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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Tramways without overhead wires

Blackpool's own electric powered trams initially operated on the principle of power collection being drawn from a sub-level third rail through a 'plough' fitted under the car body sliding along a slot. Initially revolutionary - a moving tram with no visible means of propulsion it was a marvel of its time. However the system soon proved to have faults, certainly on an exposed seafront line prone to sand and stones being swept in by very high tides. Thirteen years later the opening of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad Company's eight mile interurban line operating on the overhead wire power collection principle with ''trolley poles' on its fleet of single deck cars (Blackpool trams were all of the higher capacity double deck design until 1928) - proved the advantages of this new system. The ill fated tramway which began service between Lytham and Blackpool using gas powered vehicles (a technology emanating from Dessau, Germany) saw its depot complete with the fleet inside blown down in high winds. A new company determined to follow the precedent of its northern neighbour by adopting the trolleypole system, but this time exclusively using new double deck open top trams.

Blackpool's municipalised system in the 1890s' wisely opted similarly to do away with the cumbersome and now problematic conduit power operation in favour of overhead wires on the fast expanding tramway (Marton, Layton, Central Drive extensions being built in quick succession at the beginning of the twentieth century).

Only London's County Council continued on with sub level conduit power collection for its huge network - eminently more efficient than that in Blackpool, given its continuance up to 1952 with hundreds of trams serving the capital. Both Paris and Washington DC similarly opted for wireless power collection with third rail collection - each having an aversion to the sight of overhead wires disfiguring classic thoroughfares. However their suburbs were not averse to this advance of progress. In Britain a variety of novel power collection systems were trialled to varying levels of success - all with the aim of avoiding overhead wires marring civic pride (and views). Torquay, Hastings, Lincoln and Wolverhampton being foremost proponents of wireless tramway operation. Edinburgh pursued with its extensive cable powered system up to the 1920s' when a realisation that modern cities really didn't thrive on miles of underground cables hauling trams unless there was a compelling reason to do so - usually steep inclines such as those in San Francisco.

Conduit Car 4 masquerading as Blackpool's first electric car 1 - being painted for the 1960 Anniversary - 75 Years of Electric tramway - in Rigby Road Works - final touch up to the resplendent paint job - not authentic of course. But who cared in those days - certainly not the public? Image Copyright : John Woodman Archive

Today in the 2st Century we are witnessing the emergence of propulsion technologies which similarly are edging out overhead wire power collection on urban tramways. Already Wolverhampton (again) will see trams moving through new extensions sans overhead; whilst in Europe Bordeaux is one of many second generation tramways now opting for similar technology; although with application of differing variants. China is pushing ahead with hydrogen cell power propulsion for new tramways - even though this application limits the range (but not the speed) of modern vehicles.

Examination of the defunct Poulton to Fleetwood railway line and its potential reuse as a feeder line into Fleetwood where new investment is about to reinvigorate the town's economy is giving attention to now emergent propulsion technologies. Even more efficient use of the existing south Fylde railway (all single track with no passing loops between Kirkham and Wesham and Blackpool South's dead end platform) may well evolve into an integrated tramtrain system linking with the current tramway, as well extensions to serve the new Enterprise Zone at Squires Gate. The ultimate extension of the new tram extension on Talbot Road could well see a service running to Layton (again), Victoria Hospital and Stanley Park- with or without overhead wires. The times they are a'changing.

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