Just before midnight on Sunday 6th November 2011 saw the final tram enter the Rigby Road Depot in Blackpool as 126 years of traditional tramway operation came to an end. When the next tram runs in passenger service in the town it will most likely be a new Flexity2 (providing a few more actually turn up by next Easter!) as the era of the Supertram commences. Like most tram enthusiasts I have mixed feelings over this news; it is great that the future of the tramway is secure (or at least it should be!) but the old girls of the tram fleet will certainly be much missed as so many of not only my tram memories but also memories of childhood family holidays are linked to them.
Standing at Manchester Square for several hours during the late afternoon and evening of that final day and seeing the trams returning to Depot it is hard to believe that for some of them it will be the last time they ever make that journey. For many of them the next journey they make will be on the back of a low loader to a new life in preservation or private ownership whilst an unlucky few will end up in that great tram shed in the sky. A limited few will see use in Blackpool again with the widened Balloons likely to see at least some use next year (although how much remains to be seen with 16 Flexities due to arrive in the coming months) whilst there will probably be even less use of the true (and incredibly limited) “heritage” fleet of trams. It is certainly a shame that many of our much loved “friends” will no longer operate on the tramway and maybe it would be better if Blackpool Transport and Council recognised the history a bit more and retained more examples of the past but we have to remember they are there first and foremost to run a transport service and not to please a few enthusiasts.
If I take off my emotional tram enthusiasts hat and look at the situation I have to admit that the tramway has probably been dying a rather undignified death for many years (possibly for even as long as I have known about its existence!) and lets face it should a public transport system really be using trams rapidly approaching 80 years of service? And that is precisely what the Blackpool Tramway should be – a public transport system (as much as the majority of people who read this website would like to think otherwise). A few years ago the choice facing local politicians was fairly stark – go for the major upgrade of the system or let it continue to go as it was an then eventual closure as the infrastructure became more and more life expired. Unfortunately it is extremely unlikely there would have been the funding available to upgrade the infrastructure if Blackpool Council had decided they wanted a “heritage tramway” running along the seafront (and lets not kid ourselves that this was ever really an option and if it had have been it would have been a much reduced tramway in operation – possibly even more reduced than that seen in 2011).
Whether it would have been better if some second hand low floor (and smaller!) trams could have been sourced from somewhere remains to be seen (a capacity of 200 with only around 70 of those being able to sit may prove to be too big – particularly in the quiet winter months) but we must now throw our support behind the Supertram system when it opens at Easter 2012 and hope that the good people of Blackpool and Fleetwood decide it is the best way they can find of travelling between the two towns. For that to happen there has to be a regular (a 10 minute service has been suggested but whether this is sustainable remains to be seen) and reliable service which operates from early morning to late evening to enable commuters to actually be able to use the trams. There is no doubt that the tramway will be under the microscope of enthusiasts and the transport media when it opens at Easter and it will probably take the operator a while to work out the best service pattern and how to operate it and we must give them time to get it right as operating a Supertram system is very different to operating traditional trams (and some might say Blackpool Transport couldn’t even do that in the last few years!).
And a final thought: the Blackpool Tramway is a bit like that beloved family pet you have had for years but you realise it has to be put out of its misery as it is suffering too much. After a while you then try and it replace it with another pet which you learn to love in time, but probably never as much as that original pet!