The continuing saga of the future ownership of Birkenhead’s heritage tramway has taken another, potentially worrying twist with the revelation that Wirral Council may be on the verge of selling off the existing tram depot, museum and workshop at Taylor Street. A suggestion has been put forward that the historic tramcars may be relocated to the nearby Pacific Road complex as the local Council strive to save money, but such a move would not be without its problems.
The future of the Birkenhead tramway has been a cause for concern for the past few years after Wirral Council announced its intention to get rid of the trams in a bid to conserve funds. However, the Council have been rather demanding and expected interested bidders to also take over responsibility for other local facilities as well, with the Pacific Road Arts Centre proving to be a major stumbling block for Merseytravel, who had expressed interest in running the tramway and museum. Following several aborted attempts to mothball the tramway, the Council have now confirmed its plans to save £250,000 per annum and local transport preservationists attended a meeting on May 16th to try and find a way forward which will enable them to achieve this goal without losing the tramway forever. It now seems that the dedicated volunteers who have worked so hard to establish the existing tramway, could well prove to be its saving grace.
Whilst nothing is yet finalised, the Council have now indicated that they would like to close the Taylor Street depot in the near future, which is also home to various road vehicles, and relocate the transport museum to the other depot building at Pacific Road, approximately half-way along the tram route. Up to 1996, the Birknhead tram fleet were based there but it has latterly been little used, and currently is home to just one tram: Blackpool Brush car 626, which is owned by Merseytravel and has never carried passengers at Birkenhead. The proposal would also see the new museum run entirely by volunteers, replacing the current set-up which involves a mixture of unpaid enthusiasts and paid staff who are employed by the Council. This would mean that volunteers would need to increase in number significantly, as they would probably be needed to maintain the public facilities within (such as toilets) as well as maintaining the trams. The Merseyside Tramway Preservation Society, who own the majority of the trams at Birkenhead, have joined forces with the owners of the various other vehicles currently housed at Taylor Street to form the Wirral Transport Museum Group, as they attempt to put together a credible plan to secure the future of their priceless collection and the heritage tramway which they call home.
However, a move to Pacific Road could have problems. Since the trams moved to Taylor Street the MTPS collection has expanded with new acquisitions such as Warrington 2 and Lisbon 730, and so not all of their trams could fit inside the existing building, let alone other vehicles as well. There are no tram restoration facilities at Pacific Road either, which could have a severe impact on the completion of work on both Liverpool ‘Baby Grand’ 245 and the aforementioned Warrington car. Wirral Council have been unable to tell the MTPS what will happen to the two Council-owned Hong Kong trams 69 and 70, but if they are to be accomodated there then this will reduce the space available for the MTPS cars even further. One possible option could be to offer some trams on long-term loan to other museums, with Liverpool horse car 43 an obvious candidate for such an arrangement as it is not operational and is arguably of little use to the tramway. However, most other organisations are also extremely short of space with the recent disposal of numerous Blackpool trams resulting in most museums being full to bursting point.
Another concern involves the Blackpool trams acquired by Merseytravel. As it is looking highly unlikely that the firm will ever take over the tramway, these cars are now facing an uncertain future and as 626 is stored at Pacific Road it may well have to be evicted shortly if the proposed move goes ahead. It remains to be seen whether suitable homes can be found for these trams, or if at least some of them will become the first of the sold Blackpool fleet to be broken up for scrap. As popular as these trams are, the priority must be to ensure that valuable trams such as the wonderful Liverpool 762 and the unique Wallasey 78 are kept safe, and their owners still hope to keep them all on the Wirral.
Asset managers from Wirral Council have requested a plan to be submitted to them by the end of June, and if this is deemed viable then a more detailed business plan will be compiled. This is a potentially exciting yet very scary time for the MTPS who are now appealing for more volunteers to potentially help run the museum, as a matter of urgency. After being inconvenienced so many times in the last couple of years, it is pleasing to see this proactive society taking its future into its own hands and they deserve our support as they face new challenges – but it will require immense effort to ensure that this wonderful tramway can survive and propser.