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Last Updated Sunday 1st July 2012

The Great Blackpool Tram Invasion
by Andrew Waddington

What do most people think of when the word ‘tram’ is mentioned to them? For some, a traditional British double-decker, such as Chesterfield 7 or Leicester 76, would probably spring to mind, whilst for the younger generation, it may be a more modern vehicle such as a Sheffield Supertram or a Croydon LRV that they think of first. However, for many people, the image of a tram in Britain is that of a Blackpool tram, with the 1930s streamliners that have served the town so well for almost eighty years having made a huge impression on millions of people being particularly prominent in the minds of many tram enthusiasts, and also members of the general public. Many people, young and old alike, have grown up with these trams, and not only have they played a key role in keeping interest in British tramway heritage alive after other towns and cities abandoned their tramways, but they also bring back happy memories of holidays and day trips to the seaside for many people.

With the traditional Blackpool tram fleet meaning so many things to so many people, the future survival of the cars after the tramway entered the light rail era was always going to be a highly emotive subject, as has proved to be the case. Whilst it was widely expected that some of the surplus trams would end up being scrapped by Blackpool Transport, the level of interest in purchasing trams has surpassed all expectations, with virtually of them being sold off. This has, however, not been a universally welcomed development: some Blackpool tram enthusiasts have been disappointed by the intended uses for some of the sold cars, whilst some people feel that too much effort is being ploughed into the Blackpool cars, taking attention away from other vehicles which have had a long wait for their turn in the limelight.

So, what is so special about Blackpool trams? Let’s start with a few facts that might seem obvious, but which probably need to be recorded in writing again. Blackpool had the first electric tram system in Great Britain, initially using the conduit system, and continued to innovate in the latest technology in the years that followed. This was particularly evident in the 1930s, when practically the whole fleet were replaced with modern trams, at a time when other towns and cities looked to abandon the use of trams altogether. This investment was one of the main reasons why Blackpool ended up as the only town in mainland Britain which never let go of its trams, and as such the developments continued through the 1960s and up to the present day. Whilst for much of this time a policy of ‘make do and mend’ was the order of the day, Blackpool did try to move forwards with the introduction of trailer sets and the most successful use of one-person operated trams in the country. The tramway’s survival was also assisted by exploiting its potential as a tourist attraction, with the development of a fleet of specially decorated trams for use on illumination tours, and the borrowing of historic cars from museums.

So, without Blackpool, we would have a huge black hole in our tramway history, stretching from the closure of Glasgow’s system in 1962, right up to the return of trams to Manchester in 1992. As it was, at least one town kept the tramway flag flying – and now thanks to the historic fleet being dispersed, museums have an opportunity to update their collections by adding some of the trams from this time period. Previously, at the National Tramway Museum in particular, trams from overseas have been acquired, essentially to show what Britain missed out on – developments such as PCC technology could well have been adopted in the UK but this was not to be. Such things are interesting for historians, and foreign cars can certainly make for attractive and popular museum exhibits, but in the context of Britain’s transport history they add very little. However, Blackpool trams give a real British taste of how things might have been had more towns kept their trams. How many systems, for example, would have rebuilt old trams to operate with a driver taking fares in order to minimise costs if their tramways had stayed open, or even created a bus body on bogies, like the Centenary class? Quite a lot, I suspect.

We now take a look at the major players involved in the preservation of the recently retired Blackpool trams. As well as the aforementioned National Tramway Museum at Crich, operated by the Tramway Museum Society, two local preservation groups now exist – the Lancastrian Transport Trust and the Friends of Fleetwood Trams. The Manchester Transport Museum Society have also purchased a number of trams for operation at Heaton Park, to help provide extra variety to this tramway and also take some of the pressure off the local cars there. Other organisations and individuals have also bought trams, but the majority of these cannot really be considered to be preserved in the true sense. Merseytravel intend to drastically rebuild their ex-Blackpool trams for use as part of a pseudo-heritage tram operation if their long-term plans ever come off, and other cars have been sold for use as cafes, play areas and offices. Some may argue that this is a waste, but realistically, the large number of trams up for sale meant that it was never going to be a realistic option to preserve them all. At least by having trams at places such as Farmer Parrs Animal World and Broadwater Caravan Park, more cars have dodged the scrapman – and who knows what the future could hold for some of these cars? Having seen tram bodies used as chicken coops and holiday homes, and then rebuilt for museum service, some of these could well be rescued one day... but once they’ve been scrapped, the opportunity to restore them is lost forever. I for one am quite happy to see some of the trams used like this, especially those which were less appealing to preservation groups and for which the most likely alternative involved a big skip!

Is the number of Blackpool trams in preservation really an issue though? Again, I refer to the collecting policies of the National Tramway Museum, a collection which has won numerous awards and is an internationally recognised centre of excellence in the field of vintage transport. The Museum’s collection policy is based almost entirely on type of tramcar – not geography. The fact that more trams from Blackpool are included there than any other operator, is a reflection of the sheer variety of trams that operated there, and also the longevity of the system. Take a look at the three Leeds cars at Crich in the running fleet – 180, 345 and 399 are of course all different, and they all carry different liveries, but all of them are double-deck enclosed four-wheelers. Likewise, consider the Glasgow cars: 22 and 812 show different stages in the development of the ‘Standard’ design, whilst 1100, 1282 and 1297 all look similar to the untrained eye. By contrast, nearly all of the preserved Blackpool trams are completely different: Conduit 4, Standard 40, Toastrack 166, Balloon 249 and Jubilee 762 cannot be compared, and most of them are very different from any other trams at the Museum. To reduce the number of Blackpool cars included in the national collection purely because ‘we have enough Blackpool ones’ would mean throwing away certain types of tramcar, which in some cases ran in other places but did not survive long enough to be preserved. The Blackpool toastracks spring to mind here as they represent popular seaside trams from the UK in general, which sadly didn’t make it into preservation.

I also believe that the common argument, that preserving so many Blackpool trams will have an adverse effect on trams from elsewhere, is untrue. Again, taking Crich as an example, Brush car 630 and Jubilee car 762 both arrived straight after being withdrawn from service, and therefore don’t need a huge amount of work to allow them to run at the museum. They therefore give a rare opportunity to expand the running fleet – something that will benefit visiting enthusiasts and the general public alike – at very little cost. The average Crich restoration is now costing upwards of £200,000 and so the cost of acquiring and commissioning newly withdrawn cars is tiny in comparison. These trams are also helping to attract more visitors to museums; people who have fond memories of riding on them at Blackpool, but who are too young to remember the tramways of London, Leeds, Southampton or Glasgow. Who knows, if Blackpool trams can help bring in extra revenue this could ultimately benefit trams from other systems? Let’s not forget that gate receipts or on-board tickets are the not the only source of income for museum tramways: visitors may be tempted to fork out for a ‘tram driving experience’ to gain the privilege of driving a tram they once travelled on in Blackpool, and enthusiasts tend to spend more money in the gift shop than the average family. There are plenty of opportunities to cash-in on the appeal of Blackpool trams, and imaginative groups have already started to exploit their full potential.

Another museum that has done exactly that is Beamish, the Living Museum of the North. Despite two ex-Blackpool streamliners – Boat 605 and Balloon 703 – joining their growing tram fleet recently, these trams are not actually owned by Beamish but have been placed on loan by the Lancastrian Transport Trust. This has been a highly beneficial arrangement as it allows Beamish to enjoy the benefits of having two very popular and useful Blackpool cars to operate, whilst also expanding its horizons as the museum seeks to cover a much wider period of our social history. The moves also helped to raise the profile of the LTT whilst their own plans for their permanent display on the Fylde Coast are being progressed, and so could ultimately help the preservation of Blackpool trams in Blackpool. Indeed, 605 escaped Rigby Road soon after Blackpool Transport began charging rent to the LTT for continued storage of their trams, so this move has saved the Trust a significant amount of money. The presence of these cars has certainly not taken any devotion away from the more traditional trams at Beamish, with plans now afoot to carry out major work on Gateshead 10 and Sheffield 264 to name two.

Enthusiasts keen to see their favourite Blackpool trams preserved are also contributing to the preservation movement as a whole. Since announcing the acquisition of several ex-Blackpool cars, the number of volunteers at Heaton Park in Manchester has soared, and this has undoubtedly been a key factor in the fantastic response to the tramway’s appeal for donations to fund its new depot. This building will of course provide sanctuary to other trams so will benefit more than just Blackpool cars. Individuals have also put their hands in their wallets to help specific vehicles; both Brush cars which are currently operational, 623 at Heaton Park and 630 at Crich, benefitted from donations by enthusiasts who felt particularly strongly about these trams. So effectively, both tramways may have gained an extra service car for free!

Of course, the longetivity of many Blackpool trams also justifies the survival of multiple examples of the same class. Ask five people how they would restore a Balloon car, and you may well get five different answers. Some would choose a second series Balloon in original condition with a sliding roof, others would go for a wartime appearance, and some people would choose a more recent guise which more of us can remember, maybe with bus seats and modern lights. How on earth can everyone be expected to agree and accept the most significant period in the life of a tram that has had a lifespan of over 70 years? I return to the example of the Glasgow Standards, of which several survive today, but in different guises to show how the class were modified over the years. The same is true of the Balloons and Railcoaches. Even the most modern of the newly retired Blackpool trams, the Centenary and Jubilee cars, have undergone several alterations during their careers and hopefully a few of these will be represented by various museums.

However, there is another, less positive argument for all this duplication. Whilst I don’t doubt that all of the groups who are trying to save traditional Blackpool trams for the enjoyment of future generations have good intentions, there is no guarantee that all of the current preservation schemes will ultimately succeed. I will not name names, but any organisation with little in the way of financial resources or suitable storage space is going to be more at risk of failure, particularly if they are not yet well established with previous success stories to give us confidence in future proposals. With an economic recession, disposable income is not exactly high at the moment so people may have to be choosy in terms of donating money or even visiting heritage tramways, so some of the newer groups could well lose out. Not acquiring a particular type of tram because ‘someone else has got one’ could well prove to be a short-sighted attitude, particularly if any trams that are the subject of failed preservation bids end up being sold to the highest bidder, who may not have preservation of the vehicle in question in mind.

In this article I have put forward a strong case for the survival of a large number of traditional Blackpool trams, but I would like to clarify that this doesn’t necessarily mean that every single vehicle must be preserved. Indeed, I am very much in favour of some trams being used to provide spare parts to support the continued operation of their sisters, and also to assist with other restoration projects. Let’s not forget that the magnificent Liverpool 762 sits on a set of Blackpool Railcoach bogies, and might never have been returned to service and run at Blackpool had these not been available. Unless a tram is of special significance (such as a prototype, for example) it would seem sensible to focus on preserving the trams that are in the best condition. Heaton Park have certainly done so with their cars 623, 680 and 702 all being amongst the best of their types. Crich have also followed suit and as already mentioned, this has allowed their operating fleet to grow. Whilst it is highly commendable that the Lancastrian Transport Trust have taken on some trams which have hardly been touched for several decades, this may affect their ability to operate them in the long-term unless costly restorations can be undertaken. I for one would rather a large-scale restoration project focussed on restoring a tram that is completely different from anything else in preservation, than a duplicate Brush or Balloon car, when there are other cars of that type in fully serviceable condition. That said, obviously everyone has their favourites and if someone chooses to help grant a particular car a secure future, then good for them! Frankly, if someone offered to pay for the preservation of a type of tram that a museum wants to acquire providing it is their favourite, then it would seem foolish to turn down such an offer. Some enthusiasts have even taken the step of privately preserving a tram, as was the case with Brush Railcoach 634 which is being restored to an amazingly high standard which most museums would be extremely proud of.

So then, I have made several strong arguments for preserving many Blackpool trams. Not all of them can survive forever, and I accept that, but the Blackpool system is so significant for a whole host of reasons, that I believe that the above average number of museum exhibits from that system is entirely justified. The effect of the recent fleet cull in Blackpool on museums will probably not be fully appreciated for some time, but I feel it has given the UK tram preservation movement a much-needed boost. I hope that readers will be able to appreciate these views, and if you don’t like seeing lots of Blackpool trams, then I would quite simply state the following. You don’t have to ride on them, you don’t have to photograph them, and I certainly don’t support everyone to support them financially. However, please do accept that many others will be enjoying their presence, and that the trams could even help their new owners to prosper in the years ahead.

Long live Blackpool and its trams, wherever they may be!

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