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  • John Woodman

That Burton & Ashby Tramcar

The most recent sighting of Burton & Ashby tramcar 14 riding the rails again in England is truly amazing. It's of especial interest personally as I was directly responsible in organising the tram's move from Church Gresley or thereabouts where it was being patiently worked on by a dedicated local group - to America. At the time like many similar projects around the country, the tram's remains consisted of the lower saloon of what had been an open top double deck car.

Burton and Ashby 14 in Pennsylvania undergoing attention including fitting an ex Lisbon truck among other essential components. Note the new top deck seating and specially woven safety mesh on the side panels. Stairs and hand rails were also new and fitted in England with the end platform bearers. Image : John Woodman

Following several years of attention the body had begun to serve as the group's meeting place but the thought of Number 14 ever operating again was very much a wildest dream. But one which really did come true as a result of joined up effort by myself with Alex Pollock of the City of Detroit's Mayor's Office which had already organised the development of a heritage tramway in the centre of that city. Several Lisbon trams were purchased for the project, hence the narrow gauge of the line and hence the interest in finding a typical British double deck tram but of narrow dimensions. Burton & Ashby 14 seemed to fit the bill at the time, indeed it was the only car to fit the bill, although no doubt there were other tram bodies such as the Cheltenham car which could qualify.

It took some quick transatlantic phone conversations and exchange of letters to agree a deal which allowed the car to be transformed for service in Detroit. Funding was provided through a regional telephone company and endorsed by the City of Detroit. This allowed for initial work locally to complete the top deck restoration including stairs, the driver platforms and other detail - however timescales to get the tram to the US and complete the job meant its transfer to Pennsylvania as quickly as possible.

A specialist restorer, Bruce Thain, who had worked on Blackpool Boat Car 603 in 1976 modifying its trucks to wide Philadelphia gauge, among other adjustments, carried out the electrical work and fitting of a ex Lisbon truck on to 14 in a compressed timescale. I don't recall where the trolleymast came from but it obviously was sourced for the project together with controllers and handbrakes etc which came from the stock of parts which Detroit had secured in their deal with Lisbon a year or two previously. I believe four or five Lisbon cars were acquired for the Detroit line, including a rare cross bench two axle tram. They were housed in a new purpose built depot structure at the downtown end of the line and painted in a red and white colour scheme. The Burton & Ashby car was given a close rendering of its original fleet colours and detail but inevitably this did not satisfy purists back home. It did however carry its Midland Railway coat of arms and lettering and came fitted with an automatic trolley retriever on the dash - since bamboo trolley poles were unknown fixtures in the US. Below : Number 14 carrying the Light Railway Midland coat of arms a long long way from its earlier travels. The cross bench ex Lisbon car stands alongside. Commercial Card.

Number 14 was rushed through all this work in order to be a star attraction in front of Detroit's Convention Centre (Cobo Hall) where the Republican Party were holding their annual convention with Ronald Reagan being the Party's Presidential nominee. I don't know whether he got to ride or even see Number 14, but it made for good press at the time. The tram was a regular sight on the Detroit vintage line for several years but against a backdrop of continuing economic decline and government cutbacks. This resulted in closure of the operation and sell off of the cars and equipment. Fortunately another benefactor came to the rescue of Number 14 - this time back in England thus completing a wonderful story spanning forty odd years. It was nice to have played a pivotal role at the beginning.

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