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Book Review: The Railways of London Docklands - May 2023

THE RAILWAYS OF LONDON DOCKLANDS. Their history and development

by Jonathan Willis. Pen and Sword books, 2022.

Jon Willis worked for the GLC, LT and TfL and was a key figure in many of the transport planning decisions taken to provide the modern rail network we now have, serving what had become the vast, derelict acres of London Docklands after the last dock closed in 1970. Jon’s first-hand account of the context to these decisions is highly instructive for anyone wishing to promote sustainable urban modes. He also details the history of the enclosed docks and the freight/passenger railways built to serve them, fragments of which were sustainably repurposed to carry sections of the DLR, the Jubilee line extension and the Elizabeth line. At Canary Wharf, disused docks were repurposed to accommodate the Jubilee and Elizabeth line stations.

Jon has an engineering background, and he explains the significant engineering constraints which led to some of those planning decisions. The book’s Forward is written by Lord (Michael) Heseltine who was responsible for setting up the Docklands Development Corporation and giving the go-ahead for the DLR.

Although I worked on some aspects of the DLR (the bizarre, inward-opening doors of the first fleet were the first thing to strike me) and of Crossrail (Jon was my line manager at one stage) many nuggets in this book were new to me. I learnt that the initial proposed location of the DLR platforms at Bank had risked undermining the weak foundations of the Mansion House and causing construction noise for a Lord Mayor’s whole year term of office.

Jon’s idea to relocate the DLR platforms vertically below those of the Northern line avoided those risks and enabled direct interchange to be provided with the District & Circle lines at Monument. I still wonder why DLR trains at Bank normally reverse there via a siding when energy, maintenance, staff, and time could be saved more sustainably by reversing direction in the platforms there, as trains do at every other DLR terminus and almost every Underground terminus in London.

The book explains how important it is to find feasible and acceptable alignments for whichever sustainable mode is being considered and how difficult it was to forecast the likely patronage, as each element of the Docklands rail network was being planned. It proved very wise to allow wherever possible for potential growth in patronage more than the forecasts.

This book is wonderfully illustrated with relevant photos and maps, many in colour. My Kindle, on which I first read it in black & white. could not do justice to the fine illustrations.

Neil Roth

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