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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Rail Coach Return - By Request

The updated posting on British Trams Online of latest work revealing a working example of English Electric rail coach 279 is a credit to the initiators and funders of this restoration project which fills a very large gap in the ranks of Blackpool's heritage trams. Fylde Transport Trust and its movers and shakers have already completed a long cherished mission to bring Standard Car 143 to its original as built condition - and their equally remarkable efforts are closing in on a retro restoration of an English Electric single deck tram from the 1930s. This class was in fact the largest of the Blackpool tram fleet being 45 strong delivered in two tranches from 1934 following launch of the design in 1933. Sadly none survive in their original form, having been either scrapped or rebuilt into twin set motor units (ten), or the thirteen One Man Operated cars (plus three illuminated feature cars) through several decades.

Up until the early Sixties the cars were a familiar sight on all of Blackpool's then extant tram services - Marton, North Station, Squires Gate and of course the Promenade. Robust cars they rarely broke down and managed rapid acceleration, especially on the busy Marton service with its frequent stops and all street running operation - unique in Blackpool. The summer extension along Station Road brought examples in close proximity at that terminus with the Promenade as well as intermingling of services on a short stretch of Lytham Road from the junction at Royal Oak. So common was the class that in fact the type was very rarely used on enthusiast tours except in the 1930s.

Prototype 200 which arrived in Blackpool in the summer of 1933 was much photographed by the media at the time; being a radical design which led to double decker versions following in quick succession. Ironically the double deck class survive in several forms, whilst only now is the far more numerous single deck cousin finally being reconstituted from 45 examples. Of these three were subject of experiments starting with 208 which received resilient wheel bogies and new 'Vambac' control equipment as a precursor to a Council decision on replacing the Marton route tram tracks immediately after the war. It was the Author's favourite tram during its years on the Marton service - distinctive inside and out.

Two of the class were used to test out the feasibility of trailer tram operation in 1958, which having been judged a success at the time, saw a further eight rail coaches similarly restyled to provide a total of ten such units to pull ten brand new matching trailers. Fortunately most of these have survived. A further rail coach was the subject of repanelling using 'Darvic' sheeting provided by ICI's specialist company at Hillhouses industrial estate. Number 264's redesigned ends copied those of the twin set motor units (but without the connecting fittings). This experiment was less successful due to weathering of the exterior panels and 'rippling' effect after a few years of service. The interior panel treatment was judged more satisfactory and applied to other trams when they came into the Body Shop. Number 618 became a testbed for an extended frame and bodywork to increase seating capacity - leading in turn to the successful (for the period) radically remodelled examples which became One Man Operated (OMO) cars 1 - 13 from 1972. These in turn paved the way for the new Centenary Car class of eight examples - which was launched with 641 in 1984.

Number 222 would end up becoming a double deck tram in the guise of an illuminated 'Hovertram'. Fortunately after travels north of the border it returned to Rigby Road to await renewal of its bodywork and electrics for future display. Number 209 ended up giving up its frame and half of its bodywork for the 'locomotive' in the 'Western Train' - and after a major rebuilding saw this replaced by a second English Electric rail coach in similar format. All of the original English Electric rail coaches would in time succumb to radical changes or scrapping over the years. But providently the Fylde Transport Trust in conjunction with Blackpool Transport Services recognising the role of this class of tram have worked together to recreate the original design, albeit with some later adjustments. Fleet Number 279 will take its place in the holistic assembly of Blackpool's classic trams in due course filling the gap in representation of the 1930s modernisation era led by Walter Luff and the English Electric Company in Preston. Congratulations to all those involved in this endeavour.

English Electric drawing of its prototype rail coach of 1933. Notable is the small tail light fixture and folded seat on either side of the centre entrance. Sliding panels in the roofs of both saloons and side ventilators above the windows were eliminated at various points in these trams Body Shop overhauls. Image : John Woodman Archive.

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