For the first time in many years, the Blackpool illumination tours by tram, operated by Blackpool Transport Services Ltd. have undergone some fairly significant changes this year. Having paid a short visit to the resort during September 2012 and sampled the new-look illumination tours, Andrew Waddington provides an overview of what has changed, and offers some helpful hints for anyone planning to visit in the weeks ahead.
Circular tram tours of the world-famous Blackpool illuminations, predominantly using the purpose-built illuminated feature cars, have a long and successful history, but some would argue that in recent years, the tour set-up has become somewhat stale. The revised role of the remaining historic trams in Blackpool, the operation of which is overseen by Bryan Lindop of Blackpool Transport, has provided the ideal excuse for a revamp and as such, some familiar patterns have been discontinued this year – something which, so far at least, seems to have been a positive move.
Surely the most pleasing change has been a reduction in the cost of tours this year. During 2011, adults had to pay £6 for a tour, but for 2012 the price has been slashed to a very reasonable £5, with children paying just £2.50. Unfortunately though, there is still no way to pre-book a seat on the tours and intending passengers must queue for a tram in time-honoured tradition. Hopes that the £10 ‘heritage day pass’ would continue throughout the autumn have also been dashed; enthusiasts wanting multiple journeys must pay £5 per tour. Despite this, loadings so far this year have generally been very encouraging, and as stated above, the fares are in fact lower than last year, and compare favourably with many other attractions in Blackpool.
The most obvious change to the illumination tours involves the route. Having started from North Pier for many years, all tours now begin at the Pleasure Beach, with tour trams loading on the loop at the heritage tram polo stop sign. It is not possible to board a tour anywhere else on the system, but passengers may alight at any of the other three heritage tram stops – located at North Pier, Cabin and Bispham – heading either north or south, if they so wish. Passengers cannot be allowed to disembark at ‘normal’ tram stops, as none of the trams which are used for tours are compatible with the platforms.
The decision to load the illumination tours at Pleasure Beach has obviously impacted on the route taken by the trams when leaving and returning to the depot at Rigby Road. Upon arriving on the promenade, cars travel northbound for the short distance to Foxhall, where they reverse and then head to Pleasure Beach. As before the tours run between the Pleasure Beach and Little Bispham loops in order to keep the feature cars the right way round, but sometimes vintage cars being used may reverse at Bispham, missing out the dark section further north. On completing the evening’s work, the trams then head back to Foxhall where they cross over and head back to the depot. This means that the illuminated fleet would be facing the wrong way for the next evening, so these cars must perform what used to be quite an unusual shunt move. The trams are driven onto Blundell Street and then manoeuvred onto the depot fan using the triangle, so that they leave depot backwards. This allows them to face forwards once reversed at Foxhall. This procedure usually takes place in late afternoon or early evening, so if you are able to visit the old tram depot around this time it’s well worth looking to see if any of the feature cars are being shunted.
We now turn our attention to the trams themselves. On most nights, the three available illuminated trams are used for tours, these being the Western Train 733+734, the Frigate ‘HMS Blackpool’ 736, and the Fisherman’s Friend Trawler 737 (ex-633). However, in a welcome move, Blackpool Transport have taken to using other interesting trams on tours on certain days, usually in place of the Trawler which is widely considered to be the least popular of the feature cars, and is also the smallest. Friday and Saturday nights may also see additional trams used alongside the illuminated cars, with up to five different trams noted on tour duty in a single evening so far this year. As the nights grow darker earlier, there will be more potential for a greater number of tours, thus increasing the potential level of interest. So far 2012 has seen Fleetwood Box 40, Bolton 66, Standard 147, Open Boat 600 and Twin set 272+T2 all used for illumination tours, and hopefully this list will keep growing over the coming weeks.
Plans to operate tours to a timetable, with an ambitious ten minute frequency on offer at weekends, have sadly failed to materialise and reference to these proposals have now vanished without trace! However, to their credit BTS are attempting to operate more tours than they had in recent years, and for example Saturday 22nd September saw a very impressive eight tours run, with each of the feature cars and the recently reactivated Twin set all performing two tours each. Publicity material states that the final tour each night will depart from Pleasure Beach ninety minutes before the lights switch off, and although this is not always being strictly adhered to, there does seem to be a willingness to keep the illuminated cars out later than they have done for a number of years, which is certainly a pleasing development.
Finally, although this feature intends to summarise the arrangements for illumination tours, mention should be made to the two static trams which are prominently displayed for the 2012 lights display. The much-loved Rocket tram 732 is now the centrepiece of the large roundabout at Gynn Square, and can clearly be seen from passing trams. More than a decade since it last carried passengers, it’s fantastic that the Rocket is finally back in the limelight and whilst it is slightly sad to see it stuffed and mounted in this way, at least the tram can now be admired by the public again, and is fully illuminated each night for the first time since 1999. Equally popular with visitors is the Diamond Jubilee tram, Brush Railcoach 290 which has been painted in a special white and gold livery to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s sixty year reign. Decorated with coloured light bulbs and backlit windows featuring paintings by local schoolchildren illustrating key events of the last sixty years, 290 looks stunning, and is situated in the centre of the Pleasure Beach loop. This means that the tram can be admired whilst you are waiting for a tour!
The 2012 illumination tours are certainly not perfect – but we must remember that these tours are aimed primarily at tourists, particularly families with children, who wish to enjoy a novel ride and view the illuminations. However, with the daytime heritage tram tours discontinued for the autumn, these tours are currently the only opportunity for enthusiasts to ride on genuine heritage tramcars in Blackpool. A round trip lasting more than one hour for £5 is pretty good value and some would say that the cost is worth it just for the fast stretch between Bispham and Little Bispham, when the trams are put through their paces after proceeding past the tableaux along the cliffs at a more sedate pace. If Blackpool Transport can make a good profit from these tours, and the signs so far look very encouraging, this will surely increase the chance of further projects involving the heritage tram fleet, and maybe more stored trams could be returned to use next year. This alone seems like reason enough to support the venture, but when you’re getting a good long run with a superb historic tram, do you really need an excuse to get on board!?