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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Illuminations are with us again

Oops - this is a Heritage Tour par excellence passing the GPO on Abingdon Street - a unique journey for the Western Train at the very beginning of its long working life.

Our 2016 Calendar is themed to Blackpool's illuminated trams through the years with some wonderful creations that captivated visitors from the mid 1920s to the present day. Apart from a double deck traditional type tram which first appeared in 1911 with external lighting special effects (68) the illuminated 'floats' ran without passengers except on rare occasions that the General Manager hosted a private party - or for a press event. It wasn't until 1958 that the construction of the 'Blackpool Belle' - an amazing creation built on the frame of a 1926 open toastrack (163) was designed in such a way to carry fare paying passengers on outward facing wooden seats on 'deck'. The 'Belle' got more than its share of media coverage with that year's Switch-On' held traditionally on the Town Hall balcony in Talbot Square featuring a buxom Jayne Mansfield - all the way from Hollywood. The star was then photographed on the 'prow' of the new illuminated tram with images flashing across the world.

The 'Belle' sadly heading for pastures new and eventual oblivion in the USA. Image : John Woodman Archive

This launch set the pace for a sequence of equally dramatic new illuminated trams appearing over the next few years whilst the early examples (non passenger carrying and thus non revenue earning) were consigned to the scrap yard. A further twist in covering the costs of Rigby Road's labours came through sponsorship starting with the ambitious 'Western Train' which carried ABC Television logo and branding. This reappeared in the major rebuilding of both the 'locomotive' and the 'carriage' under a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which called for the original appearance of the 'twin set' as a condition of the funding. An equally impressive creation was 'Tramnik One' built on the frame of a withdrawn 'Pantograph' car - 168, and like its predecessor the 'Belle' its construction was entirely funded by the Transport Department.

Thereafter the 'Hovertram' and 'Frigate' both came with sponsorship, as did much later the 'Trawler' which also cleverly doubled up as a service car in its new format. The latter is nearing a major upgrade with extensive new lighting technology fitted on the 'vessel'. We cannot forget the two 'Standard' trams 158 and 159 which were given a repaint and embellished with external lights - providing both illuminated tour capacity, as well as being able to operate as summer season extras on the Promenade.

The new sponsor of the magnificent 'Hovertram' following withdrawal of Shell who funded the transformation of this former English Electric railcoach 222 into a high capacity double deck tram. After some extended travels the 'Hovertram' is due to return to the place of its creation - Rigby Road. Image : John Woodman Archive

We are fortunate inasmuch from this flourishing of creativity at Rigby Road Works from the late 1950s, the Rocket, Western Train, Hovertram, Frigate and much later the Trawler are still with us in one way or another. One of the Standards is also alive and well at the excellent EATMS transport museum near Lowestoft - returned to its unilluminated state. Against this we lost the 'Gondola', 'Lifeboat' 'Progress Car of 1949', and the 'Belle' which sailed into the sunset having crossed the Atlantic on withdrawal. Other tramway contributions to the special effects of the annual autumn display have sadly disappeared; namely the illuminated panels in the tower gantrys on service cars and the strings of coloured lights which were a feature on the open 'boat' cars (also with their gantry panels back lit). Tram shelters with outlined lighting and sometimes rooftop displays (not much chance of that now of course).

Reappearance shortly of the 'Trawler' through sponsorship of the Lofthouse Family and several private contributions will revive the role of the illuminated trams this year in this autumnal spectacle. Hopefully this won't be the last such initiative.

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