All-British Low Floor Tram in Blackpool
Despite the disparaging remarks and sad comments appearing on social media regarding the experience of the UK firm Trampower Ltd. the persistence of its Principals in pursuing a British designed and developed low floor tram is to be applauded. In fact their initiatives over the past decade have been supported directly and indirectly by Blackpool's public owned transport operation to the extent that the very first low floor tram to operate in Britain (albeit on test) was along the seafront line as far as Fleetwood. So the new era for Blackpool's tramway actually dawned with a partnership between Trampower and Blackpool Transport Services Ltd. Even if it was stillborn.
In the 1920s and early 1930s similar cooperation between public and private sector interests with the English Electric Company and suppliers trialling new multiple unit control equipment using two former Blackpool & Fleetwood Company cars. Photos of the time show the impressive rake parked on Red Bank Road at the launch of this arrangement. English Electric went on to build new articulated centre entrance trams for Calcutta Tramways in the early 1930s, as well as some four axle versions to a similar design. These in turn led to new versions of the now standard articulated units which still operate India's sole remaining electric tramway.
Blackpool's tramway has provided other manufacturers with opportunity to trial their products and materials. Notably the ICI composite materials business brand 'DARVIC' was able to rebody both externally and internally a rail coach (264 later 611) in this newly developed material at Hillhouses in Thornton. The material was further utilised internally in overhaul of many Blackpool trams over the years. GEC led the way in commissioning a complete new tram (651 later 648) to trial running and power systems equipment utilising former Coronation bogies. This car was then acquired by BTS as Centenary 648. Today it is an exemplary heritage example of the final all-British tram design (less its experimental bogies) - built in Blackburn.
Below : A First for Blackpool - low floor operation courtesy of Trampower Ltd. Image : John Woodman
Trampower's proponents enjoyed good relationships with Blackpool Transport beginning with display of model static designs in Rigby Road Works, and extending to two successive test prototypes which operated extensively over the tramway in pre-light rail days. Of course the well publicised conflagration at one cab end on the promenade put an immediate halt on further testing - well founded suspicions suggest placement of old newspapers over resistances or electrical equipment in the cab were not of the company's doing. It is to the credit of Trampower that they have persisted with their aim of creating a stand alone UK tram manufacturing resource. Their current objectives being supported by various public and private interests in Preston (The Guild Line) may be timely indeed, given preponderance of coverage on the woes and limitations of rail links in the north of England, as well as the UK's imminent departure from being a Member of the European Union. This frees Britain from rigid EU public tendering constraints that to date have facilitated foreign manufacturers to ship shoals of new trams and equipment into the UK light rail sector without any, or minimal local value benefitting British workers and companies. Manchester of course being a prime example and Blackpool is not far behind along with West Midlands. EU mantra make it exceedingly difficult for public tendering to extend preference to a favoured company - unless of course you happen to be a French tramway operator, or German for that matter.
The case for creating a new light rail equipment supplier outside of the small cadre of current builders all divvying up UK operator contracts sourced entirely from the other side of the English Channel, is overwhelming. Especially if an alternative is going to benefit from UK engineering, technical and design skills; as well as local assembly and sub-contractors. Even more so if it is sited in the north (of England).
Blackpool has a proud history of supporting innovation in transport, starting with a certain Mr Holroyd Smith from Halifax, and also Mr Walter Luff. Blackpool's last 'traditional' trams - those Centenary cars were built by a Blackburn company with input from Rigby Road Workshops and engineering staff. Before that the famous 'OMO Cars' plugged a vital gap in the 1970s when staffing costs threatened to derail the tram operation entirely. These too were the product of UK engineering skills locally on the Fylde coast. Nothing has changed in this regard. These skills are in abundance - its a radical turnabout in procurement of rail, light rail and other manufactured products which involves the public sector purse which is needed.