The strike-proof Docklands Light Railway has gone on strike

Today's industrial action wasn't supposed to happen in the Thatcherite vision of urban mass transit

Wednesday 04 November 2015 12:22
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"DLR 106" by Hippoattack at English Wikipedia
"DLR 106" by Hippoattack at English Wikipedia

Things were going so well for the Docklands Light Railway – popular, successful and reliable – until yesterday. Designed to be strike-proof, the DLR experienced its first closure by strike action in its 28-year history. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

The DLR is one of London’s most successful and most popular forms of transport. With over 110 million passenger journeys in 2014/15, and the percentage of journey times and departures delivered on time running consistently in the very high 90s, the DLR is usually extremely good at its job. That the DLR boasted a customer satisfaction rating of 89 per cent last month should be no surprise.

However, following a change of management in December, yesterday and today the DLR has been closed by a 48-hour strike. The strike has been called by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, who claim that the transfer of the DLR franchise from outsourcing company Serco to the new joint venture KeolisAmey Docklands has led to attempts to bring in poor working practices, and the bullying of staff. The RMT union claim a ballot of members registered 92 per cent in favour of strike action.

The DLR was designed and built to avoid such a turn of events. The railway was initially constructed for the paltry sum of £77 million, of which a sceptical Department of Transport had to be convinced to contribute half by Michael Heseltine, Environment Secretary, who stumped up the other half under the premise that it would assist with the regeneration of the run-down Docklands. The DLR was then repeatedly upgraded as Canary Wharf suddenly emerged and required much greater capacity for what many people had initially described as a "toy town" railway to nowhere.

The DLR would not have been built had it not been for Heseltine’s interventionism, but Nicholas Ridley, the arch-Thatcherite Transport Secretary, had a great influence on its creation. Designed and built entirely by the private sector in order to keep it out of the hands of Ken Livingstone’s left-wing Greater London Council, engineers and planners who worked on the DLR recall being told that making the trains driverless, and thus invulnerable to union disruption, was an essential requirement. One consultant who worked on the project recalls that powering the DLR via overhead cables was ruled out by the Thatcher government, who told him with some disgust that: "This must not look like a bloody tram! Trams come from socialist countries. We are not a socialist country!"

Local groups and activists had grave concerns about the safety of driverless trains and unstaffed stations. However, the only major accidents on the DLR seem to have occurred when the trains are driven manually. Most dramatically, a train ran off the end of the line at Island Gardens in 1987, being photographed drooping impotently in mid-air amid the debris to great embarrassment on the part of the contractors and the government. The crash occurred in the testing of the railway whilst the train was being driven manually – ironically, during an over-zealous testing of the emergency brakes.

Still, it was accepted that staffing the trains was necessary; if not with drivers, then with train "captains", who would open and close the doors and be on hand should passengers need assistance. The gradual shift towards train staff doing less and less had plenty of precedent. The Victoria Line, one of the younger London Underground lines, had been semi-automatic since before the DLR was born. Drivers control the train’s doors and press two buttons simultaneously to initiate departure from a station, but the vehicle then runs on autopilot to the next stop. Today, the Central, Northern and Jubilee Lines are also run on similar Automatic Train Operation systems.

Driverless trains have failed to eliminate the involvement of unions or the possibility of disputes, then. Train captains on the DLR calmed concerns about driverless vehicles from the railway’s inception, and have thus far proved popular. However, things have a tendency to change quickly in Docklands. Initially unreliable, in no small part thanks to the shoestring budget on which it was constructed, the DLR broke down with the Queen onboard during its grand opening. Criticised first as a prestige project that no one would ride – why would anyone ever want to go to Docklands? – the DLR was then attacked for being hopelessly under-sized for the demand that Canary Wharf generated.

Today, more than 100,000 people work in Canary Wharf alone, and the Jubilee Line was extended to Docklands in order to complement, not replace, the DLR. Canary Wharf is set to double in size over the coming years, with the development of the adjacent Wood Wharf site. More and more much-needed housing is springing up across Docklands. Whoever is to blame for this dispute, its resolution should be swift. It is not only the railway’s good reputation that is on the line.

Jack Brown is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, and Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London. He is working on a history of Canary Wharf and Docklands

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