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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

No more foreign built trams please - £1 = $?

The news that Manchester Metrolink's latest and final tram in its 120 strong contract has arrived this past week places the lid? on the largest tram contract in Britain since the 1930s. The UK had several manufacturers of trams (and trains) up and down the country over much of the previous century. Blackpool, being the sole UK tram operator from 1963 up to the final decade of the 1990s, managed to get by with its own dedicated and innovative skills base at Rigby Road, along with working partnerships with Blackburn-based East Lancashire Coachbuilders.

Below : Trampower's design being tested on Blackpool's tramway firstly in ghostlike white - see here arriving at Rigby Road Depot and Secondly a revised version hurrying along at speed on the promenade. Sadly this came to an abrupt end due to a spectacular fire breaking out in a driving cab section during testing. Rather like the R101 Airship which came down in France on its maiden flight to India in the 1930s with a full complement of distinguished guests - the Trampower initiative has so far not recovered from this setback. Nonetheless it is an admirable demonstration of a UK new build capability waiting to be further refined somewhere 'up north'. Blackpool Council was a willing partner in aiding fulfillment of a ground breaking initiative - the first articulated tram to operate in Britain, with low floor capability and an eye to the domestic market potential for a far less expensive urban railed product.

All images : Copyright John Woodman

Tony Stevenson looks on with Tramways Engineer Mike Gibson in the background as the first Trampower demonstrator is gently persuaded to make its way into Rigby Road Depot for the first time. Operator industry cooperation in action.

A short lived initiative of a UK tram design firm saw prototype articulated trams tested on the Blackpool tramway in an attempt to develop a new all-British product with a local base in the northwest. This was the closest we came to seeing a new generation of UK sourced trams before the onset of EU constraints and limitations of procurement. The net result of this bureaucratic stranglehold on vehicle and product sourcing for the new generation of British tram (sorry light rail) systems in Nottingham, Manchester, Birmingham, Croydon, Edinburgh, Sheffield - and Blackpool; has been the importing of costly hardware, assembled elsewhere in Europe, together with everything from tram rail to signage and shelters.

Now that the British people have voted to get out from under the domination of Brussels and Strasbourg - and make a clean break from the EU - the time has come to ensure all future public funded light rail procurement requires UK manufacture and or assembly of rolling stock. Further, that all tram and heavy rail infrastructure will first prioritise UK manufactured steel, irrespective of foreign 'dumping' benefits. The chance to create from scratch a UK tram design, development and build sector is at hand, if not immediately, then certainly no later than completion of existing first contracts and deliveries and the formal date of exit of this country from EU regulatory oversight. IE end 2019. This means, given the forward planning and procurement timescales for new rail rolling stock, that orders being considered now should focus solely on UK sourced product.

The days of shipping (by foreign logistics firms) of new build trams from anywhere outside the UK should finally end - and for good. Given the Government's mantra of giving priority to UK industry, business and jobs - and more particularly in the north of England, as well as other regions hit hard by the sell off of manufacturing and production businesses to become shopping centres and housing estates, or simply left in a frozen and dilapidated condition - a demonstration of such admirable policies will be tested by where future tram building contracts are placed and with whom (and when). A whole new rail industry sub sector is now open to UK entrepreneurs and visionaries. A good place to start might be locally in Blackpool or at least in Lancashire - where two light rail systems have the potential for growth and route expansion in the medium and longer term. Other startups most notably in Merseyside and Preston, have made recent credible efforts to launch new tram/light rail operations. And even though these may have fallen foul of market conditions and or blinkered planners - there is no reason why a northern renaissance of industrial innovation and strengthened manufacturing cannot kickstart a myriad schemes. The days of Britain's focus on financial casinos and manipulative market making in London - which produce little, if nothing in real value, other than an over consumption of champagne and ever increasing property speculation in the south east and Home Counties - should finally end.

Blackpool's brave initiatives to build a few hundred yards of new tramway to link the coastal service with the soon to be electrified main rail link from the town to Preston and beyond - is just the tip of a much larger achievable programme for the Fylde coast and communities. Light rail to the main Fylde coast hospital and healthcare facilities (very large and growing employers in themselves) have to be under credible review. Connecting services to St Annes, and potentially the south fylde communities, with tram train technology are eminently achievable using in part the existing single track railway from Kirkham to that miserable dump of a station platform at Waterloo Road.

And then of course there is Fleetwood, wholly frozen out of the national rail network thanks to the misguided diktat of a former bean counter - a Dr Beeching. Here is an entire town, the largest urban area within Wyre Borough, devoid of rail connection, now suffering from monumental indecisions of road planners to the increasing traffic buildups from the M55 at Kirkham - and the A6 link road. Of course all this daily tailback at peak hours does nothing for Fleetwood's chances to attract new investment - excepting attention of rabid house builders who can't pass a green field by without computing the potential profits from yet another 'development'. Their monotonous bland schemes foretold by large billboard announcements and creative visuals of this or that pretentiously named development for those with cars (for local transport links don't normally feature in these profit taking calculations) all in turn add to the swell of vehicles pouring on to a finite road system which hasn't changed much in the past eighty years.

So - All-British built trams please from now on. Using UK designers without reliance on the gaggle of usual corporates pursuing ever more expensive products with bells and whistles more in common with avionics and the International Space Station. Brexit means Brexit, as this Prime Minister insists (Hard or Soft).

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