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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Fylde Metro - Lessons from Wales

The past weekend sees realignment and restructuring of rail transport in south wales with the Government in Wales taking over responsibility from Westminster control (but not oversight). The current franchise holder - Arriva Wales relinquishes its contract with KeolisAmey taking over and commitment of £5 Billion to renewal of equipment, infra-structure and operations under terms secured with the devolved Welsh Government.

An integral aspect of the agreement involves creation of a South Wales Metro system which dovetails existing commuter lines in the region, with mainline rail services and a new light rail operation - much of which (like Manchester and West Midlands) utilises existing suburban lines running into and through Cardiff. The new 'South Wales Metro' with smart rolling stock (brand new) is intended to transform the entire image and performance of the existing rail experience for commuters.

Blackpool and the Fylde coast rail services likewise are in need of radical makeover which can only come about through transformative restructuring enjoying localised leadership and management. Blackpool (with Fleetwood) takes benefit of its now 120 year old coastal light rail service which had origins through private sector investment connecting the two towns with modern electric trams (as they were perceived at the time). These utilised a new overhead power system vastly superior to the slow, smelly and unreliable gas trams rumbling along the tramway in Blackpool from Lytham Road as far as Lytham itself; and Blackpool's own troublesome prone underground conduit powered line along the promenade from Cocker Square to Victoria Pier.

sustained efforts by Blackpool to acquire the loss making Lytham St Annes tram service during the mid 1930s - with intention to integrate it with the newly modernised operation running as far as Starr Gate (and Squires Gate Lane) - was rebuffed by parochial pride (and one vote) in the St Annes Council Chamber. Had a wiser and more far sighted mind prevailed in 1936 Blackpool, St Annes and the north Fylde coast would today have benefit of light service all the way from St Annes Square to Fleetwood Ferry. As things stand there is now a distracting and cumbersome change over for visitors travelling to St Annes from a terminus on windswept coastal terminus at Starr Gate to an equally windswept bus shelter on the eastern side of a frequently busy Clifton Drive for a connecting bus southbound. In 2018 the logical benefit of integrating light rail and existing heavy rail links on the south Fylde coast are overhelmingly evident.

Blackpool Corporation took over the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad in 1919 and combined its trams and infrastructure with its own operation. Today the town is the smallest and indeed the only Local Authority in the UK (other than Lothian Region in Scotland) to own and operate a light rail service.

Blackpool Council to give it its due, gave its approval for extending the existing promenade line a few hundred yards east to the Fylde coast's principal rail terminus on Talbot Road and is to be applauded notwithstanding current disquiet over road closure and traffic flow dislocation whilst the essential street work is carried out. To their credit the Contractors are moving matters swiftly as images on this blog exemplify, with much of the tracklaying and road resurfacing being completed ahead of the Christmas period. Only the Promenade crossing will require disruption during the usually quieter January to March timeframe.

All of this is but one initial phase of reviewing and improving on the current transport structure in and around the Fylde. Far more efficiencies and strategic integration is required. Wyre Dock Development, with its own outreach to the private sector; consultation with regional bodies and awareness of new technologies for enhanced public transport delivery is proposing a strategy similar to that now evident in the Principality. By way of example a 'what if' overview of how the Fylde's rail transport future would look like has been circulated to relevant public and private sector agencies and organisations - and on this website.

Blackpool Transport Services (BTS) are leading the way in delivering enhanced bus technology for its passengers. Admittedly there are shortcomings in provision of clean, modern shelters and real time service information - but this is a responsibility of another part of Blackpool Council where shortcomings in delivery and performance are clearly evident. It is noteworthy that the standards of bus shelters elsewhere to the north and south of the Blackpool Unitary Authority are markedly better than in Blackpool itself. However the Council, like most others in England, is facing continuing funding cuts mandated by central government and having to juggle priorities in delivery of essential services. An easy solution will be to place the bus shelter provision and related infrastructure in the hands of a competent private sector company - or better still under the remit of BTS where it properly belongs.

Several strands of strategic review and options for the Fylde's transport infrastructure and services are ongoing which the Author is aware of. There is a high probability of joined up endeavour by both the public and private sector in realising some, if not all, of the forward thinking vision which was apparent during the 1930s. A decade when Blackpool's transport services were the 'go to' exemplar of bus and tram operators in the UK and elsewhere in the world - even Germany.

There is every reason to believe that nearly a century later - Blackpool and the Fylde will indeed emerge as a working testimonial to joined up engagement of new technologies , and enhanced tram and bus service delivery through private sector partnerships; above and beyond the proforma privatisation policies of another era. South Wales has the lead in this resulting from devolved government powers to Cardiff. Bring it on in the Fylde to create a worldclass 'Fylde Metro' where lessons have been learned.

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