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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

You Must Be Joking

At a Town Council Meeting this week it emerged that the Conservative Council Members now oppose the North Station tramway extension. All except one of the Tory Councillors (Councillor Galley who is a Board Member of BTS) fell in line behind concerns expressed by longstanding Ward Councillor duo Maxine and Peter Callow. Citing recent objections by taxi drivers, the Catholic Sacred Heart Church, and presumably others they have spoken to who are vocal in recommending creation of a new bus station instead of extending trams to trains.

As referenced in previous blogs here, there is a long history of Blackpool 'hackney cab' drivers opposing just about every tram extension ever built in the resort from the very beginning. Nothing changes in that respect. The Sacred Heart Church has had trams passing the same gates and fence line from 1902 to 1936 when trams ran up and down Talbot Road to Layton Cemetery. Similarly St John's Church had no problem in having trams passing its precincts on their way to and from Marton up to 1962, whilst places of worship on Lytham Road and Dickson Road were similarly well disposed to tram services until their withdrawal in the early Sixties. Ironically church attendance has consistently fallen over successive decades, while St John's is no longer regarded as a credible place of worship by the same Council, which has no problem permitting fairground stands and performance venues immediately in front of the Church's main entrance.

It was a Conservative controlled Blackpool Council (Peter Callow - Council Leader) which initiated proposals and planning that would have brought trams to North Station as part of the upgrade of the seafront line. These proposals were implemented to the degree that double track junctions were laid at North Pier to facilitate the extension to North Station. The same proposals also originally envisaged that the new tram fleet would be stabled on the former Blundell Street depot site. New (and expensive) crossovers and points were inserted to allow access of the new trams from the Promenade at the Foxhall. They still stand as monument to the chop and change style of the Council in those days. Instead of course the new depot was stuck on a Council owned property next to the seawall at Starr Gate - with consequent implications for electrical and electronic elements exposed to ever present salt borne spray and air. The new depot roof was partially blown off in gale force winds after its opening - questionable design or construction.

The current Labour controlled Council have persevered with the original (Conservative) proposal for Talbot Road tram extension to the point where property has been purchased which will see the abominable Wilko structure demolished to allow a new tram terminus within freed-up space; along with a proposed hotel and commercial premises in proximity to the station terminal. Planning has reached the point where the Secretary of State for Transport needs to now consider the final scheme in a formal application, and receive objections from the locality. Ironically local MP Paul Maynard - is now Minister for Railways as well as representing the constituency of Blackpool North which will benefit by the tram extension. He will no doubt be caught between a rock and the proverbial hard place having Blackpool's Conservative Councillors saying no to this important transport and infrastructural improvement; whilst Blackpool's Labour Council are intent on pursuing and securing approval for what was the original Conservative scheme.

Quite incredibly Blackpool's Conservative opposition are quoted as saying that the double track junction laid at North Pier could have been used for trams to go up Clifton Street, and not necessarily for Talbot Road. They must be joking. Just how this squares with wide bodied articulated trams making the sharp turn in front of the GPO ( soon to be rebuilt as a hotel) into Abingdon Street, when even the former Marton trams were not allowed to pass each other on this curve - and they were only seven feet six inches (Imperial pre EU measure) wide and forty-two feet long?. Perhaps there is (or was) some hidden agenda by the Councillors Callow to return trams to Marton?

A Marton 'Vambac' cautiously approaches the curve from Abingdon Street into Clifton Street after unloading at a temporary tram stop. One of Blackpool's classic Burlingham centre entrance buses approaches in the opposite direction on the 3A.

Looking up Clifton Street towards the GPO building (without the red telephone boxes outside). Bombardier cars could handle this but without parking on either side and requiring a very wide swept path at the top as they turn into Abingdon Street - no doubt with squealing wheel sets. But another set of road users and no doubt taxi firms would raise any number of reasons why trams shouldn't impede their way. Both images Copyright : John Woodman

I do have sympathy with many who have expressed the need for a central bus station or at least a far better coordination of town centre bus transfers. The fact is however that the original Talbot Road Bus Station, now a restaurant and gym, would have been too small for today's much longer vehicles to negotiate - and in any event it is already part of an integrated regeneration project. The changes on which service starts or stops where, and jigsaw puzzle of town centre stances is confusing despite the best intentions and information provided by BTS. The sad fact is that there is simply no suitable large site available within Blackpool's town centre for that 'transport inter-change' pipe dream promised by the Council with its wonderful concept designs for Talbot Gateway. Perhaps out of all this is the realisation that not only Blackpool but the entire Fylde needs a credible public transport strategy which builds on existing infrastructure such as the still protected railway right of way to Fleetwood from Poulton, the moribund single track railway which is fatuously known as 'the south Fylde line', of course the current coastal tramway from Starr Gate to Fleetwood (and hopefully the link to North Station) plus the especially wide Squires Gate Lane which is quite able to accommodate a tram reservation serving expanding business and industry.

Putting such strategic planning and decisions in the hands of factional local politics in a Unitary Authority with limited remit or resources leads to this kind of amateur theatricals in the town hall. Blackpool is the smallest community in the UK to own and operate light rail this was not by design and partly due to the originating tramway still extant but tired and badly in need of a total makeover by 2004. Failure to gain the much lauded 'Super Casino' madrigal thought up by a Labour Government and eventually awarded to East Manchester of all places (who didn't really want it and eventually didn't do anything with their 'prize') saw Blackpool gain a 'consolation prize' from Gordon Brown's Government in the form of assigned funds to modernise the tramway. This was in the face of other large urban centres such as Liverpool and Leeds seeing their (justified) light rail schemes being thrown out. So here we are in 2016 caught up in petty politics triggered by hard done by taxi drivers and a catholic church whose grievances are taken up by the very same Councillors who signed up to an eventual tram service to the town's main railway station - a logic which is evident in almost every other tramway in Europe. But apparently not here in Blackpool. If this is the state of Conservative politics locally what chance does the country have in negotiating anything approaching a credible Brexit settlement with some twenty seven aggrieved EU countries and a bolshie Brussels elite clearly anxious to keep mortar and bricks firmly in place?

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