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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Northwest Tram Revival

The news this week of a further order for new trams is pending to improve capacity on Manchester Metrolink's services with more than twenty further units, presumably of the same type as the current fleet, places Manchester well ahead as the UK's largest tram operator. No doubt this eminently successful system will grow and grow in coming decades replicating to a great degree the network of interrunning first generation tramways which clustered in and around Manchester. Below : the Manchester 'Standard' likely to endure well into the 21st Century.

The first low floor tram to be seen on the Fylde coast tramway (pre-light rail) in 2006.

Under test by Trampower in cooperation with BTS. Starr Gate terminus.

Slightly further north the City of Preston (yes it has city status) is intending to enter the light rail league as befits a thriving and increasingly important urban centre host to the County Council as well as University of Central Lancashire. Through the entrepreneurial actions of Trampower Ltd. with its aspirations of creating a wholly UK design build light rail sector, and joined up interests from the City Council, to Network Rail, Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and a civil engineering company based in Preston, Eric Wright Group - the potential for a new cross city service with street running in the centre is being activated. Ironically the former tram and rail equipment plant of English Electric Company still exists (in part) along Strand Road to attest to the singular importance of Preston in originating tramcar development.

Twenty miles west of Preston is of course Blackpool with its well known affinity to electric tram operation (from 1885 and still going strong). Not only has Blackpool's successive transport management provided a working platform for practical testing of new equipment and technologies over a century - but it continues this role to the present day through providing temporary covered storage for the Preston 'Guild Line' experimental design built for Trampower Ltd. Blackpool Transport Services Ltd. and Blackpool Council who own the tramway infrastructure, depot and workshops have been willing partners in supporting industry innovation over the years. While it is not intended that the 'Guild Line' UK built prototype vehicle will be test run on the new upgraded Blackpool system, it is at a minimum a practical example of joined up cooperation between two neighbouring authorities in Lancashire.

The Blackpool operation is set to extend its service (possibly coinciding with Brexit!) with a short street running link to the town's railway station, thus replicating in part a much earlier investment (1898) with a similar newbuild tramway that terminated also next to the then Talbot Road Railway Station (as it was known up to the 1930s). So what goes around comes around and we await with pleasure sight of destination screens (or their current counterparts) displaying 'Fleetwood via Blackpool North' or similar compositions in 2019. Whilst Manchester is planning to order twenty new trams to strengthen its existing capacity, Blackpool more modestly has acquired just two further trams in 2018 in anticipation of its further service needs. We suspect this will not be enough and more units will be necessary as the station extension beds down as it were. This in turn prompts the need for an expanded depot whether at Starr Gate or alternative site along the coast.

Wyre Dock Development in conjunction with partners and interested companies is also planning for joined up rail links in Fleetwood. These include the creation of a dockside tourist loop using some of the FHLT cars and potentially others, as well as reactivating the dormant Poulton to Fleetwood railway line which runs into Wyre Dock on right of way presently owned by Network Rail. A briefing by the new Transport for the North (TFN) in Blackpool this past week will lead to focussed exchanges on the Fleetwood 'connection' in due course. Blackpool Transport will inevitably (and rightly) be involved in formative exchanges aimed at strengthening overall the Fylde coast's light rail assets bringing into play further extensions and interrunning (tramtrain) options medium and long term.

All in all the future looks bright for tram development in the northwest, although admittedly the aspirations of Liverpool/Merseyside has had to make do with the improving Merseyrail electric services undergoing significant infrastructure upgrade in rolling stock and stations. Driving alongside the centre reservations leading into the city centre this week and realising the potential some of these provide for light rail operation, is a saddening experience when set against the deliverables evident in Manchester. Never say never as in the case of towns and cities in the USA; as well as in France which really knows how to create stylish new tramways within city centre regeneration and economic development strategies. We lag far behind in light rail investment - but green shoots are at least evident on Talbot Road as well as in Preston and Manchester. More of this anon.

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