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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Those Amazing Workshops

Ive been writing about Blackpool's transport for the past ten years. Acknowledging the hub of this town's operations I decided to call my modest enterprise 'Rigby Road Publishing'. From the early 1920s when the Corporation assigned a large site to the urgent need for vastly improved facilities to handle the repair, maintenance and new-build requirement of the Tramways Department, this location has been home to generations of engineers, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, fitters, overhead power linesmen, painters, track and maintenance staff. A supporting team of clerical, stores and traffic managers together with accountants and payroll staff all ensured delivery of the highest standards of public transport by any municipality in the country.

From the immediate need to rebuild many tired and worn out trams from the pre-1914 years - to the decision to build from scratch a whole new class of year round top covered tram - Rigby Road Works mor phed quickly into an integrated operation able to construct new trams (and a handful of buses) during the 1920s. From there the same Workshops handled an amazing mix of projects that included of course the famous illuminated cars - some still with us. The new 2018 Calendar has a rare photo of the Western Train Locomotive transiting between the Works on the traverser taken of course by the Author. The Twin Sets, OMO Cars, Jubilee Cars, modified Balloons of all kinds kept the Works busy right up to the onset of Light Rail upgrade.

Blackpool was far from being alone in this marvellous application of local skills and employment to maintain and upgrade trams. Once upon a time the same skills were at work throughout Britain where faith in electric trams ensured successive improved tram development - and construction. Sheffield's Queens Road, Leeds had Kirkstall Works, Edinburgh's famous Shrubhill Works, and Glasgow's Coplawhill were among the long lasting municipal tram (and bus) workshops recalled by those of us with long memories and firsthand impressions. Liverpool's Edge Lane Works produced their superb streamline cars of the 1930s, whilst Manchester managed to turn out 38 home built 'Pilcher' cars which later went on to find new homes in four different systems.

Below : One of Coplawhill's many proud achievements - Coronation Mark I series.

The cavernous Coplawhill Workshops - slightly on a larger scale than Rigby Road Works seen in the final year of rundown when its task was the dismantling of trams (and restoration of the lucky few survivors).

Below : The pride of Edge Lane Works, Liverpool - surviving 'Green Goddess' 869 at the National Tramway Museum perfectly restored. Sister 'Baby Grand' 245 to the same style now operates on the excellent Birkenhead Tram Museum line.

Even smaller municipal tram operations took pride in homebuilt products that kept their services at the forefront of tram development during the 1930s. Brighton, Southampton, Plymouth, Halifax, Sunderland, Huddersfield come to mind. London's LCC operation opted to keep to a standard tram design with little regard for trends in the 'provinces'. Only the more ambitious and revolutionary 'Feltham' cars appearing in the south and west of London on company owned lines, obliged the LCC to come up with its own modern design with 'LCC 1' - but it was too little and too late to stem the ordained conversion of the capital's tramways to trolleybus and bus services from the mid -1930s. Happily one of the prototype Felthams and 'LCC 1' are preserved at the National Tram Museum - with LCC 1 undergoing a metamorphisis from its longstanding condition after leaving Leeds service in the late 1950s - to a rendition of its launch days as 'Bluebird'. Now this will be a sight to be worth seeing.

Even in the twilight of traditional tram operation Rigby Road Works was busy with midlife rebuild of the eight 'Centenary' cars to last them out to the end of service in 2011. Here is 648 alongside a newly upgraded 'Balloon' car fitted with extended platforms for future light rail service. Note the steps marked with proprietary signage.

Only Blackpool kept faith with its trams and maintained a robust and innovative Workshop through all these past decades. Whilst much of the original operation was reduced in size during the 1960s when even Blackpool had to give way to bus conversion of the street tram routes - a tangible link to former times remains at Rigby Road. The time honoured skills and equipment needed to keep the town's long lasting trams on the road remain faithfully put to work on behalf of the residue of the former fleet now recognised as a vital part of Blackpool's unique heritage. Nowhere else in Britain - outside of a handful of working museums and on the Isle of Man can such urban transport history be seen still at work. It is to be hoped that eventually the role and rare continuity of this municipal enterprise founded by Blackpool in the aftermath of the Great War will become an iconic new attraction in its original setting and still linked of course to the tramway it served for almost a century.

All Images : John Woodman

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