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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Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.