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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Really Good Use For Old Tram Depots

A working tram depot in The Hague upgraded to create a remarkable assembly of that city's trams displayed to the public and used for tours and special events.

Ive visited many towns and cities operating trams or formerly with trams and it is surprising just how many recognise the historic importance of surviving examples sufficiently strong enough to warrant their further use to house representative tram and bus displays. From Prague to Liege, Brussels to Moscow and especially throughout Germany - notable collections of now vintage vehicles are housed in old tram depots upcycled to become educational and heritage museums.

Of course such structures are prone to demolition as developers and property owners eye up best value when the trams have finally gone. This being the case in Britain, and especially in the USA. Closer at home we have witnessed demolition of tram depots on Squires Gate Lane the home of Lytham St Annes blue and white bus and tram fleets for over eighty years; and latterly the remaining Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad Company's classic depot at Copse Road, Fleetwood to make room to display ever more second hand cars. Blackpool's original tram depot on Blundell Street was torn down by the Council following internal structural damage caused by a storm, although not enough to justify demolishing the entire building. Complete with adjoining street trackage itself of a historic pedigree this was a decision rightly condemned at the time.

Built in the mid 1930s and now nearly a hundred years old - the town's principal tram depot built off Hopton Road to house the planned fleet of modern streamlined cars. Rigby Road Depot remains very much in place, if a bit battered and worn. Housing much of the former tram fleet from the 1930s - the covered space continues to offer real possibilities for the Council (who own the property) to create a fulsome heritage exhibition of the resort's colourful (and exotic) transport over successive decades.

Still filled (well almost filled) with once familiar trams that adorned the promenade and helped in propelling Blackpool to the forefront of Britain's seaside popularity stakes - Rigby Road Depot remains very much a structural asset awaiting transformation to a worthy future. The site, with its integrated and parallel historic Workshops dating from even earlier times, is uniquely placed as the sole remaining representative of a municipal tramway era in which every self respecting town and and city in the country took pride in its very own electric trams adorned with civic emblems and inscriptions against a backdrop of distinctive colours and styling immediately identified with the locality and its community - whether small or large.

Of course those days are now fading memories, briefly brought to life in special events and displays featuring old buses - or the handful of specialist museums diligently maintaining surviving examples. Blackpool again is unique in Britain, having not only kept a working electric tramway from early inception in the reign of Queen Victoria, herself long lived, to the present monarch in what is now a third century of continued promenade tram operation. Ironically the surviving tram at Rigby Road was designed and built with the forethought that it could also provide enclosed space for events and exhibitions. This began with a national Dog Show that saw canine exhibits edging out smartly green and cream trams not long after the depot building was completed.

Above : A complete Dublin United Tramways depot at Dalkey still extant complete with depot track fan (to wide gauge) but bereft of exhibits and awaiting a new use. Ironically a collection of Dublin vehicles is kept out of public access at Howth badly in need of more spacious display space but lacking official funding. Given Dublin's successful second generation light rail system and the DART urban electric lines (including service to Howth Harbour) there is need for joined up planning on the heritage front. North of the border the excellent Cultra transport museum outside Belfast shows how this is achieved.

The Transport Department and its subsequent company management attracted thousands to the same site for special 'Open Days' which provided a wider public with insight into the work and skills needed to maintain both buses and trams in tip top condition, not to mention the essential trackwork and electric overhead infrastructure. Perhaps the most spectacular of these took place in 1985 when the town recognised the role and importance of its trams in their Centenary Year. A close family member of the Royal Family provided a permanent memorial to that event by naming a recently restored tram 'Princess Alice'.

Other cities around Europe similarly respecting the important and longevity of their own urban transport operations, particularly tramcars, have made fulsome use of old depot structures to house collections of elderly examples - some of which are brought to life on nostalgic tours. In this regard Prague, Brussels, Berlin, The Hague, Stockholm, Oslo, Zurich are possibly the most famous in a long list of eminent themed exhibitions. Paris like London is less well endowed, both cities having turned their backs on trams during the 1930s in favour of buses (and in London's case - trolleybuses). The only British city to have firmly taken its electric trams to heart has been Glasgow which saw its last line close in 1962 - but not before assigning a section of its famous Coplawhill tram workshops to house a permanent exhibition of representative types.

Blackpool likewise has an especial place in transport annals through its early adoption of electric power way before other UK (and European) urban centres caught on and quickly followed in a surge of tramway mania from 1890s through to the Edwardian era. That Blackpool continued its faith in trams despite every other British operator giving up the ghost is down in part to longevity in office of the town's transport managers; each adopting a pro-tram policy as far as possible. So Messrs Furness (1911 - 1932); Luff (1933 - 1954), Franklin (1954 - 1974) and Hyde (1975 - 1986) maintained the flame of electric traction very much alight until finally a new era of light rail was recognised. This started with Manchester's Metrolink operation, London Docklands Light Railway and Newcastle's own metro system picking up accolades. Sheffield, Nottingham, Croydon, Edinburgh (Lothian), reinforcing and making respectable the role of trams once more - joined by Dublin in Ireland.

However it is only Blackpool which has kept this modus operandi alive from the very beginning; and most importantly from its originating location just off the promenade firstly at Blundell Street Depot (now gone of course), and then from the 1930s depot with workshops already established on Rigby Road. When Blackpool's planning gurus and visitor experts come to deliberate on renewal and redesign of the town's transport operating hq to accommodate yet a further renaissance in electric power (for the bus fleet) - putting this entire story in perspective using the historic infrastructure that we take so easily for granted these days - at the end of the tram tracks leading from the Manchester junction - has to be firmly in mind. The town is in good international company just on this one topic alone.

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