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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.