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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Centre Entrance Trams Rule - OK?

Whilst Blackpool may forevermore be distinguished by the centre entrance trams and buses which were introduced in the 1933s by its then new Manager, Walter Luff, and perpetuated with preserved and heritage trams running in 2017 - it was far from alone in this predeliction for centre entrance passenger flow.

Both Glasgow and Liverpool bought new trams at the start of their electric tram era with centre entrance styling (on single deck cars). Liverpool also trialled a centre entrance double deck tram of relatively advanced design prior to World War One. Apart from a brave attempt to move from open balcony cars to centre entrance single deck trams by Bradford in the late 1920s (it failed) - both Blackpool and Sunderland were 'sold' on modern centre entrance trams (and buses) by the salesmanship of English Electric. Elsewhere in the UK those systems wedded to trams beyond the late 1920s opted to stick with accepted British preference for end loading vehicles. Only Blackpool stood out as maintaining 100% centre entrance bus fleets (with a handful of pre-Luff exceptions) and mostly centre entrance trams. The exceptions being of course the 1928 Pantograph cars and the maids of all work double deck 'Standards'.

Whilst British tramways kept to their double deck styling and end loading, with a few exceptions requiring single deck cars, it was a different story on the continent of Europe. The late 1920s saw manufacturers opting for centre entrance models which benefitted passengers by the lower step level onto the tram's platform - and closeness of conductors to the entrance doors most of which were hand operated. Berlin for example ordered over 400 of a standardised type which used only two axles - these ubiquitous cars lasted up the very end of the West Belin operation, and well into the 1960s on the by then unconnected East Berlin operation. Paris had a long standing preference for centre entrance trams with new designs up to the mid 1930s when it was decided to do away with the large network in a rapid programme of closures. The lobbying and political influence of up and coming bus manufacturers would have played a role, just as it did in the UK and US markets.

Copenhagen designed their own style of long centre entrance bogie cars (and matching trailers), whilst Zurich acquired a series of similar square ended centre entrance cars dubbed 'elephants' due to their contrasting size from the hitherto traditional two axle trams pulling one or two trailers. Prague's large system also favoured centre entrance trams in the 1930s but of the two axle type. New interurban twin sets for the Mannheim interurban line saw a narrow ended steel body design, whilst Danzig's system under German influence of course, acquiring several centre entrance bogie types, as did Stettin on the Baltic coast. Now of course Gdansk and Szczecin. Budapest was another European capital with a preference for centre entrance bogie car - robust and durable surviving in dwindling numbers into the present century. Another European city renowned for centre entrance trams from the late 1920s was Rotterdam which acquired a remarkably standardised fleet of square ended four axle cars - unusual for their mustard yellow and black fleet livery. Number 523 at Rotterdam Centraal Station (above) represents this iconic class of which several examples fortunately survive in working museums.

Ironically centre entrance double deck designs emanated in the USA starting with the 'Broadway Battleship' Number 6000 - in 1911. Whilst other examples were trialled in the US the double deck approach didn't catch on. However two axle centre entrance cars were popular in the same period, partly to assuage the needs of younger female passengers following the fashion of the day with the 'hobble skirt'. This constrained the lower legs from stretching beyond a few inches - and made climbing onto the steps of 'trolleys' a challenging proposition during busy peak hours. As far as I know this particular fashion did not travel the Atlantic with a similar impact on UK travellers.

A bye product of US tram / streetcar design was of course the London 'Feltham' cars designed for the private sector tramway operators :LUT and MET in the late 1920s. Three prototype cars were built before a series production of one hundred were commissioned in a joint order for the two systems. One example (331) was designed for centre entrance passenger flow. It remained unique and was subsequently purchased by Sunderland - ever acquisitive in the second hand tram market both before and after the war. By good fortune and the intervention of Jay Fowler, a leading tram proponent and private businessman, this special car was purchased for preservation when Sunderland's tramway closed in 1954. Fully restored it can be seen and ridden on at the Crich Tramway Museum as a splendid counterpoint to the later English Electric streamline centre entrance design just a few years later. Elsewhere one of Glasgow's own centre entrance pioneer trams which opened that system also has miraculously survived and now a prominent exhibit in the excellent Riverside Museum on Clydebank. Blackpool of course topped the list of UK systems with centre entrance trams (and buses) thanks to Mr Luff. The 'Balloon' cars have of course now become icons of Blackpool's tramway heritage - with a surprising number managing to survive post light rail culling at Rigby Road. Our Trust itself has two in store in Fleetwood (710 and 726) intended for the proposed scheme at Wyre Dock. A third, much rebuilt of course, was transformed into the marvellous Jubilee Car 761 in 1979.

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