Blackpool’s English Electric Trams 70th Anniversary Part 2

2004 marks the 70th Anniversary of the operation of the distinctive streamlined English Electric trams in Blackpool. In Part Two of a feature article British Trams Online Webmaster Gareth Prior concludes by taking a look at what has happened to the English Electric Trams in the last 70 years…

To look at Part 1 Click Here.

Changes to the English Electric Trams

It did not take long for changes to take place with the English Electric Trams. When the Second World War started in September 1939 the majority of the trams were only 4-5 years old and a lot of the traffic they had been built for would start to erode as hostilities began in earnest. A decision was made in 1941 that the Open Top Balloons should be fully enclosed and a start was made almost immediately on doing this work. Over the next 1-2 years all 13 of the class were fully enclosed although they could still be told apart from the original enclosed cars as they had a more vertical profile. The work basically involved putting a top cover on them and thinly covering the wooden top deck seats which meant that passengers would be well aware which trams had been converted!

After the Corporation had completed all of the former Open Top Balloons they turned their attentions to the Sun Saloons which had proved to be deeply unpopular with the public due to their draughty nature. It was decided that these trams should be adapted and they received fully glazed windows and full length doors although they still retained their roller shutter roof and other basic features. After the war had finished these trams were to receive major work so that they could be a useful part of the fleet all year round. Work commenced in 1948 to upholster the seats, put partitions between the driver and passenger saloon and fit permanent roofs with lighting. The idea was that the trams could replace the ageing double deck Standards on the Marton route (at this time Luff was intent on having a complete single deck tram fleet). The first of the trams appeared on the Marton route in the summer of 1949 but at this stage they had not completed their evolution, this did not occur until late in the same year when number 21 was fitted with the revolutionary Vambac equipment. 21 entered service on the Prom with this new equipment, which enabled quieter operation, and it proved to be a success so all of the former Sun Saloons received this equipment in place of the English Electric DB1 controllers. Once all of the trams had been fitted with the Vambac controllers they completely replaced the Standards on the Marton route and were rechristened the Marton Vambacs.

The appearance of the English Electric trams remained the same for nearly another 10 years before the most radical departure up to this point happened. Joe Franklin (Luff’s replacement as Transport Manager) had been on a visit to the continent with members of the Transport Committee and came back impressed with some trailer operation he had seen. It was decided to select two of the Second Series Railcoaches as an experiment in trailer operation for Blackpool and the two chosen were 276 and 275. It was not practical to keep the streamlined appearance for trailer operation and so they were both rebuilt in the Corporation workshops during 1957-58 and were revealed with flat fronts (not unlike the Coronations which had been built 5 years beforehand). The first run of the Twin Car was on 9 April 1958 after the Ministry of Transport had approved the design and operation of having two trams coupled together. After a while of the trams operating together on the Promenade route the Corporation commenced conversion of further Second Series Railcoaches into towing cars whilst an order was given to Metro Cam for 10 trailer cars without any motors to complete the Twin Cars. Four Railcoaches were converted in 1960 and five in 1961 (including the original trailer which was now converted to a towing car) although it was not until 1963 that the first set was permanently coupled, previously there was always the option of operating the Towing Car without the trailer. The other members of the class were gradually permanently coupled, except for the final 3 which were never coupled permanently and eventually resumed single operation.

The next major evolution in the Blackpool tram fleet again involved some of the Second Series Railcoaches, as they were converted into One Man Operated trams (OMOs). Blackpool had first seen OMO buses during the late 1960s and at the time the Ministry of Transport was offering grants for the conversion of buses into OMOs. The Corporation decided to apply for one of these grants to see if they could convert trams into OMOs to help save escalating costs. Experiments had already been tried in 1969 with one of the 1937 Brush Railcoaches but this had involved minimal rebuilding and had in fact not been a success as the front entrance was very narrow and situated behind the driver and so did nothing to help improve loading times. Franklin called this a false start and never gave up on his idea of having OMO trams in Blackpool and he finally got his way. The design was worked on internally at the Corporation and they were in constant negotiations with the Trade Unions so the drivers wouldn’t reject the trams after building had been completed. The final design came up with increasing the length of the trams by 6 feet to a total of 49 feet and included a tapered end (something which was almost as distinctive as the streamlining on the trams). Not only were the trams lengthened they had front entrances fitted whilst the centre doors were retained as exits. The entire saloon was given a constant level with the doors having steps down from them and new seats were especially made with back to back seats in most places and side bench seats used near to the exit. The trams would seat 64 with space for 16 to stand. The first OMO was completed in the workshops for out shopping in April 1972 and was then approved by the Ministry of Transport. It had been worked out that 9 trams would be needed to have the service in the winter operated solely by OMOs but it was decided to convert the remaining 12 Railcoaches (including 3 from the First Series) into OMOs. The final conversion happened just 4 years later in 1976 with a complete service of One Man trams starting during 1975.

After the single deck OMOs had been completed the new General Manager Derek Hyde turned his attention to an obvious step, double deck OMOs. There were two Balloons stored in the old Blundell Street depot and it was decided that one of these (725) could be converted into a double deck OMO (later to be known as Jubilee Cars). Initial plans for the conversion of the tram were revealed during 1975 and showed a double deck tram with a front entrance/exit and a high capacity. Following on from the plans work didn’t commence until 26 October 1976 and like the OMOs before them it was to be constructed in the Corporation’s own workshops. The length of the tram was lengthened to 46 feet long and unlike the OMOs had the frame extended so it was not necessary to have a tapered end. Work was not quick mainly due to funding constraints but on 19 April 1979 the tram came out of the Paint Shop to be unveiled to the world and then during May and June of the same year it was tested on the Prom before an inspection from the Railway Inspectorate and then the tram entered revenue earning service on 2 July. It was initially used as a normal crew operated tram not commencing One Man Operation until the following winter. After the success of this conversion it was decided to convert the second derelict Balloon (714) into a Jubilee. This time the design differed slightly after they had learnt through operating 761, with the main difference being the addition of a centre exit with the front being used just as an entrance (like on the OMOs). 762 was revealed from the workshops at the very end of March 1982 but this was to be the last home made One Man tram in Blackpool as it was taking a lot of workshop space and time with funding issues also getting in the way.

The final main evolution that the English Electric trams have seen from their original shape has occurred in recent years with the new Millennium Cars (never officially called this but it seems as good a name as anything else!). This has seen 4 of the Balloon cars go through major overhauls with the main difference being the appearance of a flat fronted tram, making them look not unlike the Sheffield Roberts cars. It is unclear what the decision making was behind the flattening of the ends although recently it has emerged that the Health and Safety Executive have stated they do not like the pointy ends of the Balloons (or Brushes for that matter). The first of this sub class entered service in July 1998 having spent 4-5 years out of service undergoing the overhaul. It has since been followed by 709, 718 and now 724 (returning to service in the last few months), each of them spending 4-5 years out of service. These trams have not exactly been met with widespread delight in the enthusiast world, as they don’t actually seem to serve any purpose, at least the previous rebuilds saw the advancement of the Blackpool tramway fleet.

As well as the above major rebuilds on the majority of the English Electric trams there were minor and some major overhauls on a lot of the trams. The main changes were seen on the Balloon cars which over the years saw the removal of their twin destination indicators and the replacement of them by just a single, larger one. There was also a change from trolley operation to a diamond pantograph on all of the Balloons, Twin Cars and the former Towing cars as well as the more modern OMOs and Jubilees. In addition two of the Railcoaches have been converted into special Illuminated Trams, the first of which was the locomotive part of the Western Train 733. This conversion was completed in 1962 and was from first series Railcoach 209 and towed the Carriage 734 (converted from a Pantograph car). The other English Electric Railcoach converted into an illuminated tram was fellow First Series tram 222 which became 735, The Hovertram. This conversion was a major one and the tram even became a double decker and for a time was the highest capacity single tram in the fleet seating 99.

The English Electric Trams Today

In Blackpool today the English Electric trams are still a major part of the fleet although on a much lesser scale. There are now no First Series English Electric Railcoaches in existence in their original form, the only ones remaining now being Illuminated Trams. The first of these trams to be scrapped was as long ago as September 1961 when 206 met its end and then over the following few years the majority of these trams were scrapped as the inland routes were gradually abandoned over the opening years of the 1960s. Five of these trams did actually survive although eventually in other forms, firstly the two illuminated trams with the Western Train loco and the Hovertram and then three of the OMOs. The two illuminated trams remain in Blackpool although they have been withdrawn from service but there is the possibility of future restoration for the pair of them if finances permit. As for the OMOs, 3 and 4 were scrapped fairly early on but the third conversion was 5 which is now at the Clay Cross store of the National Tramway Museum making it the only first series Railcoach in preservation.

As for the Boat cars there are still 5 of the original 12 in the resort being mainly used during the summer on Prom specials. The prototype, now numbered 600, spent a long period of time away at Heaton Park in Manchester where it went as other trams came to Blackpool for the 1985 Centenary. But it is now back in Blackpool and operates in service along with 602, 604, 605 and 607. Of the rest of the class, three are in the United States in preservation, including 606 which went as part exchange for Standard 147, whilst the other four were scrapped in 1968 when there was no longer the space for their storage or the need for as many open top trams to be used.

The Balloons are still on the whole intact with just one of the trams scrapped, this happened in 1982. The tram involved was 705 which had a head on collision with sister 706 and was too badly damaged for any repairs to take place. Of the rest of the Balloons they are still all in service with the prototype 700 now in a heritage condition having undergone refurbishment in the late 1990s which featured the return of double destination indicators and trolley operation amongst others. Fellow Balloon 706 has also undergone a major refurbishment seeing it restored to open top status after it was involved in the collision with 705. The Corporation decided at the time that with the Centenary approaching it should be restored to original status and it has operated like that since then. Of course there are also the two trams which were converted into Jubilees still plying their trade whilst there are 4 flat fronted Millennium cars. The rest of the class remain in a near traditional format although there are many variations between them after overhauls in recent years.

As for the Second series English Electric Railcoaches these still have a major presence in Blackpool with the Twin cars and Ex Towing Railcoaches still in service. This sees 10 Railcoaches still in regular service although of course they look nothing like they did when built as new. The second series trams also saw an extended period of use as the OMOs with another 10 converted for this use but these have now also been withdrawn and the majority scrapped. The ones to survive have been OMO 7 (now the Replica Vanguard 619), OMO 8 (still at Rigby Road but owned by the LTT) and OMO 10 (now used as a Coffee Shop at a Conference centre near to Reading in Berkshire – the furthest south a Railcoach has ever been). Unfortunately because the whole class was converted into other trams there are no Second Series Railcoaches in original condition in preservation.

The final type of the English Electric trams were the trams finally known as the Marton Vambacs. Having been given the Vambac equipment during the late 1940s and early 1950s the trams only had service use until October 1962 when the Marton route was abandoned. Because of this abandonment the trams were gradually scrapped with the first scrapping coming before the routes closure when number 10 met its end. The remainder of the class were scrapped following the abandonment, all except for one of them. The exception to this was 11 which entered preservation moving to a few locations around the country before finally arriving at its current home of the East Anglian Transport Museum in Carlton Colville where it is undergoing a major restoration which will see it back in use in the next few years.

All of this means that in just over 70 years the English Electric trams have gone from very few to lots to 41 still in serviceable condition in Blackpool plus a further 3 stored at Rigby Road. There are also 5 in preservation (including 3 in America) and another 1 in use as a Coffee Shop. All in all the trams have had an eventual 70 years and who would have predicted back in 1933 when Railcoach 200 was displayed in Blackpool that some of its cousins would still be seeing use in Blackpool and celebrating a major anniversary?

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