top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The full circle

Britain's embrace of electric trams started, more or less, in Blackpool. Some would argue that actually its origins lay on the far north coastline of Ireland and the Portrush hydro electric powered third rail operation near to Giant's Causeway. In any event the Germans had beaten us to it in 1881 with demonstration of electric power on railed vehicles. Overhead trolleypole current collection was later initiated in Richmond, Virginia quickly sweping away all of the weird and wonderful formats used hitherto. The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad's trolleypole operation being an early example in Britain (although far from being the first). Certainly it was demonstrably far superior to the troublesome conduit supply along Blackpool promenade or the lumbering gas powered vehicles used to convey passengers between Lytham Road and St Annes.

Design and development of Britain's new urban transport vehicles also varied widely in the formative years. Suppliers from France, Germany and the United States saw a whole new market opening up on these shores. Liverpool, Glasgow and a host of smaller operations procured imported trams from manufacturers in those countries; whilst Sheerness opted to place its faith entirely in the Siemens company for power supply and distribution - extending to the use of bow collectors and continental overhead poles - unique in Britain. This particular episode came to an abrupt end with the lack of components due to Britain's embargo on German made goods from 1914. Sheerness closed in 1917 the first British electric tramway to end operation.

The UK market potential was huge from the 1890s up to the outbreak of the Great War. So much so that several British firms established themselves as primary suppliers (in short order) - producing the stereotypical double deck double ended open top type tramcar body still popularly associated with UK trams. The demise of the tram (in Britain) was in the main due to behind the scenes lobbying of the petro chemical and road vehicle interests - much as in France and the US. Huge amounts of capital infrastructure paid for by local taxpayers were dug up and scrapped, while vital skills of street tramway construction and upgrade, electrical power supply for trams, tram design and development were all consigned to a now byegone age. Only in Blackpool ironically has a semblance of such knowledge been passed through generations, albeit now in skeletal form.

As for tram construction and development - this remained in the hands of countries which maintained respect for the economics of moving people in urban corridors through steel wheels on steel rails and non polluting electric power. Thus today Britain is reliant on German and Austrian factories, as well as those in France and Spain to come up with modern trams (and healthy profits). The French learnt the lesson by prioritising Alstom as their favoured tram builder - with amazing results across that country (as well as other markets of influence). The Americans having given up tram development following the brief interlude involving a business unit of the Boeing Company (in Philadelphia) - also favoured off the shelf German light rail products for emergent new systems springing up across the USA benefitting from Federal Government grants. However the US mandated local content is required in all tram procurement contracts involving Federal funds - so tram assembly plants by Siemens and Bombardier were created on the West Coast and in upstate New York. More recently a Slovakian tram builder has established a new US manufacturing operation on the West Coast to build on initial orders in Seattle and Portland. Lessons to be learned here - but only if we break free of the rigid status quo rules from Brussels which favour those continental (ie non UK) builders.

For those noting down numbers and movements of fleets of German and Spanish trams rumbling through the streets of Manchester, Croydon, Edinburgh (and Blackpool) - there is little future in such pastimes. At least not for the benefit of the UK economy and the communities hosting these operations. Only when the UK can regain a competence to design and build modern trams will this niche hobby gain any meaningful attention.. The older generation of trams built with British skills are all now consigned to museum status. The residual remains (rump) of Blackpool's original tram fleet is well portrayed by operation of tours but this is a long way from the ethos of the traditional seaside operation which lingered on up to 2011 and still well within living memory of those bearing witness to the final years of trams in Glasgow, Leeds and Sheffield. Images : Copyright John Woodman

Support for initiatives to establish a truly British tram development company able to compete with the small cartel of manufacturers now dominating this market is something that could well be on the agenda of an independent UK - freed from diktats from Brussels. If this could emerge in the northwest even better: after all Britain's last new tram was a product of a Blackburn company in partnership with Blackpool's transport workshops at Rigby Road. So never say never.

Featured Posts
bottom of page