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Systems in action: Docklands Light Railway

Updated Wednesday, 18th May 2005

What does the construction of the Docklands Light Railway demonstrate about successful system practice?

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The regeneration of Docklands in London began in 1986 with new office development and housing. How was the decision made to go for a novel railway system to serve this community?

Docklands Light Railway - part 1




Narrator: Margaret Blunden
In this series, we’re looking at the management of a public project: the building of the Docklands Light Railway.  We’ll be looking at the problems and opportunities for transport in this area, at how decisions were taken and how they were implemented, and we’ll be interpreting the whole story in terms of the hard systems approach as a method for public decision making.

These programmes have been a team effort, Sheila Cameron and Lewis Watson have been looking at how people reach decisions, that’s the first stages of the approach, and John Hughes and I at how those decisions have been carried out, that’s the implementation stage of the approach.  And we’ll be starting by looking at the hard systems approach in outline.

The hard systems approach takes as its starting point the existence of a problem or opportunity and a client or set of clients whose problem or opportunity it is.  The approach consists of a series of stages, representing a sequence of activities designed to arrive at an optimum outcome for the problem or opportunity.  By 1986 when this series was made, the Docklands Light Railway was already under construction, but we have traced the project through from its earliest conception.

Sheila Cameron
This whole project became possible when Docklands stopped being viewed simply as a problem and became seen as an opportunity.  This shift in perspective took place during the 1970s.  Although we should be looking at the problems and opportunities for transport in particular, these can only be understood in the context of Docklands as a whole.

The City of London is one of the major financial centres of the world.  Its densely packed office developments occupy some of the most sought after and expensive sites in the country.  The construction of the giant NatWest Tower reflected the continuing demand for new office space in the heart of the City and the apparent inability to expand anywhere but upwards.  Only three miles to the east lay a different world.  On either side of the Thames lay huge expanses of disused docks and crumbling warehouses, the remains of a once prosperous London dockland.

John Black, Managing Director, Port of London Authority
The problems that face this country in terms of ports is very much the situation that faced London itself just at the turn of the century, when we had a number of shipping and dock companies fighting each other for business, and with the result there was very little by way of development and there was a lot the cost cutting, rate cutting, the service worsened.  The Government stepped in and said this is nonsense and they knocked a few heads together and brought the whole thing under the Port of London Authority.  That brought sense and order to the situation and enabled the Port of London Authority to get off the ground, and in fact brought London up as the premium port in the UK, in Europe and at one time in the world.

Even though the Port of London established this strong position, its fortunes were to change with the emergence of new technology in the 1960s.

John Black
Containerisation meant that the number of ships reduced, they became bigger, and that left the ports of London and Liverpool with large surpluses, both of human and physical resources.  Whilst we were trying to sort ourselves out and get this port streamlined and able to cope with the new technology, other ports without tradition were able to grow, and that is really what happened.

The decline of the docks led directly to a significant loss of jobs, but the problem went far wider than this.  There were many dock related industries in the area, from warehousing to maintenance services, and they in their turn perished as dock businesses continued to contract.  Bus services were cut, and soon transport provision had become so poor that it discouraged possible new employers from moving into the area, even if they weren’t already put off by the general air of decay.


Docklands Light Railway - part 2




Part 2

The centre of the Docklands area is the large peninsula known as the Isle of Dogs, containing the old West India docks.  Although it was generally recognised that public transport for this whole area was inadequate, it needed some new impetus to bring the problem into sharper focus.  A significant step was the setting up in 1981 of the London Dockland Development Corporation and the creation of an enterprise zone in the area.  The LDDC, like the new town corporations, was given powers of compulsory purchase.  They'd taken over many of the functions of the local boroughs, and the Government had provided them with considerable funds.

Michael Heseltine, Sec of State for the Environment 1979-83
The Inner City Development Corporations in London and Liverpool herald a rebirth of historic proportions.  The decades of decay are over.  We are determined not only to create a climate for investment, but we want the attitudes and talents of the private sector to influence the polices of government and of the Department of the Environment which sponsors so much of local government.

The shift towards an opportunity rather than a problem perspective led to a new wave of interest in the area, particularly among potential investors and property developers.  By 1985 many of those who had benefited from this development were celebrating their new found fortunes at a conference entitled Docklands: Time for Reappraisal. 

Reg Ward, Chief Executive, LDDC
What happened in Docklands, and what actually concealed the fairly obvious opportunities which existed, was this total problem focus, and nobody able to stand back from it and see each of those problems as a major opportunity in their own right, and actually seeing the area itself without a predetermined view.  To some extent it was easier for me perhaps, although it was a point of criticism, of coming in from the outside, from the delights of Hereford and Worcester, and walking the acres of East London and saying what the hell are people moaning about, where is the problem?  And so our major thrust had to be actually changing the perception, both of people within Docklands, although that was extremely difficult, and even more difficult, changing the perception of those outside Docklands.

But if, to some people, the problem had obscured the opportunity, to others the opportunity was now obscuring the problem.

Female speaker
What about us that have lived there and fought for this land and worked it all our years?  We’ll just have a kick in the arse an out.  This is a rich man’s playground they're making, and nobody will tell the people in Docklands any different.

Male speaker
They're all strangers coming in, weren’t they, all millionaires.  You won't be wanted on the island before long, Cockneys, they’ll all be gone!

Male speaker

Male speaker
Yeah.  All these houses down, £46,000, won't be able to afford it.

But what the old problem of Docklands and the new opportunity had in common was that they both required a better transport system for the area.  Exactly what’s meant by a better system and whose interests it should principally serve was to be a continuing theme throughout the project.  Obviously any new transport system was likely to impinge on the operations of London Regional Transport, so what in their terms was wrong with the existing system?  John Willis is a transport planner whose career has taken him from the Greater London Council to the Central Planning Office of London Regional Transport.  He has been studying measures of accessibility.

John Willis
Well accessibility isn’t just the ride time that it takes you to get from A to B; it’s an addition of all the components of a journey.  This is a London-wide plot of accessibility, and the orange blobs here are the strategic town centres, the major shopping centres around London - the darker area, the better.  And similarly if we look at the Docklands area, defined by here, we can see that there is a complete hole in the network and access to any strategic centre from Docklands is less than we would expect in the rest of London.


Docklands Light Railway - part 3




Part 3

In the hard systems approach, it’s important to identify those people with the responsibility for solving the problem the client set.  So to start with, who are the interested parties?  Clearly one was the LDDC, without a good transport infrastructure they had little hope of achieving their development goals.  The GLC, who still had power over London, had a totally different perspective from the LDDC.  They were much more concerned with the provision of services for all the people of London.  The local inhabitants, the constituency represented by Tower Hamlets and Newham councils, were much more concerned that any changes should be to the benefit of those already living there.

The Government has an interest too, as a large area of dereliction in the Centre of London is not a good advertisement for its policies.  Moreover, a new transport project would offer a chance to put its economic theories into practice.  London Regional Transport were very concerned that the type of system chosen should not present them with future operating problems.  Investors in the City have an interest in Docklands too, as it offers a potential outlet for lucrative investment and for expansion beyond the square mile of the City itself.

How do we decide whether any of these bodies are part of the client set?  The criterion we use is whether or not a party was able to participate in the decision making process.  By this definition, we can identify four such clients: the LDDC, GLC, Central Government and London Regional Transport.  There is an underlying assumption that the clients have some level of common identification of the problems or opportunities.  The next stage is to identify the system concerned, and here it is the transport system serving the London Dockland region.  At each stage of the loop, a reference back to the roles of the clients is quite appropriate.

In moving to the setting out of objectives and constraints, one looks for the general objectives of the client set.  We’ll see however the differences between the clients will present an ongoing tension in the project.  When objectives and constraints have been defined, the ways of measuring progress towards objectives must be considered.  We shall look at this before exploring alternative ways of achieving the objectives.  So, to start with, how did the different clients see their particular goals? Reg Ward:

Reg Ward
As far as the civil servants and the specialist consultants that we had at that time, all Docklands actually required was an express bus system.  So what you're actually saying to me, the promise of an express bus in 1988 is all I need to actually encourage people to say they can travel in and outside Docklands, it was patently observed.  But that really was a level of attitude towards Docklands that had to be shifted.  And so we then were beginning to get the situation in which you will be able to extol the physical virtues of the Docklands itself, its locational advantages, associate with it a new dynamic form of transport system and create excitement.

The last major comparable transport venture was the Tyne & Wear Metro, which whist technically successful, way overran its original budget.  Government ministers were anxious to avoid a repeat of this.  Given the Government’s frequently proclaimed commitment to limit public expenditure, no minister wanted to risk another cost overrun on the Tyne & Wear scale.  The objective of the Labour-controlled GLC reflected the different political complexion of the council.

Dave Wetzel, Chairman, Greater London Transport Committee
Our objective was a people’s railway, we wanted a people mover.  Particularly for the people already living in Docklands, we wanted to give them greater opportunities for travel in terms of seeking jobs and employment, and for others to get to Docklands.  I think our insistence on accessibility for people with disabilities is a good example of how we had in mind a people’s railway.

The remit of LRT obliged them to respond to the increasing demands posed by the new developments.  They seemed less attracted to a glamorous high technology system than to one which disrupted as little as possible their existing operation.  Given all these quite different perspectives, how was it ever possible to formulate a joint approach to government for money?

Dave Wetzel
The first meetings between myself and Nigel Broackes, the Chairman of the LDDC, was very much on the basis of looking for common ground and not looking for the differences, and we were then in a climate where London Transport was doing a study of the possibilities, but there was no commitment from government at all at that stage, and our first joint common objective was to get the agreement of government for funding because there was no way either of us could have contributed money to the scheme without government grants.


Docklands Light Railway - part 4




Part 4

The outcome was the crucial setting up of a joint steering group to coordinate the strategy of the clients.  Any system proposed by the group would be subject to strict constraints, geographical limitations imposed by the existing patterns of land use and the disposition of land and water.  Strict cost limits and legal requirements imposed by Acts of Parliament.  A new railway, for example, would be subject to the rules of the Railway Inspectorate. 

Lt. Col. Townsend-Rose, Railway Inspectorate
Under the 1933 Road and Rail Traffic Act, the Railway Inspectorate has passed to require drawings and other details to ensure that the railway is safe for passengers.  Now the railway authority themselves are responsible for the safety of their railway, and my role here is to make sure that the railway themselves have considered all the points and are doing the necessary to make it a safe railway.

There are limits to the environmental intrusion any transport system can be allowed.  One of the most obvious forms of environmental impact is noise.  Defining precise criteria was itself part of this evolving project, as we shall see in the next programme.  As the project progressed, various ways of achieving the transport objectives would be proposed.  To choose between them, measures of performance were needed.  The generally agreed criteria were the accessibility achieved, the capital cost and the time needed to bring the system into service.  A more controversial factor was some measure of style.

So what sort of new transport system was possible?  Two major choices had to be made: the type of system and the route.  An earlier proposal to extend the Jubilee line on the underground system had been ruled out in the 1970s on the grounds of cost.  What other options were considered?

Improving bus services on existing roads was the easiest option, but was likely to result in an unreliable service with little visual impact.  Improving the road network and designating more bus lanes was another possibility.  At the top and most expensive end was the building of specially constructed busways, as had been pioneered in Runcorn in Cheshire, or guided busses which could run either on tracks or on the open road.

Amongst the rail options, an obvious choice was to extend the existing underground or British Rail networks.  There were various so called light rail options too, ranging from the tram like street running systems found in many continental countries and in North America, to the up market fully automated version operating in Lille in northern France.  This type of system is characterised by the use of rubber tyres for noise reduction and by the absence of overhead wires.

Note that although these options would not have been considered in such an orderly and structured way, the comparison process corresponds to the stage in the hard systems approach.  At the most advanced technology end were systems based on magnetic levitation, like the new Maglev system at Birmingham Airport.  Ideas on monorails, cable cars, and even vacuum propulsion systems were also generated.

Setting aside considerations of technical feasibility of the options described, what routes should they follow?  The choice of route was governed to some extent by the existence of several miles of disused British Rail track.  This would in turn have offered some attractions in choosing a new rail system, as the environmental effects would be known.  Also, for areas where this track abutted currently used BR lines, BR were likely to be more sympathetic towards the problems of a new rail system where the culture was their own.


Docklands Light Railway - part 5




Part 5

So how would they choose between all the very different options?  The GLC had developed a transport model for the whole of London.

Jill Beardwood, Greater London Council
The model works first by deciding how many journeys will be made for each small area of London.  It then goes on and asks where those trips will go.  If everybody who wants to do it in the morning peak were to go across Westminster Bridge then you would have 10,000 vehicles going across Westminster Bridge and nobody would make it at all.  And in fact there is balance and adjustment.  Because if we have a man who sets out and finds that it’s going to take him hours and hours and hours to get to work then that’s obviously not a plausible journey and we recalculate the journeys that would be made.  We recalculate how they will be made and we keep going like that until the model has found a balance.

For many years, the GLC had been collecting data on journey times and traffic profiles within London.  Number and type of vehicles were recorded at a wide range of sites across the Capital.  Journey times were measured by using a special recording device to note journey characteristics for a car over a wide variety of specified routes.  So the aim of this type of data collection was to help predict the demand through the GLC model.  Meeting that demand then had to be calculated for the different possible transport systems, but in this type of project quantitative modelling can only be part of the story.

Male speaker
The problem with the bus service was that the image of the service did not really meet the LDDC’s requirements.  Also, however much you improve the bus on the approach to the central area, by the time it got to this point you were into the gluepot in the congestion area, and this affected the reliability of the service.

Nevertheless, the data collected for travel times and costs were used in a cost/ benefit analysis on all the main options, with a rail system already favoured on the grounds of image.

Male speaker
The joint group which was looking at the whole question decided in the summer of 1982 to put together this package report on the assessment of the schemes.  Now the scheme that we ended up with, which was a combination of this north-south and east-west link, the capital cost was £65m.  When we added all the benefits together, we found that at best we could manage about £30m.  So this project in the conventional transport cost/benefit terms only covered about 50% of its cost.  In normal terms, that would have been the end of it.

This is where the story gains a new interest, because the objectives of the client set as a whole now come to the fore.  One thing they were all agreed on was the need to convince the Government that this project was worth investing in.  So they needed a set of figures produced by what would appear as objective means.  What they had to do was to look for other factors that would produce the kind of answer they were looking for.

The factor they chose was a premium per job for the new jobs expected to be created.  This was something to which all the parties could publicly subscribe.  They could have built in the rising land values which would accrue as a result of improved transport, but this could have caused embarrassment to some of the clients.  So an interpretation of the LDDC’s development objective was arrived at which expressed the expected benefits of the railway in terms of jobs.

Male speaker
They estimated about 9,000 additional jobs would be generated in the Isle of Dogs simply due to the railway.  So the rest of the 50% of the £65m was justified by these additional jobs.  In simple terms, it works out at a premium of about £2,000-3,000 per job.

So the proposal incorporating the revised figures was put to government.  The timing of the impending Conservative Party Conference in autumn 1982 was believed by many to have been an important stimulus to a decision.

Michael Heseltine
David Howell and I today announce the most significant development for London’s East End since the War, the development of rail links from the City into the Dockland areas.

We've seen then how objectives were formulated, in this case, a major one being the unity required to gain money from Central Government.  Many alternative systems were possible, and modelling was used both for evaluating the alternatives and importantly as a weapon of argument to support a preferred option for reasons going beyond transport alone.  Public decision-making often hangs on both these uses of modelling.

Completion of evaluation brings us to the point where the clients have in effect gone through one cycle of the method.  In this case, they had achieved their goal of getting money, though perhaps not as much as desired.  Now the client set has a choice.  Before proceeding to implementation, another iteration could be gone through to reconsider the proposed routes and type of system now that the size of budget was known; alternatively, once the money was allocated, the railway could have been put out to tender, albeit with a rather vague specification.






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