It seems difficult to believe, but London’s famous driverless trains came very close to having drivers, and being a tram network, not a train one.
When the LDDC looked at how to improve transport links to the docklands areas in the early 1980s, they considered a number of options.
The Jubilee line extension was at the time on hold, with a cost of £500 million deemed to be too expensive — as it happens the line ended up costing nearer to £3.5 billion when it was finally built nearly 20 years later.
One option was the improvement of bus services, but to make the bus desirable it needed to be reliable, and that meant dedicated bus lanes and traffic junctions, which while possible wasn’t possible quickly enough. The upgrades to the northern relief road for example wouldn’t be possible for another decade, until 1990 at the earliest.
Initial plans for an express bus service from Mile End to docklands via Burdett Road were abandoned.
So Reg Ward, the LDDC’s chief executive looked at light railways as an option. To his surprise, it was found that a light rail service could be up and running by 1987, even sooner than the bus lanes.
But what sort of light railway should it be — and one of the options looked at could have seen it being more like a conventional tram service, with drivers, and running along the roads.
It was only one small section of the planned route that would have forced them into using a tram option, but it was one of the biggest decisions taken that would affect the future of the DLR as we know it today.
Two routes were being planned, either to be built together, or if funding couldn’t be secured, the two routes could be built separately.
One was the line from Tower Gateway down to Island Gardens, which fortunately was able to reuse an old railway viaduct running most of the way, with only a few additions, mainly around the Canary Wharf area.
It was the second line which was to decide the fate of the DLR though – the one running north through Poplar, also following a disused railway track.
The decision was what to do when the line reached the Bow Road – should it carry on along a narrow single track towards Stratford, or turn west towards Mile End.
The Stratford route offered the opportunity to stick to old railway alignments, but with a constraint that has plagued it ever since, in that there is a section of single track which reduces how many trains can run along the line. It was also the more expensive of the two options available, which was a serious problem for a railway being built to a very tight budget.
At the time, the preferred option was to run along the very wide Mile End road towards a terminus just to the east of Mile End tube station. However, to run the light rail service in the middle of the street would have meant it being classed as a tram service.
That was not immediately a problem, as the railway was still being thought of as a conventional service, with a driver, so a tram was not a major change in how the service would operate. Also a tram link to Mile End could have easily been extended along the Mile End road to Whitechapel, and even up to the edge of the City at Aldgate — following a line used by trams up to the 1940s.
Considering that one of the aims of the light rail line was to improve links between the city and docklands, this was not entirely without its benefits.
Even by late 1982, the proposal for a tram service in the docklands area was still being considered, even though construction was due to start in little over a years time.
One of the factors that was affecting the decision was also a feeling that a railway service would lead to a more varied mix of new jobs being created than a tram/bus type service. This was due in part to the curious nature of railways of be thought of as better than buses, due to their use of dedicated “permanent ways” for their journeys.
Another factor in favour of the automatic trains was that it would be something that could be developed by British firms, and exported. This was still a time when the government was expected to lay down trade developments rather than letting private companies decide how to invest.
The exact design for the line was still being debated, and while there was much chatter about making it as advanced as possible, with automation already talked of, the regulations would have required a driver to be in charge while the service ran along the roads.
It was early 1983 that a decision was taken – to kill off the Mile End option in favour of the Stratford link. It was in fact the LDDC that was strongly opposed to the Mile End option, and in this they were supported by the GLC, although for different reasons.
The reason the LDDC wasn’t keen on the tram option was because it would have necessitated the use of overhead wires for power supplies throughout the network, and this was seen as visually undesirable.
Scrapping the Mile End option also removed the need for drivers on the service, so it could be fully automated.
And one of the most distinctive public transport networks in the UK, indeed, in the world was created. The driverless DLR was not just a practical choice, it was a deliberate decision to highlight a hi-tech approach to the docklands regeneration.
Despite a surprising lack of interest when it was first announced — at one public meeting, there were twice as many officials as members of the public, most of whom turned up to complain about the buses — by the time it launched, it was generating a lot of excitement.
The driverless trains created such a level of excitement then, and still does today that a more conventional tram would never have achieved, and in that it helped to create an icon for the area.
The Queen opened the line on 30th June 1987. The public was supposed to be using it the following day, but in fact the service was delayed until 31st August 1987 due to teething problems with the driverless system.
But, lets play a game of what if.
What if they had gone for the tram option. Would the DLR now be running to Aldgate as well as Bank/Tower Gateway?
But more tellingly, would the DLR still be constrained to being a railway service, and would there be more of it running along roads elsewhere?
As a tram service it could still be running to Stratford, and there were trams running between Stratford to Prince Regent, via Plaistow. Likewise, trams ran from Greenwich to Lewisham along a route not that dissimilar to the current DLR service.
But more interestingly, it could have run through the part of the LDDC’s remit that didn’t get a railway – the section south of the river, which once had trams running between London Bridge and Greenwich, and could have again.
But here’s one to finish off with, the DLR nearly ended up being…. a monorail!
In 1967, one of many failed attempts to regenerate the docklands areas included the construction of a monorail service, running from then sleepy Broad Street station next to Liverpool Street, along to the docklands running above the existing railways.
Obviously it never happened. But just think. Monorails!
Illustrated London News, 1st January 1983
Stratford Express, 15th December 1967
Public transport provision for Docklands – Report of the Docklands Public Transport and Access Steering Group