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Last Updated Sunday 25th September 2011

A Weekend in Blackpool: 16th-19th September 2011
by Andrew Waddington

Most readers of this website are probably aware that 2011 has been an extremely difficult season for the Blackpool tramway and its operator, Blackpool Transport. The ongoing upgrade works have made the tramway less user-friendly than ever, and although this should result in a fantastic modern system for 2012, it can’t be denied that passengers are suffering in the short-term, particularly as the tram service is currently restricted to the Pleasure Beach to Little Bispham section. In a break from tradition, British Trams Online regular Andrew Waddington reports on the high, low and very low points of an illumination weekend, 2011 style!

Friday 16th September

The first day of my mini-holiday (and indeed, my first Blackpool visit of 2011) started with torrential rain – not the best welcome you can get, but this is Blackpool we’re talking about so it shouldn’t be a massive shock really! Thankfully the miserable weather didn’t last for too long, although it did set the tone for the remainder of the day...

I arrived to find what is currently a very familiar set of trams in service. Since early September all service routes have been operated by single-deck crew cars, which are then replaced by double-deck trams in the evening and this day was no different with all three serviceable Brush Railcoaches 630, 631 and 632 all in use alongside Centenary cars 642, 645, 646, 647 and 648. Of particular interest to me was the new Hounds Hill advert on car 648 which looks very pleasing to the eye, but of course it was the Brush cars that were the trams to ride on during the late afternoon with 632 providing a great start to my year of Blackpool tram riding.

The evening saw double-deckers take over and this gave me my first glimpse of two widened cars – 707 and 724 being amongst the evening output. Also in service were two unrefurbished refurbished cars (it makes sense, honest!), 711 and 723 as well as Jubilee car 762, another tram in a new livery this year, this time for Nickelodeon Land at the Pleasure Beach. Brush 630 also stayed out as a special whilst the other Jubilee car, 761 was spotted once at Pleasure Beach before promptly disappearing! My first ride on a widened Balloon car was ‘enjoyed’ on car 724 which turned out to be quite lucky as the tram soon returned to depot with a door fault, being replaced by sister car 709.

Unfortunately the tram service on this evening was absolutely appalling with the timetable being abandoned completely due to a firework display at North Pier, meaning that all trams effectively became specials. These were very poorly utilised and at one point there no trams to or from Bispham for about an hour, whilst Little Bispham seemed to be largely forgotten with virtually all of the trams in service being turned back at Bispham, presumably to cater for passengers wanting to view the illuminations. The temporary halt to tram movements in the North Pier area during the firework display seemed to be a bit of an overreaction; admittedly, the promenade was very busy but I have certainly seen a half-decent tram service run through bigger crowds in the past. A bright spot was of course the appearance of all three illuminated trams, with the Western Train 733+734 doing two illumination tours whilst Frigate 736 and Trawler 737 did just one each. However, this was still a terrible night for the trams and one which showed just how little interest there seems to be in providing a reasonable service to residents and holidaymakers alike at the present time.

Saturday 17th September

Things can only get better.... can’t they? Well, Saturday had a familiar start to it with the same eight single-deck trams in service as the previous day, in spite of various rumours suggesting that double-deckers would return to use all day at weekends. There was just one morning special in the form of Jubilee 762 which seemed to be pretending to be a service car as it generally worked through to Little Bispham. The scary thing about this day was that, despite a pitiful nine trams being in service for the early part of the day, the tram service actually coped well and I don’t recall seeing any large queues! By the time things were starting to pick up more specials were being brought out, the first ones being Balloon 711 and a very welcome surprise in the form of

Twin Set 672+682.

Once again the timetable was binned in the evening but even before that it was virtually impossible to distinguish which trams were on specials and which were running to a timecard. However, the double-deck evening output consisted of cars 707, 709, 713, 718, 719 and 723 joining the aforementioned 672+682, 711 and 762. Centenary car 645 also came back out for a few hours as an unexpected late special. Once again this amount of trams was pathetic compared to past illumination Saturday nights, even from last year, but in fairness to Blackpool Transport they seemed to have got the tram output pretty much spot on and the trams coped admirably.

There was a bit of interest as dusk fell when some of the trams took crew breaks at the Pleasure Beach. 718 was deposited on the disused southbound line towards Starr Gate, whilst soon afterwards 713 exited the loop and then reversed back onto the temporary stub on the northbound line, just south of the turning circle.

As for the illuminated cars, it was the usual suspects on tour duty and in another sad sign of the times no additional tour cars were needed. Both the Train and the Frigate did two tours but both were upstaged by 737 which ran to Bispham as an ordinary service tram after completing its one and only tour, then ran backwards from Bispham to depot.

Sunday 18th September

By far the brightest day of my long weekend break provided a slight variation during the daytime as Jubilee 762 was drafted onto the Pleasure Beach - North Pier shuttle service in place of Brush 631 which had become defective on the Saturday and had run in empty. Other than that it was business as usual with the familiar quintet of Centenary cars running along with 630 and 632. My notes from this particular day are far from complete as several enjoyable hours were spent at Blackpool Zoo, but on my return the double deckers were starting to appear, and unlike the previous two evenings all trams did actually stick to the timetable (well near enough anyway!). Cars 707, 709, 713, 718 and 719 were the service trams with 723 as the one and only service tram... and once again this was plenty to cope with passenger numbers. Indeed, getting to choose whether I wanted to sit on the front or rear bench seat of 713 on an illumination weekend is really not something that I’m used to! It wasn’t much more exciting on the tour front, with all three illuminated cars doing a single tour each before heading back to Rigby Road for an early night.

Monday 19th September

All too soon it was time to head back home, but I did manage to enjoy a rather soggy Blackpool for a few more hours on this Monday. 631 was fighting fit meaning that the eight regulars were back on service, and as I had to be out of my hotel by 10:00am I was faced with the unusual prospect of catching the first southbound tram of the day from Cavendish Road. Traditionally this would have been in the early hours of the morning, but for now the first departure from Little Bispham is at a ridiculously late 9:46am – meaning that the first car has a load of holidaymakers to collect on its way back into Blackpool. Just to add insult to injury, a recent trend has been to use a Brush car on the first working and on this day 632 did the honours. Unsurprisingly the tram was already packed by the time it reached me and I managed to squeeze onto the centre platform, getting a good view of the many intending passengers on Queens Promenade as we sailed past.

Unfortunately the weather went from bad to worse on this particular day, so taking photographs wasn’t really a very appealing prospect and so I headed to the newly re-branded Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks instead. However this was followed by a few trips on Brush car 630 which turned out to be my best tram ride of the weekend. I’ve heard other enthusiasts claim that 630 is one of the best cars in the fleet and it certainly lived up to that on this particular day, with a brilliant fast run from Pleasure Beach to Little Bispham. This was a fantastic way to end a somewhat frustrating, yet enjoyable weekend in terms of tram riding – but there was one final treat in store as just before I left Blackpool, I saw widened Balloon 720 trundling along the prom. This was the car’s only appearance in service during my holiday and although I was slightly disappointed at having to leave, hopefully I’ll get another chance to sample this tram on a future visit.

Final Thoughts

Before the illuminations switched on I had deliberately stayed away from Blackpool as the various online reports had frankly been quite depressing; and this isn’t just a reference to the tramway, but also the ongoing promenade regeneration works, major roadworks and the Tower, the top of which was wrapped in a sort of cocoon for much of the summer. I think I timed my visit right as, whilst 2011 will certainly never be regarded as a classic season for the resort, things have started to pick up at last.

There have been a few culture shocks to tramway enthusiasts this year – not least the shortened system, indeed most people seem to have now given up all hope of trams returning to Cleveleys before 2012. There have been some positive changes however, and the new fares must be seen as a massive step in the right direction for the tramway. The new saver tickets which have replaced the Travelcards are an absolute bargain and seem to have encouraged more people to invest in a day ticket – indeed I heard one conductor comment that crews on the trams have been taking considerably more money since the fares were reduced! Probably the best innovation of all is an all-day family ticket which at £9 represents great value for money. I was pleased to see many conductors promoting these to passengers, many of whom were soon persuaded to buy one.

However, for every good development there seems to have been at least one bad one to cancel it out. The current timetable is admittedly coping well due to the frankly quite frightening reduction in passenger numbers this year, but the very late start is really not doing the tramway cause any favours. Running some of the first departures of the day straight to Little Bispham, instead of heading to Pleasure Beach first, would surely be a positive move. It would also help matters if the first tram from Little Bispham was not a 48-seater Railcoach; I can appreciate that it is hard to justify using Balloon cars at present, but making sure that a Centenary car is allocated to that important first run from the northern end of the system would help to shift the queues a bit more quickly. The situation on the Friday evening was also ridiculous, especially the fact that Little Bispham was completely ignored for a lengthy period. Indeed, abandoning the timetable and restricting tram movements near North Pier during a firework display appeared to be a massive overreaction and the number of BTS staff and Police who were patrolling the tram tracks appeared to be totally unnecessary. Things like this make you wonder how the tramway coped with the really big crowds from the ‘good old days’ – but it did somehow.

Anyway, in spite of a large amount of negativity I enjoyed my weekend break, and the absence of the more exciting trams in the fleet gave a good opportunity to really appreciate some of the unsung heroes of the tramway, with the Brush cars stealing the show and even the Centenary cars performing well. As much as I am looking forward to the start of the new Supertram service from Easter 2012, November will be a very emotional time but I am already looking forward to bidding a fond farewell to some old friends on the last weekend of the 2011 season.

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