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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Built in Britain

Blackpool's electric tramway managed to get by for a hundred years without reliance on foreign tram builders and suppliers. In fact all of the trams operated by the still public owned transport company and its predecessor municipal departments were sourced entirely from UK companies or otherwise built within the Rigby Road Works. English Electric Company, Preston and Brush Engineering in Loughborough as well as the Scottish firm of Hurst Nelson were respectively suppliers of complete tramcars to Blackpool up until the Second World War when priorities abruptly changed. Thereafter Charles Roberts Company in Horbury, West Yorkshire, Metro Cammell in Oldbury, West Midlands and latterly East Lancashire Coachbuilders in Blackburn provided Blackpool's tram fleet with renewed rolling stock up to 1988.

Rigby Road Works also produced its own finished trams in the 1920s albeit to a conservative design, and later substantively upgraded cars from 1946 to 2012. This was the only option following closure of the UK's remaining tram systems by the early 1960s - leaving Blackpool to soldier on alone with its unique coastal service to Fleetwood after conversion of three street tram routes in Blackpool by 1963. A longevity of public commitment to be celebrated.

Rigby Road Engineers and skilled craftsmen surpassed themselves with their development of a robust one man operated design utilising withdrawn 1930s single deck rail coaches built in Preston. Thirteen examples emerging from the Works from 1972 numbered 1 to 13 and bridged the following decade of tram service until completely new replacements were required. Two double deck one man operated versions were also trialled after extended rebuilding of their wooden body framework and fitted with rebuilt bogies and new control systems.

Other double deck trams received modified bodywork which eliminated the expensive curved corner glazing on both decks and half opening windows of the original design. Rigby Road's successive engineering and bodyshop teams managed to accomplish midlife rebuilds of the later Centenary cars, and further upgrade of ten double deck examples to conform to light rail operating standards complete with driver controlled centre doors fitted to widened platforms. These becoming necessary to operate alongside a new fleet of wider bodied modular cars - sourced inevitably from a European factory through a global supplier (Bombardier).

British tram development was not solely the purview of the private sector. Innovation and new styles of bodywork also resulted from municipal workshops in several cities during the 1930s. Sheffield, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland and inevitably the London County Council's tramway led the way with superlative designs (for their time). A brief trial by Leeds through the involvement of a former senior engineer from Glasgow's system - of similar single deck centre entrance trams offered a slender chance of further tram development in the early 1950s. This was quickly aborted by a change in political control of Leeds city council set on conversion of tram routes to bus services. Sheffield likewise invested in a smart fleet of new double deck cars in the early 1950s, following on a prototype designed and built by the city's transport works.

But these were pinpricks and isolated efforts against a backdrop of road and motoring lobbies intent on making the car together with coach travel market leaders for capital investment. The tram just didn't stand a chance in postwar Britain. Even today the rebranded 'light rail' sector remains a poor cousin to high speed trains and ever strengthening road development - supported by housebuilding sector ever keen to transform green landscape into bland 'estates' accessible only by private car and bereft of public transport resources. Just a glance at our own localities brings forth evidence of strains on communities such as Garstang, Poulton, Lytham St Annes; all with a host of opportunistic cookie cutter housing developments encroaching over the Fylde's green landscape. And all without any matching social or transport infrastrucre improvements or investment. Supine local authorities and ineffectual planning teams being no match for the practises and resources of sharp elbowed property companies. Only robust public bodies with equally hard nosed managers and far sighted political leadership are competent in assuring well rounded economic growth of their constituent urban centres. Both Manchester and West Midlands authorities being two exemplary icons in England.

Transport management professionals view the new Brush built trams in 1937 on a hosted visit to Fleetwood. Image : John Woodman Archive.

Efforts to consolidate the Fylde coast and its hinterland 'Over Wyre' into a vibrant and assertive singular entity with oversight of community growth west of the A6 and M6 is the inevitable endgame by which this part of the northwest can optimise opportunities for future generations in terms of jobs and investment.

Connectivity using geographic assets that bring south Cumbria and North Wales within practical proximity will call on both land and sea infrastructure. At one time sailings from both Fleetwood and Blackpool conveyed passengers to and from seemingly distant urban centres sharing common bonds on the coast of the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland and its important industrial centre, Belfast was similarly connected to Fleetwood's port and railway station by frequent passenger sailings. An electric tramway helpfully was at hand to provide travellers conveyance along the Fylde's coastline as far as Lytham. The Titanic's owners and financiers from New York travelled by train from London to Fleetwood to embark on a special vessel chartered to taken them onward overnight to Belfast to witness launch of White Star Line's creation the following day - how's that for connectivity : New York, London, Fleetwood, Belfast.

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