Following a considerable amount of speculation, it has been announced that Blackpool Transport and the Tramway Museum Society have successfully concluded negotiations for an exchange of trams during the 2014 summer season. Blackpool ‘Pantograph’ car 167 of 1928 is set to revisit its native system for a visit, whilst Crich will play host to an operational Balloon car – and very surprisingly, the chosen vehicle is heavily modernised car 711!
Looking at 167 first, and this tram is currently on loan to Beamish where it is due to remain until the end of April. It will then move to Blackpool for what will be its fourth return visit, and is due to enter service there on 25th May as part of that weekend’s heritage tramcar output. The beautiful 167 is set to be the star attraction of the heritage tram operating days at Blackpool in May and August, and is also a likely candidate to appear at both the Totally Transport and Fleetwood ‘Tram Sunday’ events. This tram’s last visit to the Fylde coast was marred by a bearing fault which resulted in it being withdrawn after carrying passengers on just one day, whilst the upgrade works progressing at that time meant that it could not operate north of Bispham. This time however, 167 will be far less restricted and the prospect of riding this magnificent tram to Fleetwood this year is a mouthwatering one indeed!
In return, Balloon 711 will be moving to Crich in May and is expected to stay there for a two-year loan, although with serious doubts regarding the future use of the modified double-deckers in Blackpool, it has been suggested that this may be extended indefinitely. 711 was one of nine Balloon cars to be modernised with widened centre platforms and driver-operated plug doors as part of the tramway upgrade bid, funded by local and central Government, but since being converted the trams have not found a clear role on the tramway. Indeed, 711 was the last to be converted and since being rebuilt and repainted in the new purple and white fleet livery, the number of times it has run in service can be counted on one hand. Bearing this in mind, moving 711 to a museum should actually see a considerable increase in its use! With its modern appearance and pre-recorded messages to signal the opening and closing of its doors, the tram should certainly cause heads to turn in its new home. It is understood that clearance tests have already taken place involving Blackpool ‘Boat’ 236 fitted with some enhancements to replicate the width of the Balloon car, and this should silence a few doubters who had questioned whether 711 would be able to run at Crich. It has also been confirmed that 711 will be used for ‘Ultimate Driving Experience’ courses, offering members of the public the rare chance to drive a Balloon car!
711 will of course not be the first Balloon to operate at Crich; although sister car 249/712 is confined to the Exhibition Hall, 710 did visit the museum in the mid-1980s. This was also part of a swap deal, when several cars from the national collection travelled to Blackpool for the legendary tramway centenary celebrations. Perhaps if Crich should ever decide to acquire another Blackpool tram, they will look at the fleet numbers and take either 709 or 713! On a more serious note, the visit of such a modern-looking tram may not be well received in some quarters, as the use of 630 and 762 at Crich has already come in for some criticism. It also remains to be seen what visitors to the attraction will make of such a heavily modified tramcar, although for enthusiasts, riding on the car in Derbyshire will be a huge novelty!
Both BTS and TMS are to be applauded on this imaginative arrangement, which will create some truly memorable tram riding and photographic opportunities in 2014, which is really shaping up to be a classic year for the heritage tram sector in the UK. Following the initial disappointment regarding the loss of several operating days for Blackpool’s heritage fleet, the visit of 167 will hopefully go a long way towards compensating for this, and should encourage plenty of enthusiasts to descend on Blackpool to enjoy this tram in its natural habitat.