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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Safety First

The terrible fatal crash on the Croydon Sandilands light rail system over a year ago which saw seven passengers killed in an overturned tram with many more injured, triggered a top level review of operating procedures and safeguards on UK systems. Further tram and light rail incidents, fortunately not on the scale of Croydon, but no less serious are now resulting in a new safety body being created to oversee all tram/light rail operators.

The Snaefell Mountain Railway runaway last year was a further disturbing event which certainly caught the headlines and added to public concerns. Most recently a tram had to be halted after a child's buggy was seen caught between closed doors fortunately without its occupant in his or her usual place. The fact that the tram was able to travel despite the doors not being completely closed was in and of itself a major fault.

Just how this new safety inspectorate or oversight body will function and under whose auspices have yet to be formally agreed - but its remit will almost certainly cover Blackpool Transport Services Ltd. and all aspects of the current system, both heritage and regular services. Fortunately the light rail service has been free of fatal incidents, as indeed have the heritage trams. Blackpool Transport faced serious problems arising from the last tram fatality which occurred at Norbreck tram stop before the onset of the tramway upgrade. A woman crossing the tracks was hit by an oncoming tram and killed. The prevalence of visitors in their tens of thousands in immediate proximity to the promenade tramway, particularly during the Illuminations, is a constant cause of concern to tram drivers needing to give especial care and warning signals all the way from North Pier to the Pleasure Beach in particular.

Of particular importance is the continued use of wooden framed trams in the heritage fleet and their susceptibility to fire risk. Possibly one of the more spectacular being the former Standard Car 143 which saw its lower deck badly damaged by flames causing its permanent withdrawal. This of course led to its eventual preservation and now ongoing restoration. Even more spectacular was the demise of Trampowers's demonstrator on Blackpool promenade with one cab end being destroyed by fire, with malicious intent suspected by its Owners. The Heritage Tram Tour trailer set caught fire through an electrical fault whilst in service near to the Gynn. Inspection of the wiring circuitry revealed an urgent need for replacement - yet to be dealt with; whilst consequent inspections of other cars in the heritage fleet found further issues requiring attention.

Germany's multitudinous tram systems in the early postwar period had to reinvent their fleets for the most part after the (West) German Government mandated withdrawal of all wooden bodied trams from public service by the late 1950s. This bolstered market demand for the highly successful 'Duewag' large capacity design in its many variants. In the past few months has the Italian 'Rittnerbahn' near Bolzano had to withdraw from service its classic vintage rolling stock and hasty replacement with metal framed secondhand units from the St Gallen based 'Troggenerbahn'.

Fatalities caused by local trams have been far from rare. The Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad Company suffered two deaths caused by trams hitting pedestrians within a few weeks of the line's opening in 1898. The Rigby Road Publishing title 'War & Austerity' covering Blackpool's buses and trams during the 1940s carries an annual list of fatalities during that decade with fleet numbers of both trams and buses involved. Surprisingly two double deck trams and two Blackpool buses have overturned, whilst one Blackpool double deck bus (fully laden) was completely burnt out in service without any fatalities, nor indeed serious injuries.

For some reason tram incidents seem to gain immeasurably more media attention than those involving buses. On the whole the record to date of Britain's relatively small number of light rail systems has been good safety wise, with the glaring exception of Croydon. However the sudden unheralded withdrawal of the Sheffield / South Yorkshire almost new 'tram train' fleet built by CAF and delivered during 2017 suggests an inherent problem requiring immediate attention this month.

Fire Damaged 753 shows off its scars to the world. Now safely back inside Rigby Road Works and renumbered 143 it looks a lot different. Image : John Woodman

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