London Drum

Sit behind the front window of a Docklands Light Railway (DLR) train

When I visited Chessington World of Adventures as a kid (this was back in the days when it was still called a zoo) our first ride was always the Safari Skyway because that was the only one that my mother wasn't afraid to go on.

It was just a leisurely monorail that pootled around the perimeter fence so you could take some photos of the lions and tigers underneath, and the Docklands Light Railway is London's equivalent of that. It runs from the centre of the Square Mile all the way out to Greenwich, Canary Wharf and London City Airport.

Driverless train with no cabin at the front

The great thing about the Docklands Light Railway is that it's all automated so the trains don't have a driver's cabin at the front. If you sit in the first carriage then you can sit directly behind the windscreen. And I really do mean behind it because it's literally just you, three feet of floor, and then the big window by your knees. That's what makes these trains so great for kids: being able to sit three feet from the windscreen as you hurtle through the tunnels.

Entrance to Bank station and the Royal ExchangePhoto: Craig Cross
Entrance to Bank station and the Royal Exchange

I always recommend boarding it at Bank station so start by standing outside Mansion House and then look for the station entrance over the road. As you head down the stairs you might notice a sign saying you can't board the DLR from here but don't worry about that (half of the signs in London are wrong) -- you can reach the platform through the underground tunnels.

Finding the right DLR platform at Bank station

DLR train entering Bank underground stationPhoto: Craig Cross
DLR train entering Bank underground station

It's a bit of a trek down to the platform but just keep following the signs and you'll be fine (it's an adventure!). You'll be traipsing through the tunnels, trooping down some stairs, descending a few never-ending escalators, down some more stairs, another escalator, getting deeper and deeper underground, getting swept along in the queue of commuters all bundling through the curved corridors that always seem to have their panels hanging off exposing the wiring behind the walls, and after five minutes of this you'll probably be thinking that this is the deepest railway in the world.

When you finally arrive at the platform remember to check the LCD board to make sure the next train is heading towards Lewisham and then try and fight for that special seat at the front. (If you board a train that doesn't say Lewisham then it won't go to Greenwich.)

View out of the front window on a DLR trainPhoto: Craig Cross
View out of the front window on a DLR train

The competition to occupy the front seat can be quite fierce so in order to maximise your chances you need to stand at the very end of the platform and board it through the first door. It's not possible to walk between the carriages once you're onboard the train so if you don't board it at the very front then you'll have messed up already. You should also be prepared to use a little bit of violence. Obviously I don't mean real violence, just silly stuff like sticking your elbows in people's ribs, knocking their hat off, kicking their crutches away, etc -- anything to give you a split second's edge when the train pulls in.

Sometimes you might find that a member of staff is already occupying one of the front seats so he can press a few coloured buttons on a Star Trek-style panel, but there will always be at least one more seat beside him. He usually disappears after a few stations anyway.

Hurtling through the underground tube tunnel

View from the DLR train as it goes through the underground tunnelPhoto: Craig Cross
View from the DLR train as it goes through the underground tunnel

If you manage to grab the seat then you'll be looking at the concrete tunnel disappearing into the darkness up ahead. Soon you'll be shooting through that gloomy tube with the pipes and wires and emergency lighting flashing five inches from your face, train wheels screeching and squealing as you tilt around the corners.

You can just about see the next turn coming before you feel the train twisting into it and then all of a sudden the sunlight will come streaming through the window and it will seem like you've surfaced for air, like you've ridden the wild water out of a whale's blowhole, and it will be all light and squinting eyes as you adjust to the sunshine.

Canary Wharf, O2 Arena and Cutty Sark

The first few stations after that are just the dirty outskirts of the city and the tower block balconies will be decorated with pushbikes and washing lines. The trackside scenery will be all bland flats, big weeds and urban art (spray-painted graffiti), but once you reach Limehouse the houses will start sinking beneath you as the train rises up on the rail.

Now you'll be travelling at head height to the trees and those tower block balconies will start filling up with deckchairs and paddling pools. Tangled flags and satellite dishes will become blossoming flower boxes, pigeons will become seagulls, and those bikes and lights and traffic jams will disappear out of sight on the road below.

DLR train pulling into Canary Wharf stationPhoto: Craig Cross
View from the DLR train as it pulls into Canary Wharf station

When you get close to Canary Wharf you'll see some gleaming marinas and the mustard-coloured spikes of the O2 Arena before steering through a gap in the skyscrapers towards its futuristic station.

You might want to get off here and have a walk around (read my Canary Wharf review to see what it's like). After that I recommend continuing on to Cutty Sark.

London Squire bookThe owns and has spent the last decade reviewing the capital’s landmarks, attractions and hotels. His guidebook is available from Amazon. This post was written on

Related posts

Your comments and questions

Be the first to talk about this post

Be the first to comment