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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Going Back in Time - on a tram

There are a total of eight sites in the UK where one can ride on a vintage tramcar usually in the summer season. All except two operate less than an a handful of trams at any one time. The two exceptions being the granddaddy of tram museums in the Derbyshire Peak District - Crich (founded in 1959) and on Blackpool Council's seafront light rail line to Fleetwood. In addition the Isle of Man ensures its wholly traditional electric railway (MER) and Snaefell Mountain Railway (SMR) along with the Douglas horse car operation are kept operational to attract visitors. In Wales the nostalgic cable car line up the Great Orme continues more or less as built with its original four single deck cars. A narrow gauge line in Devon on private right of way has carved out a popular role for itself as a durable seaside attraction with replica cars to varying traditional designs running in Seaton along the banks of the River Axe.

The number of operational vintage trams understandably varies from one week to the next. An indicative assessment indicates; Beamish (4), Birkenhead (5), Black Country (3), East Anglia (4), Heaton Park (3), Summerlee (3). Crich Museum (12), Blackpool (15) plus the hybrid double deck cars sanctioned for light rail operation (5) and of course the unique illuminated trams. Both Crich and Blackpool have a significant number of cars stored out of sight, or on static display. All of the operating museums originated through volunteer efforts some fifty odd years ago. Some are adjuncts to wider heritage attractions such as those at Beamish, Black Country and Summerlee. The Heaton Park line operates within a large public park as an attraction. Birkenhead and the East Anglia transport museums are stand alone venues which also include buses (and trolleybuses in the case of Carlton Colville). Blackpool of course is an especial case which benefits from retaining its original tramway to Fleetwood now transformed into a light rail operation while inheriting original infrastructure and traditional trams permitted to run on 'tours'. The National Tramway Museum at Crich is devoted to the preservation of tramcars and their operation on a scenic line away from urban centres.

Thus just over fifty vintage trams can be ridden on throughout Britain on museum lines. Ireland (both north and the Republic) has trams on static display at Cultra Museum in Northern Ireland and Howth Transport Museum in the Republic. Other than the hybrid operation on Blackpool promenade - no UK heritage line has emerged as part of an urban redevelopment or regeneration scheme similar to examples in Europe, the USA and Australasia. Proposals for Wyre Dock, Fleetwood are drawing lessons from examples outside the UK and will be entirely reliant on private sector funding. Elsewhere the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland has seen from time to time proposals for recreating part of that famous pioneering electric tramway from the 1880s but so far nothing tangible has emerged. West Yorkshire saw a credible transport museum development near Bradford complete with new tramway and depot installation. The Llandudno & Colwyn Bay line still has adherents seeking to implement a tourist operation along a section of the former route - but without success to date.

Glasgow which saw the final closure of a first generation tram system (in 1962) retained a collection of representative trams for display. They have been exhibited in three successive locations culminating in the excellent transport museum on the River Clyde near Partick. Scotland's only working historic trams are confined to a short shuttle line at the Summerlee Museum in Lanarkshire. The National Tramway Museum at Crich was the beneficiary of donated Glasgow 'caurs' through the efforts of Scottish enthusiasts - in the absence of a viable heritage site in Scotland in the 1950s and 60s. London's trams likewise are now eminently displayed (and operated) at Crich through longstanding support of a capital based enthusiast group. Very sadly the official London Transport Museum has just a token display from a substantial collection of buses, trolleybuses, underground rolling stock and trams - now kept in store offsite.

Up and down the country there are individual restoration projects at different stages of completion pursuing preservation of local tramcars retrieved from fields, gardens and hidden sites. Notable among these are ongoing efforts to restore a Brighton car as well as a trio of Southampton trams in that city. Patience and persistence by dedicated small groups will see these through to completion in many cases. The Cruden Bay car now on display at a museum in the north of Scotland being a case in point; whilst similar initiatives have seen a Cardiff horse car and Swansea double deck tram fully restored. A cable car on the Douglas line was similarly recreated from dormant bodies and creative efforts of a small number of people; whilst Manchester 765 now at Heaton Park is a wonderful example of enthusiast collaboration and persistence over many years. One can say the same thing for the marvellous Bolton 66 restored thanks to diligent research for parts and equipment by a small team. Today the capital costs and regulatory challenges of creating new operating heritage museum lines pose almost insurmountable challenges.

Incremental extension of existing lines at Heaton Park and East Anglia Transport Museum offer opportunities given local authority and community goodwill. For real examples of how vintage tram operation can integrate and contribute to urban redevelopment with actual street running services one needs to travel to the US or New Zealand. The practical utilisation of old trams/trolleycars are on display in Tucson, New Orleans, Memphis, San Francisco (of course), Portland and ever increasing numbers of urban settings in the USA. The City of El Paso for example is working on returning to service a number of PCC cars which once operated across the border into neighbouring Juarez in Mexico. The project would be within El Paso as part of city centre regeneration. Christchurch and Auckland in New Zealand are similarly providing working settings for first generation trams now given a new lease of life. Hobart, Tasmania similarly has on again off again plans for waterfront heritage tram services using that city's unique double deck trams rebuilt for this purpose.

The finances of restoring tramcars have moved well into the six figure range whilst the cost of infrastructure is significantly more. Instances of private sector benefactors (outside of individual bequests) able and willing to sustain these levels of investment are few and far between. The most recent return of the Burton and Ashby tramcar from Detroit and its rehabilitation to operating condition on a privately owned line being a rare exception (in the UK). An entire mobile home development near Cleveland benefitted from the Owner's fascination with trolleycars to the extent he funded a complete operating line running throughout his extensive site and a large restoration workshop. I had the pleasure of being given a tour of the workshop years ago where an entire team of paid professionals were at work - many formerly being employed by the Cleveland transit system. A fleet of vintage 'trolleys' from as far away as Fribourg, Switzerland, Vera Cruz, Mexico, and of course Blackpool (147) were imported to augment nearly fifty US streetcars of varying types. Probably this was the high point of a private museum venture being realised. Sadly this is no more, Gerald Brookins having passed away and his family selling off the business for development. His tram collection being disposed and dispersed to other museums, with 147 having already returned to Blackpool. Its replacing 'boat car' having also found a new home with a working museum near Washington DC. Below : Strangers in harmony a Dusseldorf (Rheinbahn) car alongside a Washington DC traditional streetcar at the original Capital Trolley Museum site.

El Paso PCC cars after withdrawal stored alongside the 'car barn' - there were more fortunate examples inside. Several of these former San Diego cars are being given a new lease of life after decades of outside storage by local businessmen and enthusiasts. They will again provide a downtown service in El Paso as part of urban regeneration in the city centre. This reflects similar success stories in Dallas, Tucson, Memphis, Portland, San Jose etc where traditional electric trams add colour and nostalgia for times past within multimillion dollar development schemes. Images : John Woodman

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