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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Turning The Page To A New Chapter

The Government announcement today of funding immediate studies on the restoration of rail service to towns and communities abitrarily cut off from the national railway network during the 1960s has singled out Fleetwood to Poulton and Ashington - Blyth - Tyne line in the northeast as two initial railway links in the north of England. Concerted efforts of diverse organisations and individuals influenced the Government's attention on the Fylde coast and in particular the case of Fleetwood being given initial study funding from today.

Poulton & Wyre Railway's sustained work in preserving track, right of way and in particular maintaining Thornton's Railway Station platforms and precinct as well as its lobbying efforts to bring about a seasonal heritage train service using the available trackbed has to be foremost in keeping the railway connection alive for Fleetwood. Fleetwood Town Council's own 'Back on Track' public petition and publicity in recent years has made a difference locally and especially to the role of two MPs - Cat Smith (Fleetwood and Lancaster - Labour) and Paul Maynard (Blackpool North - Conservative)). Both have made restoring the rail service to Thornton and Fleetwood - especial priorities with Paul Maynard being in a pivotal Government position as Minister in the Dept for Transport responsible for railway matters. Wyre and Blackpool Council have played their role in being supportive of restoring rail service to the north Fylde coast; and in particular serving new housing developments, the Hillhouse Enterprise Zone (formerly the ICI works) through which the Fleetwood trackbed still runs and other community assets.

Wyre Dock Development and Fleetwood Heritage Leisure Trust likewise has made especial emphasis on creating a seamless rail connecting service from Fleetwood to Poulton (and beyond) as fundamental to realise regeneration of Wyre Dock and in Fleetwood itself. Their schematic of what might well emerge has been front and centre in discussions by diverse public and private sector interests over the past two years.

One issue which will become part of the business case for upgrading and renewing the railway as it presently exists, running on to ABP property at Wyre Dock from Burn Naze, Thornton and Poulton - is whether a new rail service should be heavy rail or light rail. The potential for introducing a 'tram train' operation out of Fleetwood through Wyre Dock and the intermediate stations to Poulton increases exponentially with the pressure of climate change and advantages of integrating Blackpool's existing light rail (tramway) coastal service with a larger Fylde system that takes account of BAE systems at Warton and extension of the existing south Fylde railway (such as it is) further into Blackpool, among other strategic benefits. A sign of the times ? Trampower's prototype low floor articulated (built and designed in the UK) tram powering through Thornton Gate on a test run in 2009.

Wyre Dock Development's conceptual rail connectivity schematic published in 2019: A step closer to being realised today.

All of these Parties must be encouraged that their efforts and objectives have met with formal endorsement and initial funding for detailed examination of how rail service to Fleetwood can be most effectively and efficiently introduced near term. Blackpool Council's arms length owned transport company (BTS) has an important role to play in any expanded light rail or introduction of tramtrain type service in the Fylde. Certainly there is no lack of invaluable public support for improving connectivity off road and on rail in this part of the northwest.

Of further relevance in today's announcements by the Government's Secretary of State for Transport - Grant Shapps (in Fleetwood) is further funding for expanding light rail and metro operations in Greater Manchester, Newcastle Upon Tyne conurbation and the West Midlands light rail strategy in Birmingham. Importantly a new light rail based system is being proposed and supported for urban centres in West Yorkshire (but not Leeds). All in all today's announcement is very much a watershed moment when light rail comes of age in England (and Wales). Cardiff has previously received its own boost to metro development with combination of heavy rail, light rail and tram train service and infrastructure development during last year. Edinburgh is pressing ahead with extensions to its initial tramway through that capital city - whilst Glasgow continues to hum and haw on progressing light rail proposals for that important conurbation.

The missing piece? Lytham St Annes opted to replace its tram service into Blackpool along the seafront as far as the Gynn in 1937. Funded offers to buy the loss making Lytham St Annes municipal enterprise by Walter Luff - which included upgrading the line from Starr Gate to St Annes - were rebuffed by a casting vote in that Council of the then Mayor. Blackpool went on modernising its buses and trams whilst Lytham St Annes made do with Leyland buses of no particular style until eventually the entire operation succumbed to takeover by privatised Blackpool Transport Services in the 1990s. Here is the only new trams ever bought by the Lytham St Annes municipal system - adhering to a outmoded style and entirely unsuited to a coastal system. John Woodman Archive

Blackpool's originating role (with Fleetwood) in hosting and maintaining electric tram operation connecting communities along the Fylde coast (originally in tandem with the south Fylde municipal borough up to 1937) needs to be seen as the foundation stone for electric tram development in this country. The fact that much of the original line running as far as Fleetwood from Blackpool's southernmost boundary at Starr Gate - is testimony to the far minded vision held by promoters and investors in those early pioneering days from 1880s to the turn of that century. All the more reason why this story of electric power's engagement with Lancashire (and Yorkshire) business capital now needs a permanent exposition and educating venue here - Blackpool's own Rigby Road tram depot and works being the obvious and logical site still in Council ownership and ideally located in proximity to the Promenade and visitor attractions (all connected by electric tram).

Exciting times are upon us - and not a a mention of the B word !

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