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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

old style locally built v the new order

A fascinating insight into the comparable levels of interest and public sentiment for what we call 'trams' and others term 'light rail' is the amount of attention given online to the current prefabricated modular products assembled in foreign parts, shipped to the UK and subsidised by taxpayers. Whereas the arrival from one port or another of the latest import gains initial attention - the ensuing service life sinks into background anonymity. A rebranding exercise (the favourite of Train Operating Companies to disguise lack of investment in new rolling stock) or the headline grabbing accident / crash brings individual vehicles briefly back in the news- otherwise their clinical efficiency in moving people from a to b is far less noteworthy.

The sentiments expressed for historical trams of whatever condition, from rotting hulks uncovered in gardens or fields, to pristine museum pieces of all shapes and sizes - are endless. This residual fascination is especially relevant when it comes to the rump fleet of older trams retained in Blackpool. The last traditional tram system in Britain closed in 1962 with the end of Glasgow's operation. Thereafter Blackpool's Council owned tramway soldiered on in isolation utilising for the most part wooden framed vehicles built several decades previously - (in Britain). A fascinating era of make do and mend brought forth a diversity of modifications and innovations by the transport workshop in Rigby Road as new staff took up ever continuing challenges of reducing operating costs and increasing (or at least maintaining) revenue on the trams.

Care and attention resulted in sixty and seventy year old trams soldiering on into a newly regulated world as Britain rediscovered the merits of steel wheels on steel track ( regrettably all now imported). The survivors from a long gone era are a continuing source of fixated fascination - even more so in their newly applied 'heritage' state. Whereas their rumbling successors receive cursory coverage and a ho hum expectation from the travelling public.

It is undoubtedly impressive that Manchester has grown into a major network - still expanding - of tram services. Similarly, the encroaching street tram service into Birmingham city centre beyond the pokey basement terminus at Snow Hill is a sign of things to come for Britain's largest conurbation outside London. What is lamentable is this country's total reliance on imported hardware and equipment. The economic malaise and disjointed north south divide is the consequence of successive governments turning respective political backs on engineering industry (with exception of the armaments sector) - and unhealthy fixation on 'banking' and financial services to create a semblance of 'growth'.

Above and Below : All now history - seven years on - new branding and new imports Midland Metro's Italian launch vehicles and Manchester's version.

BELOW : the yellow dots mark UK content on German built trams - the largest single order for 'light rail vehicles' - lucky Bombardier. Similarly Blackpool's version from the same company required similar 'local value added' in the form of vinyl decoration on the front and cab side panels - err that's it.

Whereas in the infancy of electric power and tramways UK firms were busy employing craftsmen and skilled labour to build all manner of rolling stock from steam locomotives to underground trains, trams (naturally), and all the accoutrements that were necessary for their operations, now all we have are eager corporate lobbyists pushing for purchase of equipment being sourced in Spain, Austria, Germany and elsewhere (anywhere but the UK).

As the headlines scream about steel closures in Redcar, Scotland, south wales and elswhere - we should give thought to the manufacturing base which has been thrown away or sold off in the transportation sector. What remains, for the most part is in foreign hands, free to opt for least cost sourcing irrespective of impact on local communities, or the fact that their UK order books are funded from taxpayer grants and subsidies one way or another. No wonder then that Blackpool's old trams draw such a volume of sentiment when compared to their successors.

Just how Britain allowed its great engineering companies to slide into oblivion (more or less) is a casebook of political ineptitude at national and regional level. Napoleon (I think) commented Britain is a nation of shopkeepers - one of his more benign statements on Albion. How true he was. The national obsession for 'shopping' overtaking most leisure pursuits and allowing our ports to be crammed with containers arriving on ever larger vessels to feed the nation's habit.

Now the ports are hosting streams of 'foreign' logistics companies bringing us new trams to photograph. Not much room for local added value in this equation - beyond adding some decals and signage before they enter service.The suppliers and their shareholders must be laughing all the way to their banks (mostly offshore one assumes).

Images : John Woodman

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