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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Exports v Imports

The last British built trams exported to a foreign customer were shipped out to Sudan of all places in the early 1950s. Previous to that trams built in Preston,

Loughborough, Kilmarnock and the West Midlands - found customers in Warsaw (yes Warsaw) and a Silesian operation at Sosnowicz; Johannesburg, Bombay, Calcutta, St Petersburg, Wellington, Cape Town, Alexandria, Mukden, Singapore; and a host of tramways in south America, British built trams were sights (and sounds) in further reaches of the Empire, particularly in South Africa, pre-independent Ireland, Malta, Singapore, Hong Kong etc etc plus Porto, Barcelona, Athens in Europe.

The waning influence of British designed trams was underway in the third decade of the last century. Instead rival trolleybus, and of course motor bus, had picked up the slack with rising exports to Imperial preference countries and markets - extending to Canada, Australia and of course India. UK built railway equipment of all types, electric, diesel and steam power; carriages and multiple unit sets enjoyed more robust market conditions up until the 1960s - with British exports running on rails as diverse as subways in Toronto, suburban electrics in Lisbon, Irish trains of all types, much of India's railways and those of southern and central Africa, to name but some.

The rot set in by the 1970s - appropriately when the UK had opted to join the European Community (EC). By the 1980s when British transport planners and so called 'experts' (slowly) awoke to economic and environmental benefits of urban trams under the new header 'light rail' - little design, development or manufacturing assets were left in the UK for a new generation of 'trams'. A few exceptions were the ability of British Rail's engineering workshops in Derby to supply initial rolling stock to the innovative Docklands Light Railway; and to also build smart new trams for Strasbourg under foreign ownership. The Metro Cammell company secured the contract for the Newcastle U Tyne light rail system, with conservative designed rolling stock; and East Lancashire Coachbuilders in Blackburn were tapped to provide Blackpool's still municipal tramway with its eight new trams in 1984 - 88.

Privatisation of the national railway engineering asset in Derby closed down an important innovative resource : with foreign firms moving in smartly to fill the gaping hole in a reawakening tram interest in this country. The consequence is evident on the streets of every British light rail operation with equipment being shipped in from across Europe paid for by public subsidies and riders. One of the largest tram supply contracts in the entire European Union of late is the 100+ units built in Germany -( and transported by German haulage firms) to Manchester. The sole UK content in this enormous deal has been to add vinyl dots and detail to each tram's exterior - so much for local suppliers. Whether or not any politicians involved in the decision making for this (and other lesser contracts) ever stopped for one moment to consider the potential economic benefit through final assembly or locally produced content value - is now academic. Naturally our country's membership of the EU throws up all manner of barriers and regulations which impede any such benefits accruing to a local economy. It is noteworthy that similarly in Blackpool the Bombardier imports arrived sans exterior livery detailing at the cab ends. This too was sourced from a local firm. Ironically a northwest initiative to design and build a British prototype light rail vehicle intended as the forerunner for a production plant in or around Merseyside - was more or less laughed down by the army of 'consultants' hawking their expensive (and mostly wasteful) services up and down the corridors of public bodies whenever there is the slightest whiff of cheques forthcoming for yet another 'study'. Instead the UK light rail 'flag' is waved by a Lego type railed people mover which has managed to operate a handful of miniscule units for extremely short haul runs - no threat to those assembly plants in Europe.

Articulated trams were built in Preston in 1930 and exported to Calcutta setting off an extended transformation of that system to the present day. The initiatives of a northwest group brought about a commendable prototype intended for testing and application to plans for the Merseyside light rail scheme. Blackpool Transport offered its support and resources to allow extensive testing (on two seperate occasions - above). Regrettably a dramatic fire on the promenade at one cab end of the experimental tram brought this project to an abrupt end - but the principle of UK light rail innovation was briefly kept afloat only to be drowned out by European competitors and no thanks to the supporting cast of UK consultants and other nodding donkeys. Many years earlier London's tramway company - the MET launched an experimental tram 'Bluebell' which promptly ran away on an incline at Barnet while in early service killing its driver. This did not lessen the search for a modern tram for London - with the resulting 'Feltham' design from 1929 transforming the image of trams in the UK and leading to radical rethinks of builders such as English Electric and many other tramway operators. Image : John Woodman

Once upon a time Strand Road, Preston was the place to go to view the latest rail transport technology and designs - with delegates from all over the world signing the visitors book at English Electric. The remaining large assembly hall currently leased by Alstom is, it seems, destined for demolition - removing all trace of the time when at least one British rail and tram equipment manufacturer kept dockers busy in Liverpool, Manchester and Preston. Now its only the 'twitchers' waiting with camera at the ready to photograph the latest import via an east coast port - heading to a tramway near you. Happy days.

That all this infers that this country is derelict in its ability to train engineering talent or to create manufacturing capacity for the urban rail and light rail sector is far from the case. Whereas in France - a country which opens two or more new light rail systems every single year - and had foresight to support and sustain at least one specialist manufacturing firm to develop state of the art light rail vehicles of pleasing design and efficiency in operation - the UK's political establishment national and regional - abetted by self important hacks pushing their own agenda, determined that there was little value in assigning public funds to similarly promote a UK tram supplier. After all what do we know about trams ? They're just a nostalgic niche of a small fraternity of 'hobbyists'.

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