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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Endangered Species - Wild Designs ?

In the beginning the electric tram era followed literally on the rails of equine motive power with relatively small two axle cars and open tops. Coachwork design was much the same although dispensing with limitations of horses meant heavier and somewhat larger frames and dimensions. It was not long before these basic designs morphed into much larger versions with bogies giving underpinning for lengthened bodywork. The largest electric trams in the United Kingdom naturally appeared in Blackpool even before the turn of the century in 1894 with the 'Lancaster Palace' cars and then the fearsome double end staircase 'Dreadnoughts'. Blackpool's huge growth in popularity for the working classes of industrial Lancashire able to access the seaside town by the 'excursion' trains laid on by Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway and London and North Western Railway - saw enormous demand overwhelming the original diminutive ten strong conduit cars.

Similarly other urban conurbations building lines to new housing suburbs found it necessary to provide fleets of larger trams capable of handling peak hour demand. Manchester, Birmingham, London with its two main company owned systems as well as the London County Council network, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Blackburn, Burnley, etc being obvious examples. Other operators more conservative or cash strapped, opted to stick with two axle trams, Belfast, Bristol, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Hull among many systems noted for these limitations on their fleet dimensions. In quite a number of cases this had more to do with topography and the hilly nature of their tram routes.

Other systems such as Liverpool favoured two axle trams until demand or accidents obliged a change of tack. The bogie car came into its own after World War One (The Great War) as tram design and development blossomed, whilst the smaller operators found it hard going financially to reinvest in new infrastructure and cars opting instead for the lesser capital costs of motor buses or trolleybuses.

Britain never saw need for experimenting with articulated tram design. Trailers were even frowned upon by government overseeing bodies but tolerated in circumstances of the Great War when manpower was constrained for obvious reasons of the bloodletting on the Western Front a short distance away across the English Channel in Flanders. A tentative stab at articulated trams was considered for Blackpool's line to Fleetwood but came to nothing, the English Electric company's designers finding more responsive interest in the high loading needs of the British owned system in Calcutta. Here a very successful Preston designed articulated model was introduced in the early 1930s, whilst the other large tramway on the sub-continent (and British owned) favoured operation of large double deck bogie cars to handle their peak loadings. Elsewhere in South Africa similarly double deck cars with large capacities were the norm.

Following yet another world war both large bogie cars were built and rebuilt across the continent of Europe - with the famous German Duwag company model emerging quickly in 1951 setting the template for the next generation of trams in that large market. These very quickly morphed into articulated versions 'Grossraumwagen' appearing monotonously in systems from Copenhagen to Vienna. The eastern bloc countries stuck for the most part with four axle trams usually hauling trailers. East Germany keeping faith with two axle cars for the most part, given their constrained economic condition.

The next wave of tram development saw modular designs emerging with consolidation of regional builders into a handful of corporates acquiring existing businesses and integrating them into market wide spheres of influence. The collapse of the communist system impacted almost immediately on eastern Europe including Russia with the sale of the influential 'Tatra' company in Czechoslovakia and its break up into different owned parts. Conversely France saw emergence of Alstom with a highly successful standard 'Citadis' design which now dominates that market and emergent new tramways as diverse as Dublin, Nottingham, Algiers, Melbourne, etc. Its competitors Bombardier and Siemens also now face new builders in Poland, Russia, China and the Czech Republic - all chasing what become hard fought fights over new systems and fleet expansion contracts. The largest in the UK of course being Manchester Metrolink's makeover and expansion won by Bombardier. The next being the similar upgrade and fleet replacement requirement of Newcastle's metro system. The problem with the UK is that its entire light rail procurement policy is dependent on imported rolling stock almost 100% manufactured and assembled elsewhere in Europe. This includes Blackpool's modest requirement in which a further two Bombardier cars are likely to be delivered to Starr Gate shortly from their European assembly plant - joining the existing 16 strong fleet of remarkably noisy 'Flexity' models.

The four axle intregral construction tram as we knew it is also becoming extinct. Its once secure role in urban systems is diminishing rapidly. Vienna and Toronto which were up until recently identified by smart (and both red) bogie tramcars are giving way to articulated fleet replacements with modular units linked together to various lengths. These changes are accompanied by a wild effort to transform trams from conservatively styled appearance appealing to civic pride and local identity - into splashes of computer designed artwork. Some systems have held off (fought off) the latest graphic design approach to retain a vestige of one might say classical features - whilst others have gone with the flow - Blackpool among them.

Whereas one can readily identify and associate London with its red double deck buses, or Zurich or Munich with smart blue and white trams, or Hong Kong with its green double deck trams (all two axle) - among many systems which adhere to traditional values of their communities which associate and identify with fundamental aspects of local life and ambience - there is a tasteless and rabid tendency to allow external interests and influences to erode completely an established and accepted order.

Not so in Zurich however which sticks closely to a proud and absolutely immaculate daily output of blue and white, trams and buses - below.

And Prague's transport operator which stays close to the red and light cream of its own amazing tramway network - even though the Tatra models (above) are giving way to new designs but all manufactured in the Czech Republic - local jobs please.

One looks at the wildly inappropriate theme colours adorning West Midlands tramway and compare it to the reassuring and distinctive yellow of the Newcastle Metro system which has provided a continuum from that city's earliest years of public transport. The Lothian Region's decision to maintain a favoured livery and colours adorning both trams and buses making Scotland's capital city so distinctive and immediately identifiable is evidence that tradition works.. The appeal of Blackpool's green and cream trams on their promenade heritage tours, and the duo of similarly painted buses in service - go to show a public sympathy for an earlier era of the town's transport scene, even if it too was the result of an abrupt change of style in 1933 brought about the personal whim of a new Manager. In fact management changes themselves are arbiters, or at least influencers on how a transport fleet's once familiar look can change overnight. Blackpool of course being a classic example of this over four successive managers of this still public owned operation.

So not only are the 'traditional' composition and design of trams (or light rail vehicles as we are encouraged to term them by the industry - ie builders of expensive hardware) morphing into off the shelf modular units cobbled together, and not always successfully, but their overall styling is moreor less directly controlled and originating with anonymous computer graphics designers in a far off equally anonymous setting. Unless there is a strong local fist gripping policy and mandating appearance, style and conformity - then the traditions of well over a century of urban tramways and services disappears almost overnight. Look at Warsaw which maintains its own distinctive tram livery of red and yellow (unique in that respect I believe) to emphasise the renewal and growth of that European capital - with the 'Maid of Warsaw' emblem proudly displayed on the sides of every bus and tram; or the blue and white shield of VBZ - Zurich's exemplary transport operator keeping faith with its continuum of tram development and operation over three millenia.

As for Blackpool - we are where we are. The current image of the town's publicly controlled transport network is certainly a complete change from the rest of the country and predictable corporate operators. Soon taking over completely from the previous and equally distinctive yellow and black styling - the conservative and calm silver and grey fleet happens to be superior to what has gone before. Hopefully it will also transfer over to the light rail units which now look tired and pretty desperate in the Council corporate makeover of a previous team. At least then there will be uniformity throughout the network. And of course there is the little matter of the shelters and street furniture which would seem to have been either bargain basement cast offs, or emerging from some conflict zone. Appearances do count. Perhaps Blackpool might adopt the rustic styling of this shelter to be found on a Graz tram route ? As a nice change from the broken down excuses of Blackpool's bus shelters dotted around town.

The Graz green and pale cream trams fit in very well.

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