London Trams at Crich

London trams form a key part of the National Tramway Museum collection based at Crich, making it highly appropriate that this museum will be holding a special event to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the closure of the city’s extensive tram system, on Sunday 8th July. However, with such a wonderful selection of restored trams from the English capital now on site, it is easy to forget that, for the first two decades of tramcar operation at Crich, no London tram had carried passengers there! Andrew Waddington takes a timely look back at the recent history of the Tramway Museum Society’s London fleet.

The early years of Crich saw many trams from Sheffield, Glasgow, Leeds and Blackpool in service, but not a single one from London. No doubt the trams of the aforementioned cities were amongst the first to carry passengers at the museum in the 1960s due to the fact that many arrived fresh from service, and still had some life left in them. This contrasted with the London cars, as that city’s tramway had closed twelve years before the first electric tram service commenced at Crich. In fact, for many years just two representatives of the capital city could be found on site – the unrestored Feltham car Metropolitan 331, which spent some years in its later Sunderland livery, and London Transport 1. This car had been acquired following the demise of the transport museum at Clapham and although unfit to carry passengers, made an attractive static exhibit. Retaining its final identity as Leeds 301 upon arrival in Derbyshire, the tram was soon repainted into London Transport red. As a unique experimental car, 1 had originally carried a distinctive blue and white livery which earned it the nickname ‘Bluebird’, but with no more typical London trams at Crich, it seemed sensible to restore it in the more recognisable livery it had carried in later years before being sold on for further service in Leeds. Car 1 remains largely unchanged to this day, as one of very few trams in the national collection not to have run at Crich. It has made a few appearances on the main line, most recently at the Enthusiast’s Day in September 2004 when it made a rare visit to Wakebridge where it was displayed on the siding (since removed) for the day. It was due to participate in a London tram parade at the same event in 2006, but an examination over the workshop pit revealed the poor condition of its brakes, and it is now confined to the Exhibition Hall.

The situation with London trams in the national collection changed for the better in 1983, thanks to the London County Council Tramways Trust who had been restoring 1903 London County Council ‘B’ class tramcar 106. Now complete, the tram was dispatched to Crich in time to enter service exactly 80 years to the day after the London County Council tramway system first opened. 106’s restoration was not technically authentic as this particular tram had run as a conduit car when built, but as others of this type were fitted with trolleys to collect power from overhead lines, it was considered appropriate for 106 to show this more practical form of current collection, allowing it to enjoy regular service at Crich. Open toppers have always been popular with visitors to Crich, and so 106 proved to be a very welcome and useful addition to the running fleet.

The 1980s saw another London tram arrive at Crich, although this one was less recognisable as such. The discovery of an old London horse tram body, still retaining its original wheelsets, was a remarkable find and arrangements were duly made for the remains of this vehicle to be moved to Crich. Although a London tram, it became known as the ‘Curry Rivel horse tram’ after the place where it was discovered. On arrival it was deposited on the depot track fan, and Tramway Museum Society members were outraged in later years when plans were discussed for the car to be dismantled and used as a source of parts to assist with other projects. Happily, this plan never reached fruition and the ‘Curry Rivel horse tram’ was later moved into the depot complex to escape the perils of the great outdoors, before heading to the TMS Clay Cross store early in 2005 to create extra space for new acquisitions.

However, the most exciting development of the 1980s involved Metropolitan Electric Tramways 331 – the unique centre-entrance Feltham tramcar, which had languished in the depot since the early 1960s. Many enthusiasts desperately wanted this tram to be restored to running order, but many of them feared that it may never run again; the massive, steel-bodied tram being a huge project that was considered by some to be too great a challenge even for the skilled workmen of Crich. However, 331’s salvation came following the success of the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 which had featured an operating tramway. For a repeat event at Gateshead in 1990, it was once again decided to include a short tramway and the organisers turned to the TMS with a view to borrowing some trams from the North East. 331 was suggested, having spent the latter (and longer) part of its working life as Sunderland 100 after being sold on for further service, and thanks to a large injection of cash through the festival deal, the impossible suddenly became possible! In a remarkably short space of time, the derelict hulk was stripped to a shell and completely rebuilt in the Crich workshop, emerging in the summer of 1989 looking magnificent in its ornate Sunderland livery. Unfortunately this did not last very long, as the event’s sponsors, British Steel, insisted on the tram carrying a blue and white advert livery for the duration of the garden festival which somewhat removed the point of restoring it in Sunderland guise. However, the most important thing was that this magnificent tram had been restored to service – and after spending 1990 in the North East, it returned to its rightful place at the National Tramway Museum, where it was restored it original guise as Metropolitan Electric Tramways no. 331.

However, whilst the Feltham was hogging the limelight, work was well in hand to prepare another capital tram for a return to glory. With LCC 106 completed and in regular service, the LCCTT had turned their attentions to London Transport 1622, a tram which would finally give Crich a typical London double-decker for inclusion in their running fleet. An arrangement was made whereby the Trust would restore the lower deck at their workshop premises at Bonwell Street in London, where 106 had also been brought back to life, whilst a brand new top deck was constructed in the workshop at Crich in 1992/3. This was then placed in storage at the rear of Depot 2 until the largely completed bottom half was delivered late in 1994, and the two sections were then joined together. Work continued apace throughout 1995, with a set of ex-Feltham car bogies being refurbished for use under 1622. Like 106 before it, this tram was something of a ‘what might have been’ as it was rebuilt in a rehabilitated condition; this tram was never actually upgraded in this manner, but other similar cars were. One of the more unusual and controversial additions this work included was the fitting of two trolley poles on its roof! The tram was finally completed in 1997, being launched into service on 5th July as part of a whole week of London-themed events. For the first time ever, it was possible to run three London trams together on a museum tramway, and this was a real high point for the city’s preserved trams.

The 1990s also saw some other smaller developments involving the London fleet. Not long after entering service in MET livery, 331 suffered a motor fault which led to it being sidelined, and it was even placed in the Exhibition Hall for a few months, until a very generous donation from a TMS member enabled it to return to service in 1994. That year LCC 106 was treated to a repaint, and the long hot summer of 1995 led to this immaculate car operating the highest mileage of any tram in the fleet that season. A problem with cracked motor casing led its premature withdrawal in 1996, but this was resolved in time for the car to rejoin the running fleet at the same time as 1622 made its debut.

Unfortunately, 1622’s entry into service was not entirely successful and the tram suffered a number of problems whilst settling down into regular use. In fact, the tram missed the entire 1999 season and further issues with the braking equipment led to it being returned to the works in later years for the braking system to be modified. Whilst being unauthentic, this had no impact on its appearance and since 2006, the tram has been smooth, quiet and reliable – words which could not have been applied to it on its launch into traffic! Suggestions have often been made that 1622 should receive some period style external advertisements, but 15 years after making its public debut at Crich the tram remains in its plain London Transport red livery. However, it did receive ‘Last Tram Week’ banners for the 50th anniversary of London’s Last Tram in July 2002, when it was joined by LT 1 making a rare visit to Town End, and a visiting London trolleybus which was powered by batteries to add to the occasion.

LCC 106 also experienced further problems in 1999 when, along with Johannesburg 60, the discovery of cracked wheel spokes resulted in the tram being withdrawn from service. This was later resolved and 106 returned to use late in 2002, but further problems with 106’s wheels and its generally deteriorating condition saw it retired in 2006. Once again the LCCTT hope to return the tram to operational status and it has been suggested that an overhaul may be undertaken within the next few years, funds permitting.

Into the 2000s, a request was made by Blackpool Transport to borrow MET 331 for a short period in 2004 to co-incide with the 70th anniversary of the town’s English Electric streamliners. The celebrations largely focussed on the iconic Balloon class, and it was felt that 331 – a tram which had partly inspired their appearance – would be a superb addition to the events. Sadly, the TMS ultimately turned down this request, depriving enthusiasts of the amazing experience of riding on a Feltham car along the promenade. Incidentally, plans for LCC 106 to visit Blackpool in 2010 as part of the tramway’s 125th anniversary celebrations also failed to materialise: following its lay-off the tram received some attention to prepare it for a seaside holiday, but a mechanical defect developed whilst in service at Crich and so the proposed loan had to be cancelled and the tram was taken out of service again after a very short period of activity.

A more pleasing development was the arrival of London United Tramways no. 159 at Crich early in 2005, following a prolonged period at the TMS’ Clay Cross store. As the LCCTT no longer had access to a workshop of their own by this time, this tram was to be completely rebuilt in the Crich workshops with funding from the Trust. In reality this has turned out to be more a case of building a replica as so little original material remained, and the costly exercise of building new bogies, incorporating just a few parts already held in stock from various sources, has provided the workshop team with plenty of new challenges. This project has been a lengthy one – not only due to the complexities involved but also a lull in work whilst efforts were focussed on restoring Cardiff 131 in time for the Crich 50th anniversary celebrations in 2009. However, the tram was sufficiently complete for trial running to commence in spring 2012, and the highly anticipated launch of this magnificent tram is planned for Saturday 7th July 2012. It will then join MET 331 and LT 1622 to give Crich a trio of contrasting vehicles from different operators based in Britain’s capital city, with LCC 106 and LT 1 also on static display.

Whilst work on 159 was underway, the London fleet received an unexpected boost in the shape of two works vehicles from Croydon which had been used on the modern Tramlink light rail system, but had been declared surplus to requirements. A modern rail crane numbered 058 arrived in early 2010, along with unpowered trailer 061, and these have proved to be useful additions to the works fleet at the Museum. Another more modern tram of sorts arrived at the end of 2011; a mock-up LRV created to illustrate the rolling stock intended for London’s Cross River Tram project, which was subsequently abandoned. In order to represent modern tramways at the Museum, and offer a taste of what might have been, this mock-up was acquired by the TMS and after spending a short period at Town End, was moved to the edge of the car park. It is intended that a cut-down version will eventually appear in a revamped exhibition area within the Derby Assembly Rooms, helping to bring the story of Britain’s tramways right up to date.

The collection of London trams at Crich have certainly experienced their share of ups and downs, but as we remember 60 years since the city’s ‘Last Tram’ ceremony, things are looking extremely bright. With three operational passenger cars from London, and plans afoot for LCC 106 to be returned to service within the not-too-distant future, there should be plenty of continued interest in London’s transport heritage at Crich for many years to come, not least thanks to the continuing support of the LCCTT. This organisation also have long-term aspirations to finance the complete restoration of LT 1 in its original blue and white LCC livery, which would be a massive project but one which would be welcomed by a great many people and reverse years of neglect for a tram which currently looks rather dilapidated. Hopefully, with LUT 159 now the pride of the fleet, the positive situation with the city’s preserved trams looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.

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