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  • John Woodman

Roberts Cars In Khartoum

One of the most interesting British manufactured tram exports with affinity to Blackpool saw the Wakefield firm of Charles Roberts fulfill a British Government backed order from the capital of The Sudan in the early 1950s. This country was under the jurisdiction of Britain resulting from military intervention in the late 1800s when an expeditionary force headed by General Kitchener was sent to the aid of Europeans in Khartoum. The city had been overrun by a religious inspired native force led by the Mahdi. After an inspired cavalry engagement outside Khartoum at Omdurman - the city was retaken but not before the European garrison and its leader - General Gordon had been killed. Revulsion on Britain demanded action and resulting retribution saw the Mahdi's army destroyed under the direction of Kitchener. Along with the adjoining control of Egypt Britain thereafter maintained permanent oversight in both countries.

Whilst Cairo's tramway development was very much in the hands of a Belgian company the system in Khartoum understandably favoured British interests which proceeded initially with steam power on a narrow gauge (600 mm) line. In 1928 the steam operation was taken over by the Sudan Light and Power Company which regauged track width to 1067 mm. It proceeded to acquire a small fleet of British built two axle cars with three class usage including 'harem' compartments. In the aftermath of World War 2 and increased military traffic the antiquated tram fleet was augmented with a UK Government backed order for new cars. Awarded to English Electric in Preston who of course by this time were no longer involved with tram manufacture, the contract devolved to Charles Roberts company which was already engaged in development of Blackpool's latest tram contract with advanced equipment (VAMBAC). The company was very much left on its own for design of the Blackpool cars - other than dimensions and centre entrance specification. Roberts only previous experience of tram construction had been their recent supply of 35 two axle double deckers for Sheffield's Transport Department. In the latter delivery Sheffield's own workshops provided the pattern and styling for its series delivery with a prototype example (501). Not so the case for Blackpool with consequences which would bedevil the system's new General Manager who took up his role from Walter Luff in 1954.

The Khartoum contract for ten motor units (double ended) and nine matching trailers more or less coincided with receipt of the Blackpool order (via English Electric). Thus the Wakefield designers opted to copy Blackpool's body style for the export narrow gauge models. Naturally the climate and local conditions meant the absence of side glazing and doors and simplified interior finish on the Khartoum delivery which arrived painted in dark green with a large side logo of a tusked elephant. Noteworthy is the fact that the new sets for Khartoum incorporated electrical and air brake connections for trailer operation. This ironically would become a feature of Blackpool's own trailer 'Progress Twin-Car' sets (10 in total) appearing later in the 1950s using English Electric rail coaches from the 1930s.

Metal framed with metal seating - avoiding infestation of insects favouring wood - the Khartoum cars served that city for a decade before trams were substituted by buses in 1962. They would be the last export delivery of first generation British built trams. None have survived - tram preservation being of lesser importance in social concerns. Remnants of the car bodies were noted scattered on the outskirts of that city by an observant UK visitor in later years. Images to follow.

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