top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

British tramways - foreign trams

Blackpool's electric trams on the conduit third rail power system with which the first company owned service operated from 1885. This is 'North Pier' C1892

In the early days of electric tramways at the turn of the 20th century and late 19th - it was the Americans and Germans who kickstarted development of new lines and

tram construction. Blackpool, along with a strange bedfollow on Ireland's most northern coastline - the Portrush and Giants Causeway tramway (hydro-electric powered at that) launched electric traction in the British Isles. Blackpool Council were persuaded by a Halifax entrepreneur Holroyd Smith, to forego steam or horse powered trams for the yet as untested but emergent technology of the day (it was the mid 1880s) - electricity. An insightful move if I may say so......

In that late Victorian era running a tramcar along the street with no visible means of propulsion was a marvel in and of itself. Towns with trams at that time assumed steam, horse or cable power was a pre-requisite for mobility. Not so on Blackpool's promenade in 1885, although there were naturally hiccups on the way.

The rush to acquire this latest transport technology, clean, quiet and fast by standards of that time - went on from the 1890s and by the time of the Great War most British towns and cities merited networks of steel rails leading out to new sprawling developments. For several schemes, the need to acquire the trams needed to handle services, saw orders being placed with foreign companies. American, French and German built trams would be perfectly acceptable (at least prior to the Great War). So it was that towns like Sunderland, Dover, Hastings, Kidderminster and others, along with cities such as Bristol and Liverpool resorted to overseas suppliers. In most case the designs more or less conformed to the British affinity with double deck styles with stairs and platforms at each end. In the case of Liverpool their German deliveries were of single deck design - with one batch provided with exotic 'pagoda' roofs then in fashion on Hamburg's system.

Blackpool kept very much to home produced trams - although its decision to order strange double staircase trams with platforms leading directly onto the tram rails at either end - was something of an anomoly and not repeated elsewhere. The coastal nature of the seperate Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad built in 1898 meant their trams operating this mostly rural 8 mile line were single deck. Some examples used imported bogies from the USA - thus acquiring the nickname 'Yanks'.

Thereafter from 1910 up to the opening of the Manchester 'Metrolink' second generation system - British tram development followed traditional double deck practise, except for Blackpool. Again, with the strong westerly gales sweeping in from the Irish Sea, single deck trams remained favoured when the tramway was renewed during the mid 1930s with an influx of radical modern streamline designs built in Preston (and Loughborough). Double deckers were of benefit in peak summer months and twenty seven arrived amid the shoals of single deckers.

It was not until the second generation revival of trams in the UK that new systems were obliged to source their product from Europe. British tram development (and construction) having given up the ghost from the early 1950s in the face of capital costs and preference for the cheaper bus. This contrasted with most countries in Europe who favoured retention and consistent modernisation of tram systems, large and small. Blackpool soldiered on with its existing fleet from the 1930s, and an innovative workshop which produced one man operated designs in the 1970s utilising the electrical and running equipment of older cars. The last UK tram contract saw new trams built for Blackpool in the 1980s. Thereafter all new systems coming on line were forced to look to continental suppliers which is the case today.

The ongoing political and procedural manouverings through which the UK exits from the EU means the removal of EU regulations from UK public service vehicle design and construct by 2019. The drop in the exchange value of the Pound against the Euro, currently between 18% - 20%, means the costs of imported trams makes the case for UK sourcing much more likely. Blackpool, along with other operators, has the opportunity to assist in kickstarting this manufacturing sector, much as it has done in the past by engagement with diverse companies such as GEC Traction, Trampower and Blackburn based East Lancashire Coachbuilders (now defunct). This is a lot now to play for.

Featured Posts
bottom of page