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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Blackpool Tram that Nearly Made It To Leeds and London

Testbed Railcoach 208 seen at the Oxford stop in its prime. It was a great runner.

Testbed Brush Car 303 showing off its new resilient wheel bogies (helpfully painted white for the media and demonstration running). The Vambac control equipment had not been fitted at this time. This would be subsequently installed to provide this sole example of a Brush Vambac equipped car. It continued thereafter in service based at Bispham Depot and could be seen on North Station and Lytham Road services. It was scrapped, along with 208, at Marton Depot in 1962.

For a brief period immediately following the end of the Second World War there was a gentle flurry of interest in modern trams in Britain. Albeit confined to a handful of towns and cities where transport management believed in the benefit of electric trams over diesel buses (and trolleybuses). Glasgow and Aberdeen were both investing in new trams and infrastructure north of the border whilst Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Blackpool, together with Sunderland - had optimistic plans in England. London's transport 'experts' had already condemned the capital's extensive tram network before the outbreak of the war, with a rapid trolleybus conversion programme well underway.

The interest of Blackpool, Leeds, Liverpool and Glasgow in potentially utilising UK derivatives of American power and control systems technology, as well as the prevailing dominance of the US 'PCC' car single deck styling and passenger flow format - was a consequence of wartime discussion between these UK systems.

Tangible evidence of this improved technology was soon evidenced in both Blackpool (naturally) and Glasgow. Glasgow's Transport Management went so far as to creating scale designs of subway and reserved track operation together with futuristic models of a Glasgow 'PCC' single deck tram, complete with centre entrance. On a more practical basis a prototype double deck single ended tram with PCC derived equipment including resilient wheel bogies was built and placed in trial operation - in distinctive blue themed livery (1005).

More or less parallel to Glasgow's initiative, Blackpool (never to be outdone in the tramway stakes under Walter Luff) and with less financial underpinning used two existing trams (208 and 303) to test PCC derived controls and resilient wheel bogies.

Liverpool after seriously contemplating a whole new fleet of single deck trams with similar technology turned about face when the full costs of modernisation were tallied up - and a vital opportunity was lost. Leeds having done its own studies on building subways in the city centre for new single deck trams before 1939 kept its council, as a new Transport Manager was sought (and political change in the Council took place). Given that Blackpool's experiments with 208 had proved so successful it was so persuasive that a sceptical Town Council approved purchase of sufficient sets of control and running equipment to upgrade sufficient (single deck) trams to hold down the intensive Marton tram service and relaying of this entire all-street route. There was an expression of interest in Leeds in testing the tram in service before that city's transport plans were agreed. This followed on demonstration of 208 on the Blackpool system to Leeds managers. Below : the superbly styled Leeds Vambac Car602 during its running days at Crich Museum

Below : by contrast the spacious wide bodied interior of one of Blackpool's not too successful 'Coronation' cars. These gave a very comfortable (and quiet running) ride even if their Vambac controls became a nightmare for Rigby Road fitters and electricians.

The more detailed interior panelling and fluorescent lighting had by this time been simplified following removal of the Vambac control system and fitting of EE controllers (to some but not all of the class). This of course is 660.

By 1950 London's tram conversion was renewed, this time with bus replacement, the trolleybus no long being flavour of this era, at least in the capital. Nonetheless the Light Railway Transport League (LRTL) lobbied London Transport's chiefs to accept the testing of Blackpool 208 on some of the remaining lines (including the cross river and important Kingsway Subway services). The League offered to pay for the transport costs of 208 to London in order to bring this about. Alas the LT was entrenched with its condemnation of trams and all their ilk - and this interesting possibility was stillborn. One of the Maley & Taunton bogies for Blackpool's first 'Coronation' car - 304 did make it to London for the Festival of Britain (along with a Burlingham bodied double deck bus) but that's as far as it got.

Walter Luff also offered 208 to Leeds for an indeterminate period. This equally tantalising proposal also hit the proverbial buffers when it was determined that the overall dimensions of the Blackpool car were incompatible with track clearances at certain key junctions in the city. This did not stop the importation of the entire available fleet of London Transport's 'Feltham' cars shortly thereafter however. Of course Blackpool went on to invest in twenty-five new trams in 1952 with the same technology as 208 - and came unstuck almost immediately, with problems arising in operation. Glasgow's 1005 found itself unwanted in its original state and was reconfigured to similar controls as the postwar fleet, and modified to double end operation which served it well almost up to the closure of that system in 1962.

Leeds opted to do its own thing with a local bus building company (Charles Roe) which constructed two exemplary single deck trams - one with PCC type controls and running equipment (602) and the other example (601) operating with traditional controls and EMB bogies similar to Glasgow and Liverpool (and Auckland). Number 602 can be seen today in the Exhibition Hall of the Crich Museum. Sheffield being dedicated to two axle trams opted to do its own thing and ordered 35 new double deck trams to a prototype design (501) built in its own workshops in 1946. No new technology being incorporated in this case. Edinburgh also continued with construction of its own two axle standard design again using its workshops. Both Sheffield and Edinburgh's products have visited Blackpool in past years providing a splendid sampling of UK traditional trams in service - but both have moved on since (to Lowestoft EATM currently and the Crich Museum).

Blackpool's heritage set up has three examples of the Coronation car in its possession; one - 304 being restored to its original 1952 'Vambac' condition through the efforts of the LTT some years back. A second 'Vambac' equipped Blackpool tram from this postwar era is one of the classic upgraded 'Marton Vambac' number 11 still going strong in East Anglia at the excellent EATM museum near Lowestoft. Whatever the current state of UK tram/light rail development - the years 1946 - 1952 were the high point of British tram design and build in which Blackpool 208 played a pivotal role. What might have been had it got as far as London, Leeds or Liverpool is tantalising for the traditionalists among us. Alas its fate in Marton depot is much regretted. All Images : Copyright John Woodman

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