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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Best Way to See the Lights

Walk - the healthiest option and guaranteed to allow great closeup experience

Or - if you are prepared to stand in cold autumnal air in the dark - catch one of the remarkable illuminated feature trams - there are three of them (actually four if you count the Western Train set as two units). As previously mentioned on this blog the barren features of the Pleasure Beach tramway turning circle does absolutely nothing to endear itself to the public at night - particularly if you are a family with young children, or infirm or elderly. The intermittent arrival of one of the illuminated cars, or special tour tram, has to bring particularly inspiring relief at this singular unwelcoming starting point for much promoted Illumination Tours.

In pre lightrail days the much higher frequency of Blackpool's traditional tram fleet with certainty (more or less) of getting a comfortable seat (on trams with reversible and deep sprung seating) ensured acceptable, if not exceptional, viewing of the entire display along the promenade up to Bispham. Tours of the Illuminations formerly began either at the North Pier northbound, or later southbound tram stops, and previous to that at the three track layout at Central Station (sorry - the Tower). Here at least shelters gave cover from winds and other elements, even if they were of a fairly rudimentary design. Not any more. To assure enthralled children of a ride on one of Blackpool's star illumination attractions - an illuminated tramcar, one now needs to trek the family down to the uninspiring and debilitating patch of damp earth just off the promenade and away from the service stop for Pleasure Beach.

Blackpool Transport do a good job in providing friendly staff and crews to deal with the myriad questions and for the most part, patient queues inching their way forward (or static) for the next arrival of a illuminated tour car. Provision of seating, possibly some actual illumination, at the queuing point and even a temporary shelter, might just be a marketing step forward.

What is definitely a non-Lights experience is being crammed and jostled inside one of the low-slung light rail units with its crush loading standing capacity. Here, tinted glass, bright interior lighting and the immediate proximity of the standing load, a majority of whom remain looking at each other whilst holding grimly on to whatever grab rail is available; whilst externally it is just possible to catch passing glimpses of bright lights outside. Not so for children who can't see anything at all, other than the limbs of adults or those fortunate enough to be seated. Fat chance of getting a full view of the 'Lights' from that position. All the time roving conductors have to negotiate wheelchairs and buggies and their standing passengers to check tickets and obtain fares. At particularly busy times with multiple doors along the articulated unit, it is even more of a challenge for them to limit access on to the tram, or to direct those with very young children to an appropriately secure area within the car. These vehicles were never designed for sightseeing travel nor was the slightest thought given to this role. They understandably move passengers efficiently from point a to point b with optimal capacity. Blackpool's tourism led economy had in previous times ensured its tram fleet provided both comfort (seating of a posterior friendly nature for almost every passenger) and picture window viewing at a normal height day or night, as opposed to today's off the shelf imports designed solely for commuter urban transit. Naturally our traditional double deck trams offered exceptional viewing for those fortunate enough to gain seats on the upper deck - hence the former profusion of 'Balloon cars' supplemented by 'Standards' on busy periods of a much shorter 'Illuminations Season'. One which now drags into November, when it formerly ended during the fourth week of October and began in the first week of September.

There are of course still a sizeable number of double deck trams still cocooned at Rigby Road, some of which were funded and remodelled to permit their use as regular service cars on the upgraded line in busy times, including the Illuminations. One solitary example was in operation last night during our own experience of the Illuminations - Heritage Balloon car 717 was resplendent in its 1930s' green and cream colours. But one swallow does not make a spring - and 717 was the sole example of how the Lights were formerly seen to full advantage from a Blackpool tramcar. Our own viewing of the promenade last night was from the noisy but friendly (and warm) interior of a busy 'Velvet Coaster'. This brought out the magic of the illuminated fleet as they travelled past (in both directions). Naturally the 'star' is the 'Western Train' - as indeed it always has been since it was designed and built by the Tramway Workshops at the beginning of the 1960s. I was there to see the 'locomotive' emerge for the first time onto the works traverser in glorious sunshine - and it was impressive then, even without its lighting features switched on. Rebuilt with a Heritage Lottery grant much later - it remains an icon for Blackpool Transport and Blackpool Illuminations who are duly proud of the impact this one unit has on autumn nights. Now, if only some of those double deck cars could be put into use on 'Tour of the Illuminations' duties or just as 'Extras' working from Bispham to Pleasure Beach or Starr Gate - that really would be something worth taking a ride on, especially for the children.

Our Trust's purple display tram with its diversity of messages and images from social groups who contributed to its renewed image in 2017. My images of the excellent 'boat' car with enthralled passengers and strings of traditional lights were sadly not of the quality required for the blog. Not that these are much better but that's as far as I got camera wise last night...

Above : In far simpler times an earlier trio of Blackpool's tramway 'stars' at night. Note the illuminations feature on the gantry tower of the rail coach in the background. At one time most single deck trams on the promenade service had some special lighting fixture on their roofs - even just simple strings of coloured light bulbs. All these added features are gone now in the light rail era. Image : John Woodman Archive

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