|Last Updated Sunday 2 June 2013|
Blackpool Balloonatic Weekend: 25-27 May 2013|
by Andrew Waddington
Following on from the incredibly successful heritage tram operation in Blackpool over the Easter and May Day Bank Holiday weekends, the third stint of action for the heritage fleet came over the Spring Bank Holiday period. Building on the success of May Day, outline plans were to operate at least two different heritage cars and two of the ‘B Fleet’ on each day across this weekend, as normal specials, with a number of timetabled journeys to Fleetwood spread out across the days. Andrew Waddington was present throughout the weekend to soak up the sights (and some sun!), and this is what happened....
Saturday 25th May
The weekend of intensive tram action in Blackpool had been due to start with the launch of Centenary car 648 following a heritage makeover and repaint into 1980s green and cream livery. Unfortunately, this was not to be as the work was not sufficiently complete for the tram to run; however, its replacement was the ever-popular Bolton 66, offering the rare treat of a ride to Fleetwood aboard this tram. With a near full load, 66 offered a sedate but enjoyable ride to the northern terminus and back to North Pier, with photo opportunities in Fleetwood blessed by glorious sunshine.
Whilst the majority of the enthusiasts in town were sampling the delights of Bolton 66, three other heritage and ‘B Fleet’ trams were entering service for the day. Due to a fault with the transponders on ‘Princess Alice’ 706, this car’s place on the heritage service was taken by Boat car 600, whilst the ‘B Fleet’ was represented by 711 and 719, both now painted in matching purple and white livery. As the day grew increasingly warm and sunny, Bolton 66’s return trip from Fleetwood was terminated at North Pier, with the crew being summed back to Rigby Road to collect the second operational Boat car, 230, to complete their shift on the open car. Another welcome surprise was the appearance of Engineering car 754 running on diesel power along the prom. 754 was seen heading to the Cabin, before it followed 66 back to the depot.
Although 648 was not fit for service, this did not prevent it from being one of the star attractions on this day, as Blackpool Transport had very kindly arranged for it to be extracted from the Paint Shop and displayed on Hopton Road for a few hours during the afternoon, giving enthusiasts the chance to view progress on the car. Coupled up to Engineering car 754, 648 made a fine sight outside the depot and despite only having its undercoats applied, gave a good indication of how it will look when its repaint is completed. Despite not being the biggest fan of the Centenary cars, I will happily admit that 648 already looks superb and will no doubt be a great addition to the heritage fleet once complete. It is easy to forget how smart these trams actually looked when new, and before the various modifications imposed on the class spoilt their original design, but 648 has thankfully lost some of the more obtrusive alterations, such as roof side advert panels, and looks all the better for it.
The recent May Day weekend saw a timetabled afternoon journey from Pleasure Beach to Fleetwood and back by one of the ‘B Fleet’ Balloon cars, and this successful practice was repeated over the Spring Bank Holiday. Unlike the other workings by the modified Balloons, which are classed as ordinary service vehicles, this special trip is advertised as a tour, and is therefore reserved for heritage pass holders, although the healthy passenger loadings on these runs confirm that this seems like a wise decision. On this day, 711 was selected and departed promptly at 2:00pm. This car was a particularly good choice for this duty as it had not previously made it through to Fleetwood since being rebuilt with widened centre platforms – although at one point it looked as though that fact wasn’t going to change any time soon! Near Tower, 711’s progress was delayed due to a problem with the Flexity in front, but thankfully this was resolved after a short wait and 711 was able to continue with the longest journey it had made since 2009. Meanwhile, both Boats took their crew breaks at Bispham, whilst 719 ran in early, to be replaced by one of its sisters after lunch. The decision was also taken to run in car 600 after its crew break, allowing ‘Princess Alice’ 706 to finally grace the promenade with her presence following attention to her transponders. The final car to enter service for the day was pioneer Balloon 700, which replaced sister car 719 for the latter part of the day. This tram did not emerge until around 4:00pm, unfortunately meaning that many people (including your writer) did not manage to get a ride on it, although it was still good to see the tram in service as it has been rather elusive since being rebuilt with modified centre entrances. Its appearance also meant that all three of the Balloons which have been painted in the new Flexity-style livery were used on this day, albeit not all at the same time.
The final event of the day was a run from Pleasure Beach to Fleetwood Ferry with ‘Princess Alice’ 706. As the tram had been sent to Little Bispham ahead of its scheduled Fleetwood run, this journey departed slightly later than scheduled, and progress on the northbound journey was further delayed by the Flexity running ahead of 706. However, an open top tram ride on such a beautiful sunny day is always enjoyable and naturally, Alice performed superbly, especially on the reserved track heading towards Fleetwood. On the return trip to North Pier, the tram suffered a dewirement at Cleveleys, which did allow me to take some photos of the car in this fairly unusual location, before it disappeared into the sunset, bringing the first day of the weekend’s heritage operation to a very satisfying conclusion.
Sunday 26th May
Sunday dawned a little duller than Saturday, although once again the weather improved rapidly and was superb by mid-afternoon. The day kicked off in fine style with one of the most anticipated events of the weekend: the return to use of Centenary car 642, a tram not used in passenger service since November 2011. Although not intended as part of Blackpool’s heritage fleet, this car has been retained rather by default, although rumours suggest that it may ultimately be retained after all despite previous indication that its future role would be as a source of spare parts for sister car 648. Whatever the future holds for 642, its appearance at North Pier shortly after 10:30am was greeted warmly by the hoard of waiting enthusiasts. It soon became apparent that fitting everyone onto the tram was going to be a challenge – quite remarkable as most tram enthusiasts would have turned their noses up at 642 just a couple of years ago, but it’s amazing what a period of storage and the threat of scrapping can do to boost a vehicle’s popularity! All of the assembled crowd just about managed to squeeze on board, and 642 headed for Fleetwood with a full standing load being carried, bringing back memories of busy market Tuesdays. After the obligatory photos were taken at Fleetwood of the first Centenary car to visit the northern terminus since November 2009, 642 returned to Blackpool, once again stuffed full of excited enthusiasts. Despite the reputation of the Centenary class, the tram ran superbly and showed that, with smooth new track to run on, the riding quality of these cars is greatly improved.
On the return leg of 642’s historic journey, we encountered modified Balloon car 713 which was terminating at Cleveleys. With the idea of being able to actually sit down on a tram seeming quite appealing at this point in time, I left 642 and after taking more photos, boarded 713 choosing a top deck seat for the ride back into Blackpool. Joining these two cars on specials at this time were two black double-deckers, 707 and 723, the latter also running for the first time since the last weekend of the 2011 season. All three of the Balloons even managed to line up together at Pleasure Beach briefly, ahead of an afternoon run to Fleetwood which was performed by 713... and then things started to get really interesting!
Balloon 723 was directed to Cleveleys before heading back to depot so that a Boat car could be brought out, in view of the rising temperature, and after a short absence its crew duly reappeared aboard 230. Sadly at around this time, Centenary car 642’s day came to a premature end when the car became defective at Pleasure Beach. Typically, the tram made it around the loop and onto the main line before it expired, with bystanders observing that smoke was seen coming from one of its bogies. The car came to a halt near to the inspector’s hut, holding up a following service tram and trapping Boat car 230 on the loop for a time. Eventually fitters arrived, and within a few minutes 642 was mobilised and driven back to the depot empty in disgrace. Earlier in the day it had been revealed that 642 was set to accompany Balloon 701 to Fleetwood for the last heritage tour of the day, and so 642’s failure deprived us all of the chance to see the two yellow trams together again. However, having dealt admirably with his star attraction breaking down, ‘Mr Heritage’ himself, Bryan Lindop (who incidentally spent most of the weekend at Pleasure Beach supervising the operation of the heritage cars) had another trick up his sleeve to ensure that any disappointment was kept to a minimum. Before that could happen though, there was another spanner in the works, as Boat 230 decided to throw a tantrum of its own after a very short period of service. After 642 had been moved out of the way, it ran to North Pier and back before it too was dispatched back to Rigby Road empty, having suffered a compressor fault. Although not actually part of the day’s events, I also feel that it’s worth mentioning that I finally managed to get a ride on the most elusive Flexity, 002, which was out all day. This feat may not seem particularly significant, but meant that I have now ridden on all sixteen Flexities which I am personally quite pleased with. As luck would have it I actually ended up on 002 again later the same day – it’s probably going to start stalking me now that I’ve finally been on it!
A bright spot in the late afternoon was provided by ‘Princess Alice’ 706, which came out as a changeover for car 707. This changeover should have seen 709 enter service, but as the weather was so warm and sunny, it was decided that 706 would be a much more appropriate choice, leaving just 713 to represent the ‘B Fleet’ for the latter part of the afternoon. A further swap saw 642’s crew transferred onto Boat 600, meaning that at least one Boat car would remain out, whilst 230’s crew later resurfaced on Balloon 701 after 5:00pm, one swap which had been planned to take place. This then provided my highlight of the day; because the crew had already agreed to work late in order to duplicate the 5:25pm heritage tour from Pleasure Beach to Fleetwood, it was decided to run Boat 600 and Balloon 701 together for this journey. A Boat car ride to Fleetwood is always a treat, but to add extra novelty value, this was to be 600’s first visit to the Ferry since receiving a major overhaul. In order to ensure that the car was at Pleasure Beach in time for its all-important Fleetwood run, the car did a short journey which saw it use the Tower crossover with passengers on board; itself quite an unusual move.
Having recently been restricted to the Pleasure Beach – North Pier section due to issues with its trolley, 600’s visit to Fleetwood was a massive bonus and unsurprisingly it departed with a near full load, rather upstaging 701. 600 was driven superbly for this run, indeed I doubt I had ever travelled so fast on a Boat car before, and a better run could not have been wished for. The crews on both cars even agreed to a brief photo stop on arrival at Fleetwood, something which was threatened when the Flexity behind managed to catch us up near Bispham. A bit of smart thinking saw both 701 and 600 diverted onto the centre track at Thornton Gate, allowing the Flexity to overtake us so that we could enjoy a more leisurely stop in Fleetwood without having to worry about delaying the next service tram. Both trams were posed side by side at the old loading stop outside the Ferry cafe, and a large crowd of enthusiasts could be seen standing in the road photographing this fantastic scene, leaving some onlookers rather bemused. The explanation of one onlooker – “they’re tram enthusiasts” – seemed to sum up the situation! After much camera clicking, the mob were called back to board their chosen tram for a spirited run back to North Pier. This time I opted for 701, as I had not ridden on this car since 2009, although in hindsight riding on the top deck probably wasn’t such a great idea (anyone who was on it with me at this time will probably know why!). All too soon, North Pier was reached and both cars headed back to the depot. Even after 7:00pm, the sun was still shining brightly and I opted for a stroll along the North Pier itself, before treating myself to a refreshing pint and then heading back to my hotel room.
With a total of eight different traditional trams out despite only four crews being on heritage duties, this was an incredible day by any standards; quite possibly the best for the tramway in the light rail era for fans of the old fleet. The breakdowns had been forgotten by the evening and the fantastic finale of the day was a definite high point of what had been, up to this point, a near perfect weekend on the Blackpool tramway.
Monday 27th May
Three days of glorious sunny weather would probably have been too much to ask for, which indeed proved to be the case: pessimistic weather forecasts were correct, as the heavens opened just before the first heritage tram of the day left depot, and continued throughout the entire day. Clearly there would be no boating on the Bank Holiday Monday, and therefore the morning output consisted of Balloon cars 700, 709, 717 and 723. Of these, 723 was first out with the morning Fleetwood journey – its longest run with passengers on board since the 2009 illuminations – whilst 700 was in charge of the afternoon Fleetwood run. This was a welcome choice, as many people had missed 700’s brief appearance on the Saturday afternoon and this gave me a chance to finally catch up with this tram for the first time in several years, with a few short rides on the car. I am pleased to confirm that, despite the significant modifications it has been subjected to, the top deck interior retains all of its traditional charm and despite the ghastly PVC seats, even the lower deck is nowhere near as horrendous as I expected it to look, with the varnished woodwork and half-drop saloon windows giving the car a touch of class which sets it apart from its more heavily modernised sisters. As well as getting reacquainted with this old friend, another highlight on this day was an unusual working to Thornton Gate by car 709. Despite many enthusiasts riding on the upper deck for this run, I was the only one to get off at Thornton Gate to take photos of the tram on the centre line in the pouring rain – dedication or insanity, you decide!
The persistent rain did not dampen the enthusiasm of BTS staff, and two very interesting swaps were arranged for the afternoon. The first of these saw 723 run in to be replaced by Fleetwood Box 40, which entered service shortly after 3:00pm. As well as adding variety, this was also a chance to see if recent re-sealing work on this tram had been successful! Unfortunately there were still quite a few drips observed, but the tram seems to be leaking considerably less than previously, and so hopefully the engineering staff have made a breakthrough in keeping the saloon dry. Perhaps even more excitingly, a pre-arranged exchange saw Twin Set 272+T2 replace 709 in traffic. After reversing at Foxhall, the Twin car headed for Pleasure Beach and after a few short workings, it brought the curtain down on a highly successful weekend with a run to Fleetwood Ferry. By this time however, I was already on the way back home, but despite missing this final treat I was more than satisfied with what I had experienced over the past three days. Obviously Monday’s weather did spoil the party slightly and resulted in a slight reduction in loadings on the heritage cars, but considering just how much it rained, six different traditional trams in use was probably the best we could have asked for, and the chosen cars were pretty hard to fault under the circumstances.
The latest heritage tram operating weekend at Blackpool must be considered a tremendous success, with the only minor negative points from the three days being well beyond Blackpool Transport’s control. The revised operating pattern for the old fleet seems to have been greeted with universal praise from enthusiasts, and it is equally pleasing to see the modified Balloons finally proving their worth – let us hope that these cars will be used more frequently this summer than last, as they have now proven beyond any doubt that they can be run alongside the Flexity 2 class successfully. Probably the best point of the weekend was the numerous swaps which took place on all three days, resulting in an impressive sixteen traditional trams being used. There were a great many highlights, but for me personally, that run to Fleetwood on Boat 600 stands out as the best of all – a fantastic tram ride which would be very hard to beat!
With rebuilt Balloon car 718 believed to have been unavailable, all serviceable Balloons were used, with Standard 147 the only genuine heritage tram which was serviceable but not used. This may well have been the best weekend for tram output in Blackpool since 2010, at least in terms of variety.
Everyone who worked so hard to ensure that the weekend was so enjoyable deserves a big thank-you, especially Bryan Lindop for overseeing the entire operation with his usual boundless energy and enthusiasm, and the tram crews who often went the extra mile to put on a good show.
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