This is the first of our new Guest articles section on Transit Miami…
London’s Docklands Light Rail System
Riding a transit system does more than give you a feel for the city you’re in; If you’re a transit buff, you also notice things about the system itself, and compare it to other systems you’ve ridden in other cities, and, naturally, to the one in your hometown. Sometimes, one even gets to compare 2 very different modes of Transit operating in tandem.
Miami’s Metrorail and metro mover systems provide such an opportunity for Transit buffs, but London’s Underground and the Docklands light rail system provide another, more intense comparison, for while Miami’s transit systems are arguably under-utilized, London’s are anything but.
London’s Underground and DLR also represent perhaps the 2 most innovative transit systems in the world, operating with great connectivity with one another, Yet it’s important to note the distinctions between the two systems, because they so closely reflect the different environments in which they operate, and it’s a reminder of why it’s a good thing to see such systems in action, rather than simply read specifications and surf the web looking at pictures and route maps.
The London Underground, a workhorse (mostly) underground heavy rail rapid transit system, is built for speed and moving massive amounts of people across a sprawling, densely populated metropolitan area. When the underground was built in the 1870’s, it was the world’s first urban rapid transit system, and London was already the world’s largest and most densely populated city. Then as today, investment in public infrastructure tended to lag behind population growth.
The Docklands Light Rail, or DLR as it is referred to, was a major investment conceived in the 1980’s to help stimulate the re-development of the Docklands region, the centerpiece of which was, and is the Canary Wharf financial district, which has grown to one of Europe’s finest and most modern business districts. The DLR provides a direct link to Central London from The Docklands region, which straddles the River Thames, and curves southeast of City of London, the oldest and most historic part of Central London.
The Docklands is a world away from the fashionable west end and stately neighborhoods and parks of Victorian London. It’s an area of many Riverfront Warehouses and factories, relics of England’s industrial age. It’s also an area which bore the brunt of the Blitz in World War II, and deteriorated for many years after as factories closed, and trade via the Thames dwindled. As Canary Wharf has grown into a shining, modern business district, the docklands area has seen many old riverfront factories and warehouses adaptively re-used for residential and commercial uses, and that process is far from finished.
Commuting on the DLR
As a veteran subway rider, I was already very familiar with the London Underground, it being the first subway I ever rode, and have ridden it extensively on a half dozen trips to London over the years. Last September I spent 6 days near Canary Wharf, and got to see and ride the Docklands LRT for the first time, commuting to Central London and connecting to the Underground on several occasions, and also to Canary Wharf from my hotel near the Excel Convention center.
In riding the system I marveled at it’s high ridership, which averages 200,000 commuters per day, impressive numbers for a light rail system by US standards, yet a small percentage of the overall ridership for Greater London. Even so, contrasting the Docklands area to other areas of densely populated central London, the DLR is very well suited for it’s lighter, but no less important share of London’s Transit load. To put it’s scale in perspective, the system length totals only 31 KM, with 38 stations, 8 of which transfer to Underground stations, 2 of which are northern terminus stations at Bank and Tower Gate, a short walk to the Tower of London. The system’s growth continues, however, and the Docklands area will be the site of many Olympic venues when the Olympics
come to London in 2012.
The DLR serves a smaller and less-densely populated area then the Underground, but with more frequent stops, and at necessarily lower speeds. It also utilizes existing freight railway rights of way to a large extent, often operating on at-grade-seperated railbeds, with station walkways straddling the DLR and Freight tracks.
The trains themselves automated 4-car trainsets, with compact 4 car platforms, and completely dedicated rights of way, mostly elevated, some at grade, and small sections of underground, most notably at the northern Tower Gate terminus.
Stations are unattended for the most part, with automated ticketing machines, and a modern, if slightly utilitarian appearance, in contrast to the victorian-era feel and appearance of the average underground station.
In it’s brief 20 year history, the Docklands light rail has grown from a single line into 4 seperate corridors, with additional infill stations added, and 6 additional transfer stations to the underground in addition to the original two, which also reflect the continuing growth of the Underground into southeast London as well.
The evolution of the DLR can be shown to pararell the re-development of the Docklands area, and as such, it provides a model for how a modern transit sytem can evolve and grow as a city grows, and serve as a stimulus for a highly urbanized area’s redevelopment. This lesson has many applications in North America, but the FEC corridor comes immediately to mind when visualizing how a similar system might work in a South Florida setting.
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