With the 2014 Blackpool illuminations season now well underway, it is pleasing to see that quite a few different members of the heritage tram fleet have been used on illumination tour duties already this year. With a reduction in the number of tours being operated due to a combination of council-inflicted budget cuts and staff shortages, it was expected that the vintage trams would see less use than in previous years during the illuminations, but in fact the opposite has been true.
As well as the three illuminated feature cars, five other heritage trams have been used for tours so far – Boats 227 and 600, Standard 147, ‘Princess Alice’ 706 and Balloon 717. This number should rise again on Friday 26th September, when Balloon 701 is scheduled to operate a tour to Fleetwood and then illumination tours to re-launch this car following completion of its recent repaint into red and white ‘Routemaster’ livery. This event will now co-incide with the launch of a new book by well respected author and local historian Brian Turner, taking place at the Blackpool Tram Shop at 1530, with 701‘s own launch to follow at around 1615, also at North Pier. It is also expected that Twin Set 272+T2 will appear on illumination tours at some point later in the year, and this is likely to be announced in advance to benefit anyone specifically wishing to ride on it.
Thanks to some mild evenings, the use of open top cars has been frequent with ‘Princess Alice’ being a particularly regularly performer. Weekdays have often seen 706 used alongside the Western Train, whilst Friday and Saturday nights generally see a third car added to the tours, this usually being Frigate 736. Although the Trawler 737 has now made a few outings, it appears to be greatly out of favour this year with just two or three reported appearances so far in 2014, at least one of which was for a private charter. It had previously been suggested that 737 would pass through the workshops for some cosmetic attention this year, which did not materialise, and its lack of use could indicate that an overhaul will be required before it is used more extensively again. Although enthusiasts may well be pleased to see vintage trams being selected for tours in preference to the illuminated cars, and the Boats have proved particularly popular, it is hoped that this will not put off families who are considered the core audience of these tours. As wonderful as the heritage fleet may be, for young children not much can replicate the magic of the illuminated feature cars and so hopefully they will see plenty of use in the coming weeks.
As for the illuminations themselves, probably the best received change for 2014 has been the revamping of the Alice in Wonderland tableaux with the addition of a stunning garden featuring coloured trees and water features. Less impressive is the new display on the Gynn roundabout which has of course replaced the Rocket 732 now that this iconic tram is safely back where it belongs at Rigby Road. The giant astronaut figures which surrounded the Rocket have been retained but with some re-used Dr Who displays, whilst the centrepiece is a TARDIS – quite underwhelming really compared to some of the past displays seen here. Sadly the powers that be seem to be more interested in trying to make money out of the switch-on weekend than improving the actual illuminations themselves, whilst increased support for the tram tours is also presumably out of the question, leaving Blackpool Transport to do the best they can with the limited resources available.