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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The Missing Museum Display

Blackpool's Tower, Piers and Trams are forever synonymous with the longevity of this Lancashire seaside resort. Whilst the Piers - all three of them - have survived in the care of successive owners, and the Tower with its equally famous Ballroom are now iconic emblems of Britain's seaside resorts since the late 1800s when railways transformed travel and access for millions seeking seaside enjoyment - Blackpool's trams have fared less well.

The once nostalgic ride along the coast in period cars with swing back seats and airy picture views has morphed into bland travel within modular designed vehicles devoid of character or any charm. Low floor design and lack of roof mounted glazing has made a ride to see the 'Lights' an experience well below expectations - unless one pays the premium fare to travel on an 'Illuminations Tour' operated by one of the earlier classic period trams for which the resort is (or rather was) famous.

Despite the fact that Blackpool was a pioneer in the UK of installing electric street lighting and introducing the then awesome use of electric trams along its promenade (in 1885) : an era when most (if not all) other towns and urban communities made do with horse power or steam hauled trams - the town has yet to recognise the importance of these forthright developments through creating a permanent and informative exhibition on harnessing electricity for wider purpose.

Marvel of the Age : Victorian visitors to Blackpool enthralled by a tram seemingly devoid of motive power with the top deck already full before leaving the terminus at Cocker Street for its gentle trundle along the promenade. Dont let the horse fool you it belongs to a private carriage which is behind the passing family group. Image : John Woodman Archive.

In fact recognition of the town's heritage has been lacklustre at best on a civic level. Only the impending museum of Blackpool installation being shoehorned into the new hotel development on the old 'Palatine Hotel' site attempts to provide a one-stop display of the resort's colourful entertainment history. What is sadly lacking however is a permanent exhibition of Blackpool's electric tramway history. A huge omission oft talked about but of which little has been actually achieved. Instead by way of compensation, a seasonal service with volunteers operates random survivors from the pre-light rail tram fleet to and from the Pleasure Beach loop.

Not one iota of descriptive information is on public display placing in context the totality of the town's everlasting involvement with electric trams. Even the cast iron tram stop placed at the North Pier stop in 1985 to commemorate the centenary of the trams and unveiled by the Mayor - has disappeared into a black hole. The town's solitary art gallery built by private subscription ostensibly to house and showcase paintings and artifacts of local history has been rendered as a platform to display crafts and work of budding designers from London and further afield. This is thanks to controlling (and funding) oversight of the metropolitan based Arts Council 'experts' coopted by our local Council no longer able or willing to undertake due diligence and meaningful care of the town's heritage.

Allied of course to the introduction of electric power (through a Halifax based entrepreneur) on the original 1885 tramway running from Cocker Square to Foxhall or thereabouts - has been Blackpool's involvement with an annual electric light display along much of its seafront. An event of which the Council and town was enormously proud over many years from inception prior to the Great War. The Illuminations Department worked hand in hand with the Tramways Department delivering exceptional moving 'floats' as part of the autumnal exhibition. This at least has continued to the present day; albeit in reduced form and numbers of special trams parading along the seafront.

The evolving history of the Illuminations and certainly that of the electric tram service are badly in need of more than the ever dwindling efforts expended over the past decade. Clearly Blackpool needs to present 'the electric' story in a far more resonant and pro-active manner given that the world has moved on as far as lighting effects and display features are concerned. London's Christmas lights, Las Vegas (another leisure led economy), China's amazing lighting features in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and even most recently Huwan, put Blackpool's by now tired and repetitive efforts into a less than inspiring experience. Lessons elsewhere need to be learned.

Any town able to field the still sizeable number of old trams reflecting over a century of travel - would by now have created a visitor attraction in its own right to draw all ages to what is fast becoming relevant in the new century. One in which electric power is replacing oil, gas and coal based energy - now seen as negative forces requiring clean alternatives.

The Council owned Blackpool Transport Services business has already recognised need for fundamental change in its own operation. After one hundred years of petrol/diesel powered buses Blackpool Transport is moving quickly towards all electric vehicles through phased renewal and replacement of the existing fleet (itself relatively new). A whole different infrastructure to handle and service electric vehicle operation is now required - probably to be installed on the same Council owned site at Rigby Road for which eminent planning is underway.

The still sizeable tram depot still housing an equally sizeable number of redundant trams from before the light rail changeover a decade past - offers chance for a makeover to create an educating transport visitor attraction. One that highlights the town's brave adoption of electric power for its first tramway (the town never ran steam or horsepower trams) and their longevity into the 21st Century. Into this new era which holds the potential for further extensions in a 'back to the future' moment, with destinations such as 'Lytham' 'St Annes' and 'Squires Gate' reappearing on vehicle displays, and probably also 'Victoria Hospital' 'Thornton' 'Poulton' and 'Kirkham'. In fact a brave new world will emerge coming out of the current malaise and human distress presently afflicting humanity.

The potential for a renewal and repurposing of the large tram depot site off Hopton Road and adjoining property would do wonders for the now down at heel area along Lytham Road. Once a thriving commercial artery for much of its length as far as Royal Oak and Station Road - Lytham Road is very much in need of regeneration and renewal. Band aid efforts to makeover Royal Oak traffic junction have so far been the only evidence of concern over this part of the town's infrastructure. Possibly bringing trams back along this important artery all the way to the retail and economic developments along Squires Gate Lane - may well emerge at some point, particularly if tram-train operation does in fact become a feature of integrated rail travel on the Fylde coast with all important 'connectivity' - which seems to be the political buzzword of the moment.

Beginning with a total revamp of the tram depot to become a visitor led focal point telling the story of Blackpool's involvement with electric power over three centuries - would be a good start for these endeavours. Keeping a core fleet of operable examples for seasonal duties and hires is commendable; but attempting to maintain each and every single tram still extant is economically beyond any capable resource (or budget). Space in Rigby Road Depot to display the town's tram history with insightful and interactive presentations would harness interest of new generations; as will focussed restoration of select examples using local craft skills with a permanent apprenticeship programme in harness to the Blackpool & Fylde College and other likeminded organisations. Most of Blackpool's trams were designed and built in Preston at the Strand Road works of English Electric (which still stand). A link with that city and its own aspirations in an all-Lancashire endeavour is not outside the realm of possibility. Preston itself is engaged in creating its own electric tram operation launched through local business entrepreneurs (for a change). Blackpool and Preston have shared experimental know-how in the past century - in tram design and development. This has continued on in more recent years through the 'Trampower' company. One of their prototype vehicles in fact is presently stored at Rigby Road Depot.

This is a long Blog - far too long I can hear mutterings already. So a pause here and more to say later.

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