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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Taking 208 Down South

Prototype rail coach 208 in its modified Vambac condition heads out of Talbot Square passing both the Town Hall (right) and the classic 'Yates Lodge' structure which so eminently provided stature to the civic district. Now both the structure and tram have long gone - Blackpool's great loss. Photo Copyright : John Woodman

The seal had been already embedded on London Transport Board's decision to replace its tram system with buses (and briefly with trolleybuses in the pre-war period) when efforts to revise this policy included proposals to fund delivery of Blackpool's prototype VAMBAC railcoach (208) to London in 1950. At the time just three trams were using American derived technology of resilient wheel bogies and smoother braking and acceleration control systems - known in the US as 'PCC Cars' from launch of this improved design technology in Brooklyn, New York in 1938.

Several UK tram operators expressed joined up interest in acquiring the technology for shared orders following the end of the war in 1945. Both Blackpool and Glasgow taking steps to test a British designed derivative known as 'Vambac'. Blackpool opted to modify two of its streamline single deck cars (one of English Electric design (208) and the other built by the Brush Engineering Company (303). Whilst Glasgow built a completely new double deck tram with PCC type bogies and control system (1005). London Transport however was not interested in dabbling further in new tram development following the Royal Commission Report on Urban Transport in the mid 1930s. This condemned the tram as being 'not fit for purpose'. London's last all new tram design commissioned by London County Council in 1932 thus became stillborn with just one example (LCC 1) emerging as a solitary prototype. Ironically this particular car (unlike 208, 303 and Glasgow 1005) actually survives today and is shortly to reemerge resplendent in its 1932 launch condition thanks to the National Tramway Museum workshop team at Crich.

However back to the headline. Following the war's end the implementation of London Transport's plans to replace all of its large network with new buses commenced in a phased programme over several years. By 1950 the first phase had been implemented and new RT type buses were being delivered in preparation for Phases thereafter. With the Festival of Britain in London and postwar renewal underway (albeit slowly) an offer was made to London Transport to fund the delivery of Blackpool Vambac car 208 to run on test in London. This came from assertive supporters of modern trams in the London area under the aegis of the Light Railway Transport League (LRTL). The Blackpool prototype had already featured in several special tours for enthusiasts and paved the way for an upgraded fleet of trams to operate the Marton tram service following track renewal of this all-street line (unique in the resort) with frequent headways of 3 and 4 minutes, frequent stops and high loadings in both directions. Based at Marton Depot it would go on to continue these duties up to the end of the Marton service in October 1962. Its sister prototype Brush Car 303 based at Bispham Depot and the only Vambac equipped tram to run from Bispham was far less fortunate being unpopular among drivers.

The other end of the Marton tram service - Royal Oak. A summer season service car to South Pier is turning south on to Lytham Road whilst the driver of the tram at Royal Oak has just emerged from his cab whilst his conductor takes a break next to the Time Clock affixed to the pole on the right. Both wear regulation cream linen jackets for summer services. The automatic overhead trolley reverser is clearly visible - a safety installation to avoid manually turning round the trolleypole on trams at this now busy intersection. Photo by John Woodman.

The intention of the LRTL was to demonstrate in the capital that modern trams were a long way from the standardised (and one might say fossilised) examples to which London was wedded. The only exceptions being the excellent 'Feltham' class which had been conceived by London's company operators in the late 1920s following their own due diligence visiting management of US 'trolley' systems. One hundred strong plus three prototypes - they contrasted positively alongside the pre-Great War design of most of London's trams. Single deck trams in London were phased out with reconstruction of the unique subway link in Aldwych providing through service between districts north and south of the Thames. An isolated hilly line running to Alexander Palace in south London which needed single deck trams had been previously closed. Thus a cream and green single deck Vambac equipped quiet running bogie car suddenly intruding among the capital's moribund fleet of double deck trams at this late stage at the beginning of the decade was an unwelcome challenge to perceived wisdom at 55 Broadway - London's transport headquarters.

Suffice to say this brave effort came to nought and London trams finally ran their last journeys in 1952. The Feltham cars plus that prototype modern car built by the LCC in their final years of executive control over London's transport - all headed north up the A1 to Leeds. Here they gained a relatively short lease of life (nine years at most) to provide that city with a taste of high capacity tram travel along reserved track lines to the south and east of Leeds. I had the pleasure of sampling several trips before that system gave way to buses in 1959. Interestingly Leeds however did decide to sample the new PCC style system by development of two all new single deck centre entrance trams one of which incorporated the resilient wheel bogies and new Vambac control technology. Both 601 and 602 were to have short working lives as a result of the City Council's own decision to do away with trams after a change of political control in the early 1950s. Offered to Blackpool and inspected by Manager Joe Franklin, the two Leeds cars were found to have limited capacity (more standing than seating) and were non standard of course. A third single deck example was rebuilt by the Leeds Transport workshop over an extended period using a second hand tram from Sunderland.

Blackpool 208 disappeared to the scrap man inside Marton Depot alongside its sister prototype number 303, and most of the excellent 'Marton Vambac' class which held down this particular service for just over ten years. One survivor (11) fortunately remains to remind future generations of just how impressive these trams were on an all street service in the immediate postwar era - in Blackpool. Londoners would have been impressed too.

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