Docklands Light Railway leads the way

Light rail must be the future, says Ian Brown, managing director, London Rail, Transport for London

Following last year’s celebration of 20 years successful operation and growth of the Docklands Light Railway, this month sees the 10th anniversary of the extension of the DLR, cross-river to Lewisham; delivered and operated successfully as a PFI. It is therefore relevant to review how DLR has grown and how it has successfully delivered what was a government’s theme for the railway industry; publicaly led – private delivered.

Regeneration & growth
DLR’s purpose, right from its inception, was to facilitate regeneration of Docklands. This meant that a massive investment was required in the system to upgrade it from what was dubbed a ‘toy-town’ railway with just 11 trains when it opened in 1987 to today’s system which carries 67 million passengers a new year; forecast to grow to 100 million by 2016.
 A strong client side team was set up to manage projects and upgrade the railway, working with the franchisee to deliver a very high level of reliability (98 per cent currently). Franchising rail services in the UK has received a mixed reaction. DLR was franchised in 1997 having learnt some of the lessons from the privatisation of British Rail. However, there are two essential differences between the DLR franchise are National Rail franchises.
Firstly, the DLR model is based on a strong client working with the franchisee to deliver projects and upgrade the railway so fulfilling its wider role of opening up Docklands and now a much wider area of east London. DLR owns the assets and clearly prescribes the service requirement. Extension projects have been delivered by the private sector through the successful application of PFIs. The highly successful Lewisham extension (opened in 1999) was followed by equally successful extensions to London City Airport (2005) and Woolwich Arsenal (2008).
A second essential difference with the DLR franchise is that revenue risk is retained by TfL although the franchisee is strongly incentivised to provide a high quality operation.
A further series of upgrades to the existing railway have been delivered through direct contracts, including the upgrade of the whole network and additionally converting what was a mainline, low capacity North London Line operation between Canning Town and Stratford into high frequency light rail, fully integrated into the DLR system.

London 2012
The 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games will be rail based – much more so than any other Olympic Games. The role of the DLR in the Olympics is distribution, complementing high capacity rail links such as the Javelin service from St. Pancras International to Stratford and an upgraded Jubilee Line Tube route. Major Olympic event sites are planned for Stratford itself – the principle venue but also ExCel (situated at Custom House), Greenwich and Woolwich so that all East London Olympic venues are served by the DLR.
This has required a major upgrade of the DLR, lengthening trains and hence all the stations on the network and providing yet a further extension to Stratford International, converting the North London line to light rail over this section and the provision of four new stations, including a major new interchange with HS1 at Stratford International. This new 6km DLR line is on course to open in July 2010 with the whole system upgraded ready for 2012. 2011 will be used to test the system and the whole Olympic event scenario so the intention is to have all projects complete well in advance of the actual Olympic Games in 2012 avoiding the last minute scenario so recently seen in Beijing and Athens.

DLR capacity enhancements

To make maximum use of the infrastructure, DLR is computer controlled, providing for a very high frequency of trains. Two limitations on capacity have been the length of the trains and the major junctions on the system at Canary Wharf and Canning Town. Both these junctions are being rebuilt as flying junctions, motorway-style, and all the stations and trains are being lengthened prior to the Olympics. An Olympic 3-car DLR train is 87m long – the same as a London Underground Circle line train. All this infrastructure enhancement work will be complete in 2010.
Light rail is a very effective way of providing capacity and high quality service, complementing the heavy rail network and the Tube. Light rail must be the future, either as a segregated operation such as DLR and the Newcastle Metro or based on trams such as in Croydon, Sheffield, Manchester and Nottingham.
DLR has shown that a strong client in the public sector and delivery by the private sector, including PFIs to build new infrastructure, can be a highly and cost effective model for delivering cost effective, quality public transport.

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