The resources and skills necessary for restoration of any vehicle, whether rail or road, constructed originally with wooden body framework are very much now in the hands of a finite number of individuals and specialist firms. The days when any self respecting municipal transport workshop had on its payroll a fulsome team of carpentry and related craftsmen. Blackpool's Rigby Road Works was the very last of many such operations dealing with both buses and trams on a substantial basis.
Whilst the infrastructure of the Works still remains more or less as it was when Blackpool's tramway morphed into a light rail system, with consequent radical changes to its operating procedures and regulatory needs; the retained workforce extant in 2009/10 quickly became a skeletal staff to deal with the retained heritage tram fleet. The job of rewiring and modifying a core fleet of double deck trams to become light rail compliant was the final chapter of what had been a significant aspect of Rigby Road's longstanding role. Wooden framed buses had finally given way to metal framed and integral construction in the late 1960s, when the last of the Burlingham post war double deck vehicles (201 - 300) were withdrawn and sold off. Fortunately two examples are privately preserved (246 and 300) but now in need of major restoration.
Naturally whilst the bus fleet followed industry practise, the tramway side of the Transport Department perforce retained skills necessary to maintain, repair and rebuild wood framed trams acquired up to 1939 - well over 120 in total. Even with purchase of the metal framed (and overweight) Coronation cars in 1952 (and their demise twenty years on) - and the ten trailers from MCW also metal framed - the core of the tram fleet would be principally wooden framed. The Centenary cars (all eight of them) were the final delivery of traditional trams from 1984 - but summer and peak season requirement still needed a mix of wood framed rail coaches, balloons and motor units for the retained twin-sets. Even the two 'Jubilee' cars kept their substantial wooden framework from the 1930s. Rebuilding work on some 'Balloon' cars from the 1990s managed to eliminate wooden internal and structural fittings - but not entirely.
Purchasing 'Wooden-Bodied Vehicles - Buying, Building, Restoring and Maintaining' published by The Crowood Press in 2013 was an eye opener this past week. Very much a handbook for anyone wishing to embark on old tram restoration - it provides a blow by blow account of do's and don'ts in an exercise of considerable longevity and expense. For those content to simply ride up and down on vintage tramcars and photograph the few UK survivors kept alive at museum lines and on the Isle of Man - spare a thought again and again - and again on the hidden amount of work, skills and effort necessary for old trams to remain operational - however modest their mileage.
That the now considerable Blackpool heritage fleet has grown by leaps and bounds latterly into a close replication of that which existed on closure of the traditional service - is wholly reliant on a handful of key staff at Rigby Road Works and Depot - is nothing short of a miracle. Overhaul and rebuilding a sixty year old (and more) wooden framed electric tramcar in itself is a huge task - let alone ensuring its safe operation and servicing for sustained seasonal use on promenade heritage tours or private hires.
The FHLT have their own objectives, thankfully with a far more modest collection. That they too will require the same skills and finance in order to once more carry passengers - is well understood. Most of the finite Museum operations, other than that at Crich, are content with a manageable number of working trams using handed down skills and knowledge from the first half of the previous century, The Isle of Man has its own public supported heritage tramway (actually three) not to mention a steam railway with classic wooden bodied rolling stock. Buy the book, get to know what is involved in handling and restoring wooden framed vehicles of all kinds - an eye opener indeed.
Jubilee 761 under construction - with metal window frames inserted into the teak framework. Below : fine interior detailing on Brush Car 298 at Crich.
The last wooden framed Blackpool buses were built in 1949/1951 by HV Burlingham
A menage of wooden framed trams at Rigby Road - well almost (2016). All Images :
John Woodman Archive