Looking somewhat forlorn in Rigby Road Depot - three 'Millenium' cars lined up awaiting a possible return to service on tours or hires in 2016.
Numbers 168 to 171 may not be familar to followers of Blackpool trams but these were the fleet numbers of the four strong Millenium class built by Hong Kong tramways more or less at the time as the emergence of Blackpool's own 'Millenium' cars 707/709/718/724. Hong Kong and Blackpool have something in common - they are the only two tramways in the world that operate double deck trams. (One can add the trailers on the Alexandria tramway as a qualifier!).
Hong Kong - like Blackpool, decided to improve on the 'look' of its double deck tram fleet by the turn of the century - and proceeded to build a series of prototypes, one of which was provided with air conditioning (171). These had a very different appearance (at least from the front and rear) of the traditional British standard tram style familiar to Hong Kong d and maintained for over seventy years. Appearing in 2000 to 2002 this quartet did not necessarily meet with popular approval and it seems no further examples were built.
On the other side of the globe Blackpool's engineers decided to revamp the Balloon fleet after trials with one man versions that took a huge amount of workshop time at the cost of deferred overhaul of other trams. The remodelled examples came in an extended timeframe starting with 707 in 1999 then 709 and 718 and ending with 724 by 2004. Vastly remodelled internal features involved removal of most (if not all) of the original interior styling and replacement of swing over seats in favour of fixed bus seat frames (but one example of 'improvements'). After work on the first three examples had been completed there was a pause before sanction was given for completing 724 which followed the same format of its predecessors. To say that the redesign was unfortunate is to be charitable. Gone entirely were the classical styling features of the Balloon cars in favour of a square ended box (albeit with rounded corners) and lacking any appeal whatsoever. The quartet were selected for inclusion in the subsequent light rail upgrading of up to ten double deck trams - after all there was little chance of the platform and door extensions making their overall appearance any the worse. Or at least that was the theory. Even more debilitating was application of all over vinyl advertising on all four trams - which they retained even after the new centre door extensions were fitted. In this condition the four venture into service only intermittently (when all else fails). An attempt to name the brave new design 'Millenium' was taken up less than half heartedly. So it is that Hong Kong and Blackpool would seem to have had parallel experience with tram designs sharing a common 'branding' and common fate.
Side on profile of a Blackpool 'Millenium' car with its platform door extensions very clearly in view. Both Images : John Woodman
Of course traditional Hong Kong trams have actually ridden on Blackpool's tramway. The unusual acquisition by Wirral Council of two new build double deck trams to the early 1960s design of Hong Kong's trams - saw them first tested (and briefly in service) along Blackpool Promenade when they arrived in the UK. Numbered 69 and 70 taking up the original Birkenhead Tramways fleet number sequence, they then moved to a new role on the Birkenhead Museum tramway - remaining there to the present day. The Hong Kong duo are very much in the shadows of the Birkenhead / Wirral heritage tram fleet with quite remarkable examples of classic cars from Wallasey, Liverpool and Birkenhead now in operation. A Warrington tram will join this local grouping - which has a further foreign import in service - this time from Lisbon in that system's wonderful bright yellow and white colours.