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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Leeds Vambac

One of the glistening exhibits in the Exhibition Hall at the National Tramway Museum in Crich is the only surviving 'Vambac' tram outside of Blackpool's examples 11 and 304 (at the Lowestoft museum of EATM and Rigby Road). Below : a not too recent view of 602's display venue at the NTM

Leeds 602 (and sister car 601) were to have been flagships for the postwar renewal of the city's tramways. Built locally by Charles Roe company (their only tram contract), the two cars were a derivation of an earlier design for Glasgow which was to have been part of Glasgow's 100 strong 'Coronation Mark II' trams in the late 1940s. Proposals for a small batch to be built as centre entrance single deck cars were squashed. Instead Glasgow favoured single deck trolleybuses as the initial phase of tram replacement; some of these being built in Blackpool.

Britain's efforts at tramcar development after World War Two were limited to a handful of operators, despite formative discussions among several transport managers together with industry to create the UK equivalent of the US PCC Car design. Unfortunately, (as ever in the UK), local politicians in Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Aberdeen and Glasgow intervened to overrule transport professionals. Blackpool alone in Britain would stick with trams after 1952.

The two Leeds prototypes were stillborn. Arriving in 1952 (along with Blackpool's more numerous Coronations - also built in West Yorkshire) the duo were very quickly relegated to a short all street service where their speed and acceleration (and quiet running) were least observed. Admittedly the standee design with limited seating was less popular (as were Glasgow's passenger flow standee single deck trolleybuses). Nonetheless these two cars represented a brave new world in UK tram development. It was of course not to be. 601 ended up scrapped at

Middleton Railway but 602's fortunes were providently safeguarded at the fast developing quarry line at Crich. A sole example of Blackpool's 'Marton Vambac' development in the same era (11) would also ultimately find tender loving care and eventual operation at the hands of the East Anglia Transport Museum.

Blackpool's surviving Coronation Vambac (304) similarly was saved and restored to operation through initiatives of the Lancastrian Transport Trust.

A further determination by the Board of the Tramway Museum Society to turn away a sizeable bequest specifically intended to fund the overhaul and return to operating condition of unique Leeds 'Vambac' 602 represents a highly questionable decision - at variance with the views of many (if not a a majority) of Members of that Society, of which I am one. Whilst a considerable amount of money is being expended on returning another Leeds tram (301) to its originating condition as London County Council 1 (another prototype doomed to be stillborn for that operator) - it appears an enormous grudge is held against seeing funds expended on a revolutionary tram that was destined to turn the page in the postwar history of Leeds tramways. Quite how the Board now justify their stance whilst happily assigning huge levels of workshop time to rebuilding LCC 1 - is a matter for Society Members to consider at their next AGM. An earlier project at Crich recreated a London tram to a condition it never operated in - LT 1622 - flies in the face of the judgement against accepting sizeable funds to return Leeds 602 to operation.

I have nothing against restored London trams. Far from it. But the arbitrary decision of the powers that be at Crich in respect of Leeds 602 gives pause for thought on how representative of Society Membership does the Board deem itself to be. Declining volunteers, declining, or at best, static visitor numbers; and what is essentially an attraction ill-suited to the economics of heritage leisure in the twenty-first century, are the backdrop against which the Leeds 602 bequest from a leading Society Member is predicated. What seems certain is that likeminded enthusiasts now considering donations for their preferred restoration may well think carefully before signing off on a beneficiary objective at Crich.

The multiplicity of vibrant options elsewhere; from Heaton Park to Beamish and Blackpool to Carlton Colville, Birkenhead to Southampton - provide worthwhile avenues. Having ridden on 602 during its days in the sun at Crich - and finding the experience novel and memorable - it seems churlish to deny this to future generations of transport enthusiasts; not to mention the heritage of the great city of Leeds in the 'Northern Powerhouse' we are encouraged to dream of.

What would have been far more desirable of course is if the Government of the day had pressed the light rail button on this city's long held desire to see trams returned to the very same reserved track arteries created in a wiser and far more sensible era. But we are where we are.

Regrettably Leeds Vambac 602 saga is likely to join the Brush Railcoach 298 story in what might have been had more visionary minds prevailed (behind closed doors). Trams that come with substantial dowries are rare indeed - spurning six figure donations seems curiously ill-judged and selective by a charity forever in need of external funding. If any enthusiast contemplating a focussed donation

has reason to assign funds to realising the return of Jubilee Car 761 to service in

Blackpool - be assured your consideration will be warmly received without any reservation.

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