Back to the Future on the Docklands Light Railway, London
During the nineteen eighties, President Francois Mitterrand of France redeveloped the run down La Defense district of Paris. He turned it into an ultra modern business arena adorned with shiny skyscrapers that looked a little like down town Manhattan. Margaret Thatcher was the British Prime Minister at the time and was not going to be outdone by the Froggies. She had the problem of East London with all the decrepit and redundant dockyards to deal with. She pushed ahead with a very ambitious redevelopment programme of her own that led to the new home of the London financial district at Canary Wharf. As part of all this massive construction there came the Docklands Light Railway. The service would link the old heart of Dickensian London from the Bank of England through to the centre of the twenty first century corner stone of commercial activity. Nowadays, the East London Manhattan of Thatcher is much greater than Mitterrand’s Paris version. I know them both quite well.
The Docklands Light Railway is like an overland tube but the trains do not have any drivers. The whole process is completely automatic and is totally reliable. The carriages are crewed by what they call ‘Train Captains’ who have no control other than an emergency stop button. They will simply provide travel information and make sure that you have a valid ticket. The railway has two starting positions at ‘Bank’ and ‘Stratford’ underground stations and spreads to the east side of London into three branches. They go out to ‘Beckton’, ‘Woolwich’ and ‘Lewisham’ and link so much of the old London with so much of the brand new. Take a trip on it when you are next in town and see for yourself. You can pay with your discounted Oyster card.
If you start off in ‘Bank’, the journey will begin at the old and great Bank of England. Take a look at that and admire the Monument, close by, at the end of Pudding Lane. The Monument marks the occasion of the great fire of London in 1666. It was the fire that killed all the rats that were the cause of the great black plague. Jump on the Light Railway train and take the branch towards Lewisham. This line goes through Canary Wharf. Here you will find the Thatcher skyscrapers and the new glossy financial district. All the great financial institutions have a presence here in enormous, glass ivory towers stretching high into the London sky. Twenty years ago, the whole area was one of rusting dockyards with their history going back to the imperial past. The station signs retain all the old quayside names reminding passengers of the days of great sea navigation.
Further down the line towards Lewisham, the train stops off at ‘Mudchute’. Here there is one of London’s inner city farms caring for a selection of live animals. Local children, many of whom have never seen anything other than urban East London, visit to find out about real life. They learn that eggs come from chickens, milk from cows and the Sunday roast from cattle. The supermarket shelves at nearby ASDA are only part of the supply chain.
Beyond Mudchute comes ‘Island Gardens’. Here you can find the old foot tunnel that takes you under the Thames river towards Greenwich. The tunnel is being preserved as a feature from the past to contrast with all the new development around it. Hop off and walk through it if you like and you will end up at the Cutty Sark sailing ship museum. The Cutty Sark ship has just emerged from restoration after a ferocious fire. Find out all about its glorious past and admire the newly displayed hull for all to see.
Stay on the train and you will arrive at Greenwich and the maritime park. The Naval museum is here to visit with the enduring observatory marking the prime meridian. You can observe the brand new, pencil thin, bright fluorescent green laser beam that marks the zero degree Greenwich Meridian. It is turned on at sunset and follows the curvature of the earth way over the Millennium Dome and beyond to the north. It is a curious modern reminder of how all navigation across the globe is still dependent on the centuries old system of Latitude and Longitude, even with current satellite systems. Stand astride the metal bar marking the meridian and look just above your head at the thin and powerful beam of light.
Start your train journey at ‘Stratford’ and visit the more easterly lines towards Woolwich and Beckton. Stratford itself was the home of the 2012 Olympic Games. From the station you can see the stadium, the helter skelter ‘sculpture’ and all the other sports venues. The train goes on to stop at ‘Bow Church’. The bells at Bow Church create the sound confirming that you are a ‘Cockney’ if they were in earshot at your place of birth. Take a look at Bow Church; it is surprisingly small and unobtrusive standing in a compound amongst the traffic.
Further down the line comes London City Airport. This is the airport that was built to provide the financial sector with air transportation to all of Europe and beyond. It thrives these days with services to as far away as New York. City Airport was constructed amongst the vast dry dockland area as part of Margaret Thatcher’s master plan for the London economy. Jump off the train and snigger at all the ‘suits’ in the terminal building brandishing their smart phones and laptops. If you look just across the water areas around the airport towards the north east, you will be able to see the ultra modern campus of the University of East London with the oval shaped student accommodation buildings. The windows provide inspiration for the students as they overlook the airport and the commercial district of Canary Wharf.
Take the line towards Beckton. The train will pass by the Millennium Dome building towards the vast Excel exhibition centre on the north bank of the Thames. This centre is used for worldwide commercial exhibitions trading anything from micro computers to warships and weapons. It was the venue for the global economics conference in 2009 when President Obama and his entourage came to visit the East End. Go and visit to see what is going on. The centre is wired for the highest tech TV and state of the art presentation systems.
The Docklands Light Railway really does link the very oldest with the most recent features of London in every sense. Boris Johnson, the London Mayor, loves it. He knows that he cannot be intimidated by striking dockland train drivers demanding more money or fewer working hours because the railway doesn’t have any. The service is totally safe and dependable and is the basis for future London transport. The carriages are kept clean and sparkling and you can sit in the front where the drivers once were and admire the view. The greedy bankers love it too. They fill the trains at rush hour every day as they go about creating the economic process that all of us, in so many ways, ultimately benefit from.