les Curtis, a surveyor who lives opposite the station said: “We heard an enormous crash shortly after 8pm, we looked out and saw the train hanging there.”
“This must raise a lot of questions because those trains are going to run automatically with no drivers.”

“There’s a big anti-Docklands lobby in the area. If they get hold of this they’ll make a big issue out of it.

“It’s amazing. Every railway station you see has colossal buffers. But up there, the station has just three bits of angle iron holding three red lights.
“That wouldn’t even stop a BMX bike, let alone a runaway train.”

GEC Mowlem, which is constructing the railway, refused to comment on the crash last night.

Staff at the track said they were “still assessing the situation”.


But one expert said: “It is an acute embarrassment because this is supposed to be their showpiece and a pointer to the future.”

The Docklands Light Railway project, funded with £77 million in Government grants, was started in October 1982.

The network will form three legs terminating at Tower Gateway in the West, Stratford in the North-east, and Island Gardens, the terminus built at the South end of the Isle of Dogs.

Enormous thanks to Rogmi, for tracking down a copy of the article and image above, and to NLW for digging through Modern Railways for the cause

Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.