The Hovertram is coming home!

All four of Blackpool’s iconic 1960s Illuminated Feature Cars are set to be reunited on their home tramway following the announcement that the Hovertram is to make the move back to the north west following almost 10 years away. The Hovertram is currently owned by the North East Electrical Traction Trust and is stored at their premises in Sunderland but as part of an agreement it is now going to head home, initially on a 20 year lease.

The Hovertram – numbered 735 – was built 1963 using the underframe of English Electric Railcoach 222 and carried passengers during the annual Illuminations every year up until 2001 when it was withdrawn from service requiring an overhaul. Unlike the Frigate and subsequently the Western Train there was no overhaul on the cards for 735 and so in June 2007 it departed Blackpool having been acquired for the Beith Transport Collection in Scotland – in probably one of the more bizarre preservation attempts of any Blackpool tram over the years. This was not to be a long term move for the tram however as in 2014 after negotiations the North East Electrical Traction Trust acquired the tram to join their growing collection of Blackpool trams and the Hovertram made the move to the North East Land, Sea and Air Museum near Sunderland.

Discussions have been taking place in recent months between the NEETT and the Blackpool Heritage Trust and it has been concluded that the Hovertram’s rightful place is in Blackpool and so an agreement has been reached for an initial 20 year lease which will see the tram make the journey back to Rigby Road. It will require a significant amount of work to return the tram to the rails – it was withdrawn in 2001 for a reason after all! – but the Blackpool Heritage Trust see the return of the Hovertram home as a significant achievement as it sees the illuminated fleet reunited once more. Who knows at some point in the future the public may once again be able to see five illuminated trams in action with the already serviceable Western Train, Frigate and Trawler joined eventually by The Rocket and The Hovertram – if and when this happens it will be the first time since 1978 (when the Blackpool Belle was withdrawn) that there will have been five illuminated trams available for service!

The tram is the only true double deck illuminated tram that has run and with a large capacity proved to be popular to help clear the crowds in the glory years of the illuminations. Due to the roof mounted engines to complete the Hovertram image the tram was built to low bridge specification and featured a low side gangway on the upper deck.

The Hovertram will make the trip across from Sunderland with support from the Blackpool Tram Shop who have agreed to fund the transport costs.

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20 Responses to The Hovertram is coming home!

  1. Kev says:

    Wonderful! Here’s hoping that if the Tram can’t be restored one day then at least we get to see it illuminated in the darkness sometime. Well done all!

  2. Franklyn says:

    Good to hear the hovertram is going home. In my opinion it should be right up there with Princess Alice, at the front of the workshop queue because of it’s large capacity, popularity and obvious money making potential. I never could get my head around quite why the hovertram wasn’t overhauled as soon as it became necessary in 2001. If one of the illuminated trams had to fall by the wayside I would have expected that to be the Friggate as it never looked particularly great (not many lights) and didn’t have a particularly great carrying capacity.

    If I remember correctly, the hovertram is the largest seated capacity single-unit tram in the Blackpool fleet. The railcoach underframe must be incredibly well built to take all that extra weight.

    The only thing that concerns me about this move is keeping to the original design. The frigate emerged from overhaul unrecognisable and I’m a bit worried 735 might go the same way. Although Blackpool are to be commended for keeping the old fleet running, if the new Trust wants to be seen as a museum collection then it does need to concentrate a bit harder on preserving original features. Particularly bad examples of where this has been ignored include the horrible rubber fenders and end valances fitted to 600 and various other cars across the fleet. If these cars are still to be regarded as in daily service then this can be forgiven because they have always been evolving since day one. But if the Trust is now preserving trams (which I kind of assumed was the whole point) then they need to start thinking about it a bit more. A good start was made with the refitting of traditional lifeguards to the operational Brush Car, but after that the originality seems to have gone out of the window. Particularly disappointing is twin set 5, which has been painted in early 70’s livery but not had the motor car’s cove windows reinstated. Surely there must be some of these kicking around spare in Rigby Road these days?

    • Paul says:

      As ever Franklin, you’ve managed to find something negative to say about a good news story by presenting your distorted version of reality…

      You neglect to consider that the Frigate rebuild was in 2004 long before the upgrade was approved and the word “heritage” even thought of in relation to the Blackpool tram fleet; and 600 was refurbished in 2010 when the revised front end was thought (by us all) to be a necessary evil to allow the tram to run at all post-2012… Thankfully that has since been proved not to be the case as evidenced by 631. I’m confident 600 will eventually regain its original appearance but right now there are more urgent needs for the limited time and money available. If you want it prioritising, you know where to send the cheque…

      I’m not sure exactly when 675 lost the roof windows, but I’ve an inkling it was still in the half & half livery style when it emerged, which would make its current appearance correct.

      • Peter says:

        Indeed 675 did lose its roof windows whilst still in half and half livery. A good photo of this is in Paul Turner’s excellent book on the Twin Cars, page 30 to be exact. So maybe an apology is needed from Franklyn to all the people involved in Twin set 5’s refurbishment last year……..

      • Franklyn says:

        Anyone who thought those valances were a ‘necessary evil’ certainly didn’t know many facts about the situation in 2010.

        I’m not saying there is anything major wrong, I’m sayiong they’re just not very good at getting the details right if the heritage trams in Blackpool are now to be considered preserved. Another good example of this is 641, which got painted back into it’s original livery without any attempt to return it to original condition (windows changed, trolley tower changed, upturned plastic bucket over the lightening arrest etc).

        And if there really is no money, where is all the cash from the heritage tours and private hires going, especially now the wage bill must have been slashed by the efforts of all the excellent dedicated volunteer crews?

        I’ve asked before how the money is split up from the takings on both heritage and LRT but nobody seems to know the answer. Does it REALLY support the Trust and the heritage trams, or is it helping to prop up the rest? It’s a simple question.

        • Christopher Callan says:

          You have been told numerous times that the Heritage Operation operates separately from the Light Rail operation. So money gained from the Heritage Fleet cover Heritage Tram Tours Costs (Repairs, Staff Costs, Operating Costs, Restorations). Obviously Modified Balloons when operating stage carriage work in revenue service the money goes to Blackpool Transport Services LRT Budget (as the crews and costs associated with them workings are covered by the main company). Even with volunteers operating costs remain high and enthusiasts should be under no illusion that operation is going to need to find millions though grants / appeals / government schemes / donations to move the operation forward. Frankly folk deluded if they think think their buckets of cash just sat in the coffers. That depot is full of projects running into the millions of pounds & that is without even thinking about the actual depot infrastructure & future museum. They are edging towards big and time consuming projects once again becoming a reality. Likes of 143 slowly edging forward.

        • Paul says:

          Oh dear Franklyn, it would appear you are as flaky on accuracy as you accuse the BHT of being… 641 is the static orange shed at Pleasure beach. 648 is the Centenary car I think you are intending to slander… For the record and your information, 648 was done in 2013, before the heritage trust was formed, on a shoe-string budget, and infact a lot of work was done to restore as close as practical to it’s appearance when rebuilt as 648 (from the GEC test car 651), ironically including removing the valences and rubber bumpers you so despise on 600 (but seemingly have conveniently forgotten 648 also had). Yes the most obvious difference is that the bonded windows were left, but to have replaced those would have increased costs by several £1000s, and anyway, would you really want to return to the original type with their propensity to a) rust and b) leak??

        • Bryan Jackson says:

          I thought that 641 is owned by FHLT not the Blackpool Transport Heritage trams. And it is still in the Blackpool FC colours parked up as a static exhibit at the Pleasure beach

    • Kev says:

      ALL of the Trams are in a correct condition to portray their period in Blackpool history. The only exception being the hybrid 631 and 732 having lost its marker lights. So arguably all the conditions you can see today have a right to be preserved as the unltimate end of that class/car. I agree that 717 and 600 should lose their bumpers one day, possibly with 600 going back to 225 in origfinal condition. BUT as I say it is quite orrect for the Trust to keep any car in its current pre-2012 condition.
      The Hovertram wasm’t rebuilt because there wasn’t any money for a Tram which runs so infrequently (now would be different as the feature cars do get out and about all year) and it is unlikely to jump the queue now as there is NO MONEY. One day it will go through the works and be a useful addition to the fleet. Until then just enjoy the fact that its back!

  3. Marko says:

    This is fab news. Plenty in the workshop queue now. Any idea what gem is next in line for workshop treatment? (Excluding 706 & 737)

  4. Phil Hart says:

    Great news. Anyone know what has happened to or where is Blackpool Belle.

    • Peter Whiteley says:

      Think the Belle got scrapped some years ago in the USA. I was heavily modified (“top deck” components removed) to operate under lower overhead wires. I have heard the underframe (toastrack) may exist somwhere.

  5. Ken Walker says:

    Is there any news regarding setting up the Trust? Presumably when it is up and running it will be very easy for the Franklyns of this world to put their money where their mouth is by donating online.

    • Franklyn says:

      I won’t be donating Ken, but will be quite happy to pay my fare on the promenade just as I’ve done for the last 40 odd years to support the old trams,not just stand there with a camera like I know some people do. For well over a century the old Blackpool trams managed to pay for themselves (if they hadn’t they would have been scrapped just like trams everywhere else) so why shouldn’t they be able to do exactly the same now?

      I’ve heard all the guff about disabled access and ‘upgrades’. They said it had to go LRV, despite places like the Isle of Mann proving old step access vehicles CAN and DO still run in daily service. Go to the USA and you’ll even find a Blackpool boat that’s perfectly capable of carrying a wheelchair if that really is all that necessary all of a sudden!

      So all this ‘upgrade’ nonsense was just that… Nonsense! If it was dictated by europe as we were told, then that’s another good reason for voting leave later this week.

      • Christopher Callan says:

        Deluded if you think tramway was profitable towards end was haemorrhaging money despite the slash and burn approach and under investment in both tramway infrastructure & tramcar fleet. To an extent the Heritage Tram Tour Team are still having to pick through the pieces of the end of the traditional tramway era. It survived towards end purely on basis of lack of political appetite to end it (and the furore that would bring) & the visionaries that brought about the light rail revolution securing the money at the right time.

        The opportunity exists to move beyond what history will look back on and brand tramway austerity and look towards a future where tramcars are slowly but surely brought back to life and brought up to museum standard. Its going to take time. Its going to cost significant money. Some Tramcars make no commercial sense to return to traffic but in heritage tour setting can be justified in terms of the value of the wider tramway story and importance as part of the collection.

      • Kev says:

        I can’t believe that someone is still spouting this rubbish. Keep your Brexit anti Europe stance out of it, it was the UK GOVERNMENT who brought in access regulations. The old Tramway was part of the Blackpool Transport package (slightly different organisation now I believe). They did not pay their way for years and were heavily subsidised. Did you go to Blackpool at the end? One Tram on a half hourly evening service virtually empty?
        So people in wheelchairs, less able, scooters, prams etc etc should be denied easy access?
        The upgraded Tramway carries millions od people. How many of these would actually travel on uncomfortable cold Trams? Not very many as we saw pre 2012! Wake up and face the reality. It nearly closed forever. It didn’t. Its very successful. How many locals rely on Isle of Man Trams for travel to work at 5.30? NONE!!! It’s a different kettle of fish entirely.

      • Andrew Waddington says:

        In answer to your first paragraph – a simple answer is that as you seem so keen to point out, the new Trust is aiming to restore trams back to an earlier condition. That costs a lot more money than the previous BTS overhauls, keeping trams running largely as before, or the heavy rebuilds which saw trams acquire ‘off the shelf’ parts such as bus seats, modern glazing and plastic laminates in place of internal woodwork. By contrast, recreating lost features such as original style moquette, varnished woodwork, chromed fenders and roof windows will mean having to make items from scratch – and that costs a lot more! BTS didn’t really do things like this, their aim was to keep trams on the road to move people from A to B, not represent historic accuracy! The two most notable examples of restoration work were externally funded: 717 by a bequest, and the Western Train by a Heritage Lottery grant. Even they had some modifications.

        As for 648 (not 641!), be thankful it was done at all as commercially there is little argument for retaining Centenary cars in the fleet, let alone spending money on making them look prettier. I think the refreshed car looks superb and for me the windows aren’t really an issue; better to have the tram running with some compromises, than sat in the depot gathering dust!

  6. Peter G says:

    Wonderful news about the Hovertram.
    As a Tram Mad 6 Year old back in 1963 I had the great fortune to be taken around the Depot by Joe Franklin.
    I have a Polaroid photo taken stood alongside the Hovertram in the Workshops where I was given the job of screwing in a couple of the lightbulbs.
    That along with “Driving” Balloon 263 from Starr Gate to South Pier the same day are my most vivid childhood recollections.
    I sincerely hope I can ride the Hovertram again in the not too distant future

  7. John says:

    As various people have hijacked this thread for their own purposes lets have some cold hard reality facts about Heritage shall we.
    – It took a good deal of work/effort/blood, sweat and tears to persuade and prive to the DfT that Heritage could run with LRT.
    – It had never been done before in the UK so was very much a test case and had to be 100% right from day 1.
    – The only Heritage Trams post upgrade were going to be approx. 20 to run the illumination tours, housed in a new depot at Starr Gate.
    – A selection to represent Blackpool’s Tramway history was chosen as best it could be and the other’s disposed of – of which only 1 was scrapped whilst still on the property. ALL the Trams were made available, this was at considerable effort and cost to BTS who could easily have sold them all for scrap.
    – Part of the running agreement was a limited nuber of Heritage stops plus the temporary ones.
    – Agreement was reached to extend the operation beyond the illuminations. This wasn’t as successful as it could have been in 2012, so it was altered in 2013 and 2014 and a series of highly successful gold days was run.
    – Negotiations for the volunteer operation were ongoing during all of this and came to fruition during the winter of 2014/15.
    – The volunteers came in 2015 and BANG! We have what we have today, which is growing steadily.
    We have a Heritage Operation all year round using a selection of cars covering a 115 year period – who in 2011 would have thought that you could have a 115 year old handbrake open top diouble decker out nearly every weekend on an LRT system? I mean come on people – this is something rather special.

    I cannot comment on the finances, but remember that BTS do all the maintenance, restoration etc so this has to be charged to Heritage, as do any other costs, wages etc. Heritage in its ‘new’ form is 14 months old – not many new businesses at that age would be turning any profit anyway.

    As for the Trams, currently they are being kept running and as time and money allow they are being systematically worked on. I bet not many of you are even aware that 642 and 648 have had their cabs worked on to remove the 2000s embellishments and return them to somewhere closer to original. Lets run the Trams, prove we can, let people ride and see them then the money comes in via various means so we can work through the fleet restoring it. Everyone starts here – look at photos of Crich from the 1960s and 1970s – they ran clapped out Trams to get what life was left out of them to enable them to grow, and look where they are now. Heritage is the foundation for the greatest transport museum in Britain – GIIVE ITA CHANCE. Nowhere else has the potential to display representatives of their Tram fleet quite literally from day 1 in September 1885!

    As one of the volunteers it disheartens me when the team give up so much of their time and effort and BTS bend over backwards so we can work together, that our efforts give some people so much cause to argue and criticise. As the operation grows you will have the opportunity to apply to join the team and come and make a difference.

    That’s my say – hope to see you all at the next Gold weekend!

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