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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Way We Were - 5

From the beginning of the 1930s until 1957 - Blackpool's municipal buses were more often than not designed and contructed in the town by coachbuilding firm HV Burlingham which had set up a modest fabrication business building small vans in the mid 1920s. By leaps and bounds the company found itself as a leading coachbuilder in the north of England in the following decade. Originally setting up shop in Marton with diverse modest rented premises its founder sold out in 1934 to pursue a lifetime skill in cabinet making. This found a ready market in the design and construction of caravans. The new business flourished as Burlingham Caravans on a site adjoining the busy A6 road outside of Garstang. It is still there today but far removed from its originating operation.

A local contractor bought a controlling interest in HV Burlingham and the Eaves family were to steer the company to national fame over successive decades culminating in the 'Seagull' coach design which found many customers following its launch in the early 1950s.

Below : A 'White Lady' nearing completion in Burlingham's factory on Preston New Road in the early Fifties. John Woodman Archive.

Blackpool Corporation acquired its own dynamic new management in 1933 with the arrival of a strong willed General Manager from Yorkshire. Walter Luff's fleet modernisation and renewal begun almost immediately after his arrival in January that year favoured local coachbuilder Burlingham with Lancashire based Leyland Motors providing chassis for an ever expanding municipal bus fleet. Neighbouring Preston was home to Britain's most proficient tram building firm, English Electric, and understandably benefitted from sustained contracts emanating from Blundell Street offices in Blackpool through to 1939.

The quite remarkable transformation of this municipal transport undertaking within the space of six years was very much a root and branch programme led by Luff from the very beginning. His fixation on centre entrance passenger flow whilst logical at the time became an economic hindrance by the 1950s - requiring roving conductors (two on the large double deck trams) and limiting seating capacity to 48 on double deck buses and single deck trams. As wage costs took an upward leap in the aftermath of the war along with most other capital costs - and fares restrained to incremental penny increases - the centre entrance policy was immediately discarded by Luff's successor, Joe Franklin, when he took over the reins in 1954. But not before Blackpool had contracted to replace its entire pre-war fleet of centre entrance Titans with a postwar model to the same style - involving a total of one hundred examples delivered in two tranches in 1949 and 1951. An order for twenty five new trams ostensibly to serve on the relaid Marton line using quiet bogie design and smoother running control equipment - had committed the Transport Department to a long term financing obligation as a final flourish before Luff's deferred retirement.

The Transport Department's makeover was impressive to the average citizen at a time when elsewhere in Britain tram operation was in very rapid decline and urban bus services favoured open end platform loading of the traditional style favoured throughout the country - (with the exception of Blackpool) ! It meant that the town would end up as the last urban operator of electric trams in the country, albeit aided by the eleven mile reserved track line which survived closure of the town's inland services in the early 1960s. But the demise of UK tram equipment manufacturers and a halt to any further development meant that Blackpool's own resources at Rigby Road would need to support its tram operation into the future. On the bus side the town moved quickly to adopt larger capacity end loading double deck buses with little customised styling other than retention of a full front cab design in successive deliveries right up to 1968. Ironically this meant Blackpool became the last UK municipal bus operator with open rear platform double deck fleets, whilst nearly all others had morphed into front entrance one man operation from the late 1950s. Only London Transport kept faith with its well maintained Routemaster design - at least for a while.

Today the town again stands out among other UK urban bus operators - having opted to remake its fleet through a collaborative strategy with Alexander Dennis (ADL). One in which the transient fleet livery of the previous ten years was wholly replaced by a transformative and individual styling adopted by the current management. Thus from yellow and black to 'Palladium' and pale yellow on all new buses now finally edging out the last survivors of the 'Trident' era. An even greater transformation seems likely through the town's transport company moving away from diesel power vehicles to all electric models in a phased strategy adopted in 2020. This is expected to make the system entirely all-electric. Given that Blackpool is the only publicly owned operator of electric trams in the UK - having an all electric bus fleet covering its extensive services in the Fylde is a mark of progress in today's world.

Below : Not just in the realms of imagination. An all electric demonstrator on trial in Blackpool in 2010.

Not that this is the end of the story since serious exchanges are ongoing on the potential of a wider transport connectivity policy for this part of the northwest. One that seeks to better utilise the railway infrastructure running into Blackpool, Fleetwood and the south Fylde coast. Tram train operation is exceptionally noteworthy in the Netherlands, Germany and France - where new smart modular units operate suburban and interurban lines (sometimes without overhead wiring) - and then travel on street tramlines into town and city centres - removing need for change of modes.

Blackpool's eleven mile coastal line - mostly reserved track - lends itself to becoming the spine for an extended operation that takes in all of the south Fylde communities as well as absorbing the dormant Poulton to Fleetwood railway trackage (protected) - among other possibilities on the horizon. A whole new connective system would end up allowing Blackpool's trams in their tram train format to run into Preston Station (itself to be remodelled) - and potentially link with the Trampower scheme in that city. The economic development potential from these perfectly achievable objectives will be enormous and opening up the Fylde to new technology investments on large sites adjoining the fixed track lines. The Hillhouse Enterprise Park at Thornton (just outside Fleetwood) and a former ICI estate being just one important example. There are many others.

New generations looking for meaningful work and careers within easy reach of their homes achievable without need for driving a private vehicle on congested roads from the 18th century (in the Fylde) will be grateful to the visionaries bringing all of this about. Filling the same green spaces with ever more bland soulless housing developments devoid of any public transport access are gifting profit to firms with little concern beyond their order books and balance sheets. The evidence is out there for all of us to see. Ive strayed just a bit from the original theme intended - but one thing leads to another !


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