A soggy September Spectacular in Blackpool

What’s that saying about the best laid plans? Well, that is exactly how the organisers of the September Spectacular must have felt with very heavy rain at times and of the three trams due to return to service over the weekend, none managed it thanks to various technical issues. But despite these issues there were 16 different heritage trams which ran over the weekend which included the rare use of all three illuminated feature cars during the day with two of them heading to Fleetwood.

Friday 27th September

As is usual during the illuminations, Friday afternoon saw a two tram heritage service in operation, and as would become a regular occurrence during the weekend wet weather was also in operation from above! Because of the weather it was no surprise to see two fully enclosed trams in service with Brush 631 and Balloon 723 running the service from 1300. The trams mainly run between North Pier and Pleasure Beach but there are a couple of journeys to Cabin with 723 the tram on the diagram covering these.

In the evening three trams ran illumination tours: the Frigate, Western Train and Balloon 701. In addition to the FTS tour there were two other specials out with Balloon Cars 715 (Ghost Tram) and 717 (Fish and Chips) in action.

Saturday 28th September

Onto the main event and the day started off with sunshine, a rare sight for the weekend! On normal Gold weekends trams are allocated to a diagram and you know exactly where a tram should be at what time but with the Spectacular it is very much more a case of the old days of specials being sent from Pleasure Beach to lots of different destinations. In addition to trams running from Pleasure Beach there are also trams dedicated to a service between Starr Gate and Fleetwood and a depot shuttle linking the two depots to help transport those who chose to go for behind the scenes tours.

In total there were 11 different trams operating in service on this first day of the event with Brush 631 and Railcoach 680 dedicated to Starr Gate-Fleetwood circuit and Balloon 713 on the depot shuttle. Also out were Bolton 66 (retiring to depot early after a downpour), Standard 147, Boat 227 (again returning to Rigby Road earlier than planned because of the weather), Centenary 648, Balloon 701, Balloon 715, Balloon 717 and Balloon 723.

These trams weren’t quite what was advertised with expected returnees Standard 143 (as well publicised absent with a motor fault) and Centenary 642 (unable to run because of technical issues) both missing and replaced by their fellow class members 147 and 648. Also missing from the advertised list were Balloons 700, 711 and 719 along with the Western Train. Despite these absentees there was still a good selection of trams in service with fairly positive passenger loadings throughout the day.

The weekend also sees a number of static displays, usually just at Rigby Road Depot but this time also at North Pier/Tower. As we’ve reported in previous articles at North Pier it was Standard 143 on display, situated alongside Balloon 718 which was in use as the shop for the weekend. The B fleet Balloon, but on loan to heritage tram tours and in a heritage livery, was used to tow 143 to and from its display location at the start and end of the day.

Meanwhile, down at the depot this year the line-ups were themed with different themes on the depot fan and along Blundell Street. The depot fan looked at the one person operated story with OMO 8, Jubilee 761 and Centenary 645 on display whilst on Blundell Street the tram which will hopefully benefit from the appointment of a new electrician to undergo full rewires were out: Boat 230, Brush 634 and Twin Car 675+685.

The evening saw 12 illumination tours run with the Frigate and Western Train leading the way with three tours a piece. The other three trams in use were all Balloon Cars with 701, 723 and 717 running two tours each.

Sunday 29th September

What to say about this day apart from the fact that until early afternoon it was incredibly wet. Funnily enough the wet weather did cause some tram changes in the output as it wasn’t considered appropriate for either Boat 600 or Bolton 66 to run (the only boat you needed in the morning would have had oars it was that wet!). Also missing from the pre-publicised line-up was Balloon 707 (another tram with technical problems which had been due to return to service over the weekend) along with Standard 147 and Balloon 701, although this latter two trams would appear in the afternoon, when several extra trams would enter service.

The day started with Brush Cars 621 and 631, Centenary 648, Balloon 713, Balloon 717, the Frigate and a rare appearance for the Trawler (currently unable to be used on illumination tours due to a fault with its LEDs) running on specials from Pleasure Beach, Balloons 715 and 723 on the Starr Gate-Fleetwood service and B-fleet Balloon 711 on the depot shuttle. But that was not to be the end of it because as the day moved on more trams were to come out! Standard 147, Railcoach 680, Balloon 701 and the Western Train were all in service by the afternoon bringing a total of 14 trams running heritage tours.

The afternoon saw trams being sent away from Pleasure Beach to various locations north and this included both the Frigate and the Western Train dispatched up to Fleetwood and then back into depot – very rare journeys for these trams, especially on the same day and within an hour of each other. It was rare enough that they were both out at the same time in daylight (along with the Trawler too, giving a hattrick of feature cars). 723 was also taken off the full length service with 713 taking over for one Fleetwood trip whilst after the last depot shuttle 711 also managed a heritage trip to Cleveleys and back, with this tram also being utilised on services calling at the light rail platforms Mondays to Thursdays whether its use for heritage services was sensible is another thing.

Again, there were static displays (despite the horrendous weather!) with 143 back at North Pier (along with 718 as the Shop). At Rigby Road, Blundell Street saw the next two major restoration projects displayed – Balloons 704 and 706. It is expected that 704 will be the first into the workshops and be displayed in its faded Eclipse advert with the condition of the tram not the best it will be a well deserved restoration for this tram. Meanwhile, it was all about the Twin Car on the depot fan with sets 1, 2, 5 and 6 all on display with Engineering Car 754 also joining in on the act.

The weather had taken a turn for the better in the afternoon and so illumination tours saw both Boat Cars out! 227 and 600 both ran two tours each and were joined by regulars the Frigate and Western Train along with Balloon 717. With the Boat Cars out in the evening it meant there were 16 different heritage trams running on this day – not too shabby is it?

Whilst it was certainly unfortunate that the three headline returning trams didn’t make it onto the starting grid (143, 642 and 707) and despite the hideous weather for long periods of time the 2019 September Spectacular was still an enjoyable event with plenty to keep you occupied over the two days. The Sunday afternoon in particular, when trams seemed to be coming at you from all angles!, was a highlight especially with all three illuminated feature cars out including both the Frigate and Western Train travelling to Fleetwood. Roll on next year’s event!

On a sunny 28th September and Bolton 66 passes Standard 143 at North Pier.

Sunday 29th September and one of the trams on display was Balloon 704. Showing the ravages of many years out of service and stored the tram is seen on Blundell Street.

The Frigate was in service on 29th September and is seen here on Pleasure Beach loop. (Photographs x3 by Trevor Hall)

Also in service on the Sunday was Brush 621. We catch-up with the tram at North Pier.

Balloon 701 was in service on both days with this view of the tram at North Pier on the Sunday.

As part of the behind the scenes tours it was possible to take a peek into the depots. This view shows Rigby Road with both Centenary 642 and Balloon 707 visible on the left here. Also just visible at the back of the depot is the Rocket with Halle 902 just in front. (Photographs x3 by David Maxwell)

Another look inside Rigby Road with the stored Trampower vehicle in between OMO 8 and Twin Trailer 681. Brush Works 259 is at the rear.

On the depot fan on day two and we see Twin Car 676+686 in the centre of the shot. Set 2 can just be seen on the left with Engineering Car 754 on the right. (Photographs x2 by Stuart Cooke)

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10 Responses to A soggy September Spectacular in Blackpool

  1. nostalgicyetprogressive says:

    For those who were willing to put up with the mixed weather, it proved to be an excellent weekend in so many ways. No doubt, it was disappointing for anyone who had hoped for a trip on 143, but on the positive side it was easier to obtain good photographs of a non-moving vehicle and not necessary to estimate where and when it would be likely to appear if operating on specials – maybe one could say this was a gift for keen photographers who didn’t want to hang around too long in the inclement weather. Of course, there were also excellent photographic line-ups at Rigby Road Depot.

    It was a good weekend for riding on the Balloons – I would guess that 715 proved very popular in place of 701 on the Sunday Fleetwood to Starr Gate runs. There is something definitely familiar and genuine about this tram, which represents the Balloon in the 1970s and will bring back memories to many. Whilst 717 is a good approximation to the original 1935 appearance of the Balloon class (bumper and one or two other features apart), it is unlikely there are very many enthusiasts who can remember a Balloon in original condition. I gather that the occasional use of the B fleet in service in addition to working heritage duties can lead to some confusion for the general public. However, it must be observed that but for use on the heritage service, these trams would hardly even turn a wheel.

    Undoubtedly, the other main highlight of the weekend was the opportunity to ride feature cars on specials to Fleetwood – a great way to mark the Anniversary Day itself. Many thanks to all involved – especially the volunteers who braved the elements – in making it yet another enjoyable Anniversary weekend.

  2. Andrew Waddington says:

    I missed this event this year and reading the various reports online I’m not sorry for that! There were certainly some positives – three feature cars running together in daylight is a real coup and there were some very interesting cars out on static display, with 704 being a particular highlight (not sure about that and 706 standing in torrential rain though!) – but surely I’m not alone in thinking there were a fair few negative points?

    Normally I would applaud the decision to announce the planned vehicle allocations in advance, but Saturday’s bore no resemblance to what was advertised! Presumably 642 & 707 were not ready for use when the lineup was announced, so to list them as running was clearly too optimistic, and whilst the three illuminated cars all running together on Sunday was great, I’m sure anyone who was only around on Saturday would have missed the Western Train from the advertised list! Running Bolton 66 after its mishap on Friday evening could either be described as brave or foolish, depending on your level of optimism.

    I feel that the role of the B Fleet really needs to be decided now that 711 is working LRT specials most days – surely having this car running a limited stop heritage service on Sunday and then normal service stopping at platforms on Monday is confusing to most people, let alone the average tourist with no understanding of what ‘B Fleet’ means? Finally, whilst it was nice to see the Trawler running, it really is an ugly tram with its LEDs off – here’s hoping that its ongoing issues can be resolved quickly as its clearly become something of an embarrassment.

    Despite the above, the volunteers who work on the trams clearly did a grand job in some very challenging weather conditions – they are the real stars of the Blackpool tramway in 2019 and deserve huge praise for all their hard work and enthusiasm in putting on the best show that they can.

    • Chris Callan says:

      It has to cease. I remain absolutely stunned that Starr Gate would give consent to BHTT to deploy 711 on heritage tour duties against the backdrop of their ongoing trial with the B Fleet (with it selected). Every indication the trial has been deemed a success (despite the best efforts of some individuals to talk down trial) and could well see a expanding role in 2020 starting much earlier in season with larger pool of modified fleet. Looks like BHTT will start having to get use to meeting their own operating commitments without them going forward (id reduce number of operating days in 2020 to stop the unnecessary bleed on resources). The success of the trial wonder whether 707 will ever turn a wheel on heritage duty before a possible repaint/vinyl for stage carriage role i wonder?

  3. Chris Callan says:

    2019 is the year since upgrade that i personally decided to step away barely visiting (and growing anecdotal evidence points to many of my fears and serious reservations that I have had that have been building for some time continues to flood in quite literally in some of the tramcars cases…quite literally). Have missed some of the wonderful people involved (both visitors and crews) but honestly cant say i have missed the constant disappointment and predictably shambolic nature of the operation which would be almost comical if it wasn’t frightening at times.

    Individuals who have promised so much in past are quite clearly not capable of delivering. One would hope that it is blindingly obvious to the silent majority that without an intervention to address the operations systemic problems it will find itself in an increasingly vulnerable position with a less than clear long term future. Every single year people continue to lap up the purring phrases along lines that everything is “wonderful” followed by bolder and bolder promises that simply bear no resemblance to reality… Surprised anyone could keep a straight face with some of the promises made over anniversary weekend.

    The whole concept of the Anniversary Weekend is fundamentally flawed in my opinion as yearly spectacle.. It now involves throwing huge resources at an event in the middle of the Illuminations inadvertently undermining the rest of the gold offering in process. The utterly absurd idea to try to run literally anything is deeply flawed stretching resources even further adding to engineering capacity constraints. Promising the return of tramcars that have not completed any form of mileage accumulation (fault free running) and signed as fit for traffic seems at best ambitious at worst deliberately misleading….

    642, Trawler (actually lit…), 143, 707 & 719 were all advertised to return… only one sort of did running around with its lights off with the fault far from resolved… Not exactly great to advertise that earlier in week whilst none of them had turned a wheel seemingly (bar 143 which was towed in on its launch…)

  4. nostalgicyetprogressive says:

    Fortunately, through somebody’s very generous donation, Blackpool Heritage Trams now has a full-time engineer. Hopefully this should solve many of the problems experienced in recent times as the new employee should be able to commit time wholeheartedly to the maintenance of the at often challenging Heritage fleet. Of course, time will tell, but I believe there is reason to be more optimistic on this basis.

    It is good to be informed that the B Fleet trial has been successful, although it is not certain that all of the B fleet will be required as back-up service vehicles. It may be that the ‘corporate’ liveried cars, 700, 711 and 719 will prove sufficient and could easily be joined by 709, 713 and 724 repainted in purple livery, still leaving 707 and 718 primarily for Heritage use in green and cream and available for the ride through the tram wash at Starr Gate on Open Days. The other Balloons, under the auspices of Heritage Trams will also soon be augmented by 704 and the return of 706. 703 is also available for a possible renovation project and these three would soon fill a gap left by the return of the three currently purple Balloons to normal service. This would be good, as overall the Balloons seem to have demonstrated greater if not perfect reliability, when compared to other Heritage cars, and of course the Balloons are always highly popular.

    • Andrew Waddington says:

      Let’s be realistic though, major rebuilds of Balloon cars took at least 12 months to complete pre-upgrade, and the workforce is a lot smaller now, even with the new electrician – so 704 & 706 are unlikely to available for service for several years. By that time 701 & 715 will probably be unfit for any further use without major work so effectively the two ‘new’ trams will replace them and maintain the status quo.

      The other question is, why would BTS invest the required time and money to get 724 fit for service if they need extra B Fleet cars when they could simply reclaim 718?

  5. David Blake says:

    I very much enjoyed being present at some of the weekend’s events on all three days and am a bit disappointed to see some of the negative comments. There may have been problems on this occasion but the starting point for me is that it’s far better than any of us expected in 2011 (when the depot gates finally closed there were then suggestions that some trams may not even survive) and there is a foundation with wonderfully committed management, personnel, volunteers and partners that can continue to be built on for the future. Experience is often gained hard with elderly forms of transport, and there are plenty of parallels in other heritage activities. Advertised steam locomotives don’t always make it to gala events. I can think of a serious failure of one engine this year which appeared to be in the peak of condition. The failure of ‘Tornado’, only 10 years old, on the main line 18 months ago would be another example. All kinds of restorations can run late. I’m not sure that Crich’s ‘Bluebird’, for example, is by now running to the original planned schedule, but I saw her on the depot fan the other week and she looks magnificent enough to whet my appetite for future visits! We had booked to go on a season of sailings from Liverpool on the ‘Waverley’ paddle steamer this year, but she has missed the whole 2019 season because the boilers unexpectedly failed, leading to mass refunding of tickets and total loss of revenue, and only through the impressive commitment of many people does it now look as if she will grace our seas again in the future. It is such people who never say die and practice a consistently committed, positive attitude even in the face of adversity and sometimes temporary disappointment, who are the game changers and ultimately can make the seemingly impossible happen. (That is not to say, however, that fair, constructive – and hopefully accepted – criticism does not sometimes play a part in this process, also bearing in mind that he or she who never made a mistake – never made anything.)

    I drove speculatively to Blackpool on the day of Standard 143′s launch and was rewarded by the breathtaking sight of her running on the Promenade – the 1920s Blackpool scene spectacularly brought back to life in a way I could never have imagined! Just the fleeting memory of that rainy evening is enough to convince me that 143 will captivate public and enthusiast alike and will not disappoint anyone when she has had time to settle down.

    I am involved with a heritage preservation scheme myself and we should always aim for the highest standards but there are times when we need a bit of encouragement as well. I would not want to discourage any of the committed team at Blackpool who have brought us one of the, if not THE, most amazing heritage tramway operations ever seen on an international scale – I hope we won’t lose sight of that – and I hope they can be spurred on to even greater heights rather than too much negativity weigh things down and possibly risk losing what we have. I enjoyed a very cheerfully led tour round the depot and works which me gave plenty of hope and optimism for the future – despite torrential rain the enthusiasm was palpable.

    The Monday to Thursday appearances of Balloon 711 have been one of the highlights of this illuminations season for me, yet I am afraid that some of the comments on this site may be in danger of making a negative out of a positive. How many times have Blackpool Transport been constantly criticised for not using the ‘B’ fleet Balloons? Now we have one in service and notwithstanding its 84 years making a fine job of it as far as I can see, and underneath all the modifications still very much a 1930s English Electric car and the only double deck tram in commercial service outside Hong Kong. Why is it a problem that it sometimes works on a heritage service instead? There are notices on the doors when it is on ‘normal’ service that it is observing all LRT stops and the guards help the passengers by calling out where it’s going, and presumably when on heritage service it has carried the heritage stickers which drivers usually point to when passing the platforms to indicate that it is not a service tram. We enthusiasts may know that the heritage car approaching is 711 that works the Monday-Thursday LRT duties, but to the average member of the public cars 700 and 719 will look just the same so by that token it would rule them out of heritage duties as well! Come to that, I’m not sure how clearly many members of the public would even differentiate between shapes, types and colours of trams approaching the stop where they are waiting, especially given that many of them are visitors to Blackpool – their interests and priorities are different to ours. I don’t see that 711 working on both LRT and heritage duties at different times is any more confusing than a normal service bus engaged on a (non public) school bus duty, or even, say, car 717 or Bolton 66 working a private hire and not observing the public heritage stops! And in Blackpool at this time of year, it’s never long before the next service car turns up.

    It’s roll along 711 as far as I’m concerned, whatever duty it’s on, and those weekday LRT turns have provided my first chance to see the southern section of the illuminations from a double decker since September 2009. And I couldn’t believe it when I watched my wife Elizabeth ‘selling’ this experience to a group including some Canadians who were changing trams at Starr Gate, with the result that they all waited in the shelter to let the preceding Flexity go past so that 711 would draw up and give them their unique upstairs view of the lights! It could only happen in Blackpool – town of the unique trams, and it doesn’t take much for that old spirit we all knew and loved to come flooding back! I hope that’s what we can all constructively nourish and nurture, even when things dip a little, so it lasts well into the future.

    • Andrew Waddington says:

      The positivity some people have for Blackpool and its heritage trams never ceases to amaze me. The fact is that there are a growing number of people, myself included, who were once in this category but have lost all faith in what is being served up. We’ve been listening to the same tired lines for years – “best year ever”, “best is yet to come”, “Set 5 will run next year” – and there’s only so many times you can hear the same promises before you stop believing them.

      LCC 1 ‘Bluebird’ is undeniably behind schedule, but it wasn’t advertised to run at a specific event a few days beforehand, so hardly a fair comparison. I’m also confident that when LCC 1 finally carries passengers at Crich, it will be a first class restoration job which will have been thoroughly tested and declared fit for service. I was horrified that Standard 143′s launch was its first main line appearance since 1990 – one online report from someone who was on board claimed that its emergency brakes were tested for the first time on the promenade with the invited guests on board. That one line just about killed off what little remaining goodwill I had for BHTT – what would have happened if a child had run out in front of the tram? Can you imagine what the relevant authorities would have said when told that the tram hadn’t done any proper test runs? My biggest fear for the heritage trams is not lack of support, its that there could be a serious accident caused by not taking safety seriously enough, and the whole thing will be closed down. They were lucky to get away with the Twin car fire, but there must never be another such incident again and I’m genuinely worried that its only a matter of time before something else does happen.

      To be honest I’m not sure I will want to ride on Blackpool’s heritage cars again until I am reassured that health and safety is a prime concern and that any ‘new’ cars have been properly tested and passed as safe to run in passenger service. Luckily for me, I can enjoy some wonderful Blackpool trams elsewhere – and one of my absolute favourites, Box car 40, has escaped to Derbyshire where I enjoyed a lovely ride on it at the recent ‘Crich 60′ event. It may not be as good as a long ride to Fleetwood, but for now at least I’m quite happy to settle for that!

      • David Blake says:

        I’m not in a position to comment on all the points Andrew has made because I wasn’t a passenger on 143 at that event. Of course my view is that health and safety must be of paramount importance at all times.

        Regarding the Twin Car fire a few years ago, I understand that BHTT identified the problem and responded by immediately examining the fleet and withdrawing a number of trams from service which were considered to be possibly at risk, which was an appropriate response. The rewiring programme which resulted has created a backlog of work from which the heritage fleet has not yet fully recovered.

        What I do consider to be positive – and possibly unique – at Blackpool overall is the combination of the Blackpool Transport management, heritage trams management and staff, and volunteers, along with other partners such as Blackpool Council and the FTT, being all prepared to pull in the same direction to build a major heritage project aboard a lengthy full size working tramway. The benefits of this can be seen, for example, in the publicity for the heritage trams being displayed on the Flexity service trams and at stops – the kind of thing many heritage schemes would be unable to afford. There are unfortunately also other transport preservation schemes I can think of whose potential has been beset by internal squabbles and differences, not to mention adverse publicity. For Blackpool, problems there may be along the way but there seems a very positive foundation and structure to build on into the future, and I hope that this can not only be maintained, but very much built upon.

        From a personal point of view, I live close to Blackpool and enjoy riding and experiencing all the heritage trams and have had a lot of positive experiences on them. This has particularly included the more unusual and vintage cars that have appeared which I have made a special effort to seek out.

        The thing that particularly led to my previous comments were the various criticisms of the use of Balloon 711 on both LRT and heritage services. I felt this in particular was a criticism too far, and after what was for all sorts of reasons a difficult period for BHTT – not least taking into account the difficult weather – I felt that such a barrage of seemingly endless criticism can have an unduly demoralising effect on all the staff and volunteers of any project at a somewhat vulnerable time.

        Preservation schemes rely heavily on goodwill and funding, and being in the leisure sector, public reaction plays a vital part, especially where funding partners and their spending priorities are concerned. To borrow a term from my own local government field of work, continuous improvement is key – but that relies on the foundations of the project being intact and consistent to build and improve on. For me, the bottom line is, heritage trams in Blackpool are worthwhile, and whether funder or participant (which sadly I am not), or observer, what can we do to best ensure they continue?

        On a lighter note, I have enjoyed reading some comments, especially those relating to the delightful Balloon car 715 which is absolutely a piece of living history and always one of my favourite cars to ride on. The news of the repairs at the Heaton Park Tramway is good and I particularly enjoyed seeing Blackpool Balloon car 702 (another long time favourite) on display there earlier this year and observing Stockport 5 returning it to its depot at Lakeside afterwards! Like Andrew, I also enjoyed an excellent visit to the Crich 60 weekend and it’s good to see the tramway museum’s central role in the preservation of so much British tramway heritage receiving the recognition it deserves. It really is a superb place to visit and I received some valued help from the museum with a Heritage Lottery Fund bid for the heritage project I am involved in. And I’m looking forward to the day when Heaton Park resumes operation, and both Bluebird at Crich and Standard 143 at Blackpool can make their historic return to the rails!

        • David Blake says:

          I should have included the Fylde Tramway Society when mentioning the partners of the BHTT, for their support and collaboration with the Princess Alice project. Re Heaton Park, a small point but it might just have been Hull 96 that returned Balloon 702 to its depot, but I haven’t had time to check my photographs! An opportunity to say many thanks as always for all the work that goes in to your excellent website which is such a tremendous source of up to date information!