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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Burton & Ashby Number 14 - There and Back

John Woodman

i believe it was in the 1980s that I first became involved with the group in Church Gresley working on restoring the lower saloon of former Burton & Ashby Railway number 14. This came about after I read in Modern Tramway an article by the late John Price on the tram's survival and condition. At the time I was in correspondence and by phone with Alex Pollock, then working in the Mayor's office in Detroit, Alex had successfully secured funding and approvals for a tourist tramline in proximity to the city's convention centre (Cobo Hall) and the newly built glass office tower funded through Ford Motor Company's initiatives.

The tourist line had already been built to the narrow gauge needed to operate Lisbon trams already purchased and delivered to the US. Alex was particularly taken by my previous project in Philadelphia which involved the transfer of Blackpool 'boat' car 603 to that city with private sector sponsorship and the full cooperation of the regional transport agency SEPTA. He shared similar enthusiasm for finding a typical British double deck tram to run alongside the Lisbon cars on Detroit's recently opened heritage line. My assistance was invited to locate a suitable British tram relic able to be restored to operating condition - again subject to private sector funding being identified. Alex was responsible for finding the lucky US corporate sponsor willing to provide wrap around finance for this purpose - which he duly did.

Below : A leaner John Woodman poses on the saloon body platform end of B&A 14 at its storage home with an excellent protective external paint job. This was my initial visit to see the tram in the UK.

In turn my role was to obtain the double deck tram for which John Price's Modern Tramway article kickstarted a transatlantic dialog - my being in New York during these decades. An early visit to Church Gresley to meet with the surprised members of the small group owning their Burton & Ashby tram body quickly turned into formal exchanges with the City of Detroit and project funding commitments from Michigan Bell Yellow Pages business. Work on completing as far as possible the bodywork repair and completion then ensued with diverse local businesses in and around the tram's former operation - whilst in the US plans were made for the running gear and electrics to be dealt with in the US through engagement of Bruce Thain whose expertise had also been used for the regauging of Blackpool boat car 603 from standard gauge to the Philadelphia wide track gauge so it could operate over the city's remaining 'trolleycar' lines.

Bruce Thain's workshop premises at Topton, PA with the newly furbished ex Lisbon truck in the foreground and the almost completed body of Number 14 in primer in the background. Below : a further image of the tram bodywork complete with top deck seating and protective balcony mesh to the design of the original already fitted in place. A hot summer's day with discarded works clothing.

Following shipment from the UK Number 14 was taken to Topton, Pennsylvania where Bruce had a workshop and small team so that a truck from one of the Lisbon trams could be fitted together with necessary controllers and electric equipment. The Burton and Ashby Group had expended great effort to provide a new trolleymast for the top deck as well as correct wire mesh fittings to the same design as the original Midland Railway specs. Much intensive work took place over several summer months against a deadline for the tram to be delivered and operate in time for the Republican Party National Convention scheduled later in the year at Cobo Hall, Detroit. These are much sought after quadrennial conferences where a Party's nominee for Presidential candidate in the next Presidential Election is decided by voting from individual State Delegations. Below : the final results in action with Number 14 at its Cobo Hall terminal reserved track and top deck passengers enjoying a rare ride (for the US). The driver is smartly turned out in period uniform. All Images : John Woodman Apologies for the detrius on the lower photo.

Thankfully final touches that included painting the completed tram body (and trucks) to a close rendition of the Midland Railway livery used by the Burton & Ashby Railway Company was carefully dealt with at Topton. The tram duly appeared in public view outside Cobo Hall satisfying the sponsors and Mayor, as well as the teams in Church Gresley and Topton, Pa whose efforts enabled this most unusual transatlantic tram project to be brought to fruition. I took great personal satisfaction, along with Alex Pollock, in realising what was very much a long shot aspiration from our initial meeting. Of course the story of the Detroit heritage line did not end well with it being closed and assets sold some years later. Providentially other parties in England were on hand to ensure repatriation of Number 14 back to the UK, following its public sale by the City of Detroit. The tram is now a popular visitor attraction on the select days when it is operated once more.


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