Is London’s DLR a subway? Or is it a tram?

Is it a bird? Is it a plan? No! It's the DLR! Image: Getty.

“Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is one of those riddles that’s meant to be unsolvable. Which is ridiculous, because the answer is very clearly the egg. There were eggs for millions upon millions of years before there were any chickens. This riddle is stupid.

For a better, more City-Metric-y riddle, consider this:

The DLR, for those who haven’t had the pleasure, is the Docklands Light Railway, which connects London’s two financial districts, the City and Canary Wharf, with spurs to Stratford, Greenwich, Woolwich and the Royal Docks.

A map! Image: Wikipedia.

The reason Dan’s question is so hard, and the poll so divided, is because the DLR isn’t really either of those things.

The problem with calling the DLR a tram is that, well, it obviously isn’t a tram. There is a definite overlap between trams and light railways: both involve rolling stock that is both narrower and shorter than normal trains. The systems are so similar, indeed, that units once used on the DLR are now running on the tramways of Essen.

A DLR P89 train in Essen, Germany. Image: Stefan Baguette.

But the word “tram” tends to suggest two specific characteristics: sections where they run on the street, and overhead electrical power. These two things tend to go together for reasons that you’ll spot quickly enough if you imagine the consequences of putting an electrified rail down the middle of a busy urban street.

Edit to add: It's been brought to my attention by our quizmaster extraordinaire Chris Sharp that I over-stated things in that last paragraph:

Fair point. Nonetheless: the DLR doesn't run on the street, so is not a tram. Now back to the original article.

The DLR doesn’t have either of these characteristics: it never runs on the street, and its power comes from a third rail. So despite the obvious similarities with, say, the outer sections of Manchester Metrolink, it’s not a tram.


So is it a subway? A form of underground metro?

It has some similarities with that, too: underground sections (in the City, and under the Thames); high capacity compared to many tramways. Also, it appears on the Tube map; until relatively recently, that gave it a status that was denied to Tramlink, down in the southern suburbs.

But – it doesn’t quite fit that either, does it? Most of the DLR is not underground – just five stations out of 45 (Bank, Island Gardens, Cutty Sark, Woolwich Arsenal, Stratford International). In its early years, that number was just one (Bank). In its really early years, it was none.

It’s also, still, a light rail system. And maybe I’m being a stickler, but a proper subway feels like it should have proper trains, not the diddy ones you get in Docklands.

So, no, the DLR is not a tram. Nor is it a subway. It’s an urban light railway, which isn’t really either.

On the upside, it is largely automated. Which  means that you can sit up front and pretend to drive the train. The DLR isn’t a tram. It’s not a subway. It’s better than that.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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