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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Britain's more successful trams ?

A great deal of fixated attention is being paid to the remaining examples of Blackpool's double deck centre entrance trams - originally twenty seven strong in total. Designed by English Electric's Preston drawing office - this design found few adherents beyond Blackpool. The company's double deck example was part of a 'family' which started with a single deck version and prototype in 1933 (200). Whilst Blackpool ended up with forty five 'rail coaches' not one other operator followed suit. An open version (much cheaper) followed very quickly, together with an open double deck model (225 and 237). Both designs were also unique to Blackpool, with little interest from other UK systems. This wasn't entirely unexpected since nearly all other seaside tramways were in the throes of closure by the mid 1930s.

The enclosed double deck design came in the form of a prototype for Sunderland - the famous 99. This was of shorter length than Blackpool's double deck version but it is interesting to note that both 99 and the prototype open top Blackpool tram (subsequently numbered 237) had distinctive upright end styling. In fact all three Blackpool prototypes (200/225/237) required adjustment before the subsequent series deliveries - except the enclosed double deck version.

En route to Blackpool from Preston in 1935. One of fourteen deliveries that year of the enclosed double deck streamline design. A further twenty single deck rail coaches (264 - 283) were also part of English Electric's order book the same year.

Apart from Sunderland's solitary four axle example (99) from English Electric - only Darwen of all places was persuaded to take two further bogie centre entrance streamliners before the war. In 1940 Aberdeen opted to test two centre entrance bogie cars and a pair of two axle end platform streamline trams built at Preston. Inevitably the war put a major halt to tram construction in the UK. After 1945 economic austerity (sounds familiar) put a damper on further designs; except of course with Blackpool (single deck), Leeds (single deck prototypes), Sheffield - 35 upgraded two axle double deck cars, Glasgow's 100 strong Coronation Mark II and prototype Vambac single ended double deck tram 1005 (and six final Mark I Coronations in 1954) and Aberdeen. Aberdeen determined to pursue its intended 1940s contract of twenty modern trams, and having been rebuffed by Glasgow whom it approached with a view to buying that city's Coronation car design (now that would have been interesting) - it fell back on the English Electric 'Balloon' type, which in the end was subcontracted by the latter company, now out of the tram building business entirely, to RY Pickering. The resulting twenty new Aberdeen 'Balloons' were destined to have short working lives (to 1958). Offered to Blackpool's Transport Management in 1958 at knock down prices, this was rejected.

Thus the much heralded English Electric groundbreaking design which began in a blaze of publicity in 1933 and 1934 - fizzled out very quickly indeed. The longevity of the Blackpool examples has propelled them into this latter day pantheon; but in fact the design was already doomed from inception, with its requirement for a three man/person crew on double deck cars (and only 48 seats on single deck rail coaches). Blackpool's attempt much later to radically alter the centre entrance layout showed up the economic downside of this design. Even today with all the new bells and whistles on those examples provided with driver operated doors - a three man crew makes their operation still less than attractive, however appealing it may be to enthusiasts including the author. But they do make Blackpool unique.

Ironically on the continent of Europe (pre-EU and light rail) centre entrance trams were very much evident and very successful - at least in single deck form. Berlin and Paris both built up large fleets of new centre entrance trams through the 1920s and 1930s, with other cities such as Leipzig, Zurich, Rotterdam, Danzig, Budapest, Copenhagen; to name a few, adopting the centre entrance format in large numbers. But the UK's fixation on double deck vehicles of all types: trams, trolleybuses and buses, made anything other than front entrance or rear platform access unworkable. Only Blackpool perservered as a result of a single minded fixation by its Transport Manager throughout his twenty one years at Rigby Road.

Probably the most successful UK tram in an intensive service mode was the Glasgow Coronation car (both pre and post war versions). Robust and able to handle high frequency stops with capacity loading - they exuded modernity even in their latter days when maintenance standards had slipped. It is ironic that not one surviving example operates in preservation. Some will argue for Liverpool's 'Baby Grand' and 'Green Goddess' bogie type equivalent; and others will maintain the 'Feltham's' were the high point of British tram design. It is worth pointing out that 331 - the solitary centre entrance Feltham is just that. Again ironically 331 is the only Feltham operating in preservation. The other two being 'frozen in time' at Acton and in Kennebunkport of all places. Blackpool's 'Balloons' are set to charm? future generations in Manchester, Beamish and the NELSAM location (and possibly at Crich) - whilst ploughing a familiar path along Blackpool Promenade still with three 'Carers' at hand. Of course the 1979 initiative to create a ONE MAN operated Balloon in the form of 761 - ended up with Blackpool's highest capacity tram and this too is fortunately preserved as 'what might have been'. To be fair Blackpool's management in the 1940s was not entirely dismissive of other passenger flow options, given its participation in extensive discussions on the development of a UK 'PCC' model with like minded Tramways Professionals and UK companies. A pity these shared endeavours did not bear fruit through an imported US model such as the case in Belgium (and Netherlands) where the US technology really took off.

Photo : BCVM / John Woodman Archive

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