It would be fair to say that the Blackpool tramway has faced a challenging few weeks at the start of the 2014 illuminations season, with a noticeable reduction in the number of illumination tours being operated for a number of reasons. Despite this, passenger numbers on the tours are reportedly up on this point in time in 2013 – an encouraging start and a trend that will hopefully continue throughout October.
September 2013 was not exactly a classic month for the Blackpool tramway and despite the generous provision of five trams for illumination tours on Friday and Saturday evenings, these were often poorly patronised, no doubt at least partly due to poor weather for much of the month. By contrast, budget cuts and staff shortages have meant that only three tour cars have run on Friday and Saturday nights so far this year, with just two trams used on other days. However, and presumably helped by a large number of mild evenings, it is believed that the number of people actually taking a tour is up on last year – to the extent that at times the trams have actually struggled to cope with demand! This once again highlights the difficulty in balancing supply and demand on a service that relies heavily on tourist trade which can experience dramatic peaks and troughs based on factors such as the weather which are very unpredictable and completely beyond Blackpool Transport’s control. Needless to say, many potential customers are not quite so understanding with numerous complaints regarding the long wait for a tour observed of late, particularly on busy Saturday nights. The situation has not been helped by an unusually high number of private hires which have often tied up crews who would otherwise have been allocated to illumination tour duties, although it is perfectly understandable that BTS accept such requests as the hiring of heritage trams is one of their best sources of income and, unlike the illumination tours, guarantees a good return of revenue.
As reported previously, Blackpool Transport have attempted to compensate for the lower number of trams operating tours by using high-capacity Balloon cars in place of the illuminated trams 736 and 737 on numerous occasions. This has been a mixed blessing however, as many customers have refused to ride on a ‘normal’ tram – meaning that although more seats are available, many of them are unoccupied! Saturday 27th September was a particularly bad day as just one of the three illuminated feature cars, the Western Train 733+734, was used with the other two chosen cars being Balloons 701 and 717. As a result, at least one of 717‘s tours reportedly ran virtually empty, leaving the Train to be subsequently mobbed and having to operate a third round trip. This yet again proves the point that the illuminated trams are a people magnet and within minutes of arriving at Pleasure Beach, a large queue of people wanting a ride can materialise seemingly from thin air. It is sincerely hoped that more use will be made of these unique assets in the coming weeks, even if this does mean a lower number of available seats for the tours.
Despite some criticisms it is good to see that there remains a clear demand for tours of the illuminations by tram and hopefully a profitable season will ensue, perhaps encouraging a rethink of the drive to reduce the amount of money spent on the heritage operation for 2015. Alternatively, if the use of less trams on tours is to continue, perhaps it may be time to consider putting some illuminations on a double-deck tram to provide a more appealing tram to the general public that will be capable of shifting the large queues at busy times? An illuminated Balloon car has been suggested in the past, or dare I suggest re-creating an old tradition by putting some coloured lights on Standard 147 as a temporary measure!?