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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Made In Britain

A noticeable trend in supermarkets (and other retailers) this year has been the emphasis placed on packaging and signage of product made or sourced in Britain. The absence of the EU blue and gold star emblem signals reversion of the UK to becoming a sovereign nation in charge of its own affairs effective from the beginning of 2021. No doubt vehicle registration plates will finally lose the EU flag emblem as owners dispense with responsibility (and liability) of being an EU 'citizen'.

Whilst there is still a robust coachbuilding sector in the UK producing vehicles both for domestic and export markets - the tram construction sector has lapsed into nothingness due in part to decline of UK demand, and consolidation of the tram manufacturing firms into a tight cabal of global suppliers. European tram systems are however numerous and expanding and with builders competing for tenders on a global basis and for high stakes.

Sadly the UK is nowhere to be seen in design, development and construction of trams. Where once British manufactured trams were shipped out to the Far East, Africa, the Americas, and select European operators - the last such order for complete trams was executed for Khartoum Light and Power in The Sudan at the same time as Blackpool was taking delivery of its Coronation cars - and in the same Yorkshire factory of Charles Roberts. The UK tram construction sector (such as it was by the early 1950s) then sank without trace until Blackpool Council placed a tentative order for new trams with the East Lancashire company in Blackburn - receiving eight of the 'Centenary' cars in the 1980s.

Cape Town's new electric tram - 107 built in Britain by the Brush Engineering Company, Loughborough. Photo : John Woodman Archive

In the meantime green shoots of the light rail renaissance actually appeared in Britain with new lines being constructed in a very modest number of urban centres (including Croydon and the London Docklands Light Railway). Scotland also found the stomach to retry trams with an overly expensive capital scheme in Edinburgh - whilst Glasgow and Strathclyde still toy with the concept. Ireland too reengaged with modern trams and a fast expanding urban network in Dublin. Blackpool finally received a 'runners up' consolation prize in the form of government grants to upgrade its tramway (in toto) following failure to secure the super casino scheme, which was to have become the corner stone of the resort's regeneration. Instead east Manchester of all places was favoured by anonymous civil servants supported by a then Labour Government.

The hundreds of millions of pounds from public exchequers then found their way into the hands of a finite number of international conglomerates eager to benefit from a further new market in 'Europe' - bereft of domestic suppliers. So emergent schemes in Croydon, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Manchester, West Midlands, Nottingham and of course Blackpool - all gave factories and workers in Spain, Germany, France and Italy helpful contracts for the UK's modest reacquaintance with electric tram operation. While of course Blackpool with its modest incremental needs - became satisfied by Bombardier's production plants in Austria and Germany.

As this country edges ever closer to the end of 2020 and final exit door from membership of the European Union - so too will obligations of the UK to adhere to carefully and cleverly contrived procedures of capital procurement insisted upon by legions of manipulative functionaries in Brussels, Strasbourg and other EU outposts. Of course its not just all about the money. UK industry's almost total absence from rail equipment manufacturing (and development) means a whole generation of engineering talent (or more) have missed out on sustainable and worthwhile jobs in this sector - and the long learning curve in design and development has been truncated for over half a century. Britain now has to import at market prices the hardware and knowledge needed to build and maintain the quality of equipment now the norm in both tram and rail operation. Japanese railway manufacture in the northeast being but one example; whilst London's financial centre is seemingly reliant on light rail equipment forever it seems sourced in Belgium and other European factories - for the successful Docklands Light Railway expanding system. Will this ever end?

Blackpool's esteemed public transport system from the 1930s and 1950s was hailed as one of the most 'progressive' in Britain (if not Europe) : being visited by managers and engineers from diverse markets around the world, keen to see closeup the modernity and efficiency of this northern town's operation of both buses and trams. No more - or at least for the time being. However potential for a great resurgence of technological innovation is looming for Blackpool's transport system, with the impending move to electric power vehicles entirely and transformative clean energy applications on a fulsome scale.

Perhaps when this dismal page in transportation is finally turned after Britain's on off again rapport with a Brussels elite and a pan-european federalist mafia - we may just regain a modest measure of the former age of industrial and technological prowess which UK manufacturing was formerly able to showcase. The avionics and defense sectors have managed to retain a demonstable competence through these past decades - and with it a credible economic foundation, seen closeup at Salmesbury, Wharton, Barrow and other centres. Rail transport in all its forms though has an uphill climb. One in which political capital and underpinning is necessary to ensure that all further tenders and contracts for rolling stock needed in this country now favour a British workforce, British production, British design and development expertise and British end-user. In a modest sense this is what a vote to Leave means in practical terms.

Its now time to Buy British - especially by UK local Authorities and Operators.

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