Cracks Terminate All Tram Services in Birmingham
In a dramatic development not dissimilar to the dramas played out when the 'Combino' model was suddenly withdrawn from service following alarming faults emerging in service by several systems using this Siemens design; the CAF 'Urbos 3 and Urbos 100' trams used exclusively by the West Midlands authority have all been completely withdrawn this week. This follows cracks being discovered within the structure of the design. These were initially repaired but now found to have reappeared on more trams in the West Midlands light rail fleet. Unfortunately the West Midlands services are entirely dependent on the CAF model, thus preventing any replacement units being introduced - with the result that the complete network has had to be closed for the time being whilst more comprehensive solutions are found by the Operator and Spanish manufacturer. Another UK operator of CAF built trams originating in Spain is of course the Lothian Region system in Edinburgh where, so far at least, no problems have arisen in service.
West Midlands Metro is undergoing rapid expansion of its network, with new lines being built heralding a much larger system and consequent requirement for ever more rolling stock. The question of placing further orders for the existing CAF model have to be urgently addressed. West Midlands has had less than satisfactory experience with its trams than most, given that the original delivery built by an Italian supplier suffered from continuing problems prompting their early withdrawal and replacement by an entirely new fleet - this time from Spain.
Spanish designed and built Urbos model by CAF in Zaragoza for the West Midlands Metro service linking Birmingham city centre with Wolverhampton. Seen here in its initial pink and silver colour scheme.
All this points up the risks of operators becoming reliant solely on a single tram design, as well as UK systems having to rely on foreign suppliers and imported rolling stock; without adequate testing of prototypes to iron out (or detect) structural or mechanical faults. Blackpool was fortunate in having an ample fleet of English Electric (and Brush Engineering) trams in its fleet when it took delivery of the twenty five ' Coronation' cars from 1952. These soon had the misfortune of frequent shortcomings in both electrical, mechanical and bodywork design and construction by the Horbury based Charles Roberts company. Whilst the trams offered very comfortable passenger rides and were of impressive overall design, they proved to be a nightmare for Rigby Road's fitters and electricians. Fortunately Blackpool's tram fleet in those years (of over 140 units) had ample capacity to sustain withdrawals of the new trams for repairs and parts replacement; as well as ultimately reconfiguring their control systems by eliminating the troublesome 'Vambac' equipment. Just one example (304) survives in its almost original condition. The entire fleet of twenty five cars was prematurely disposed of as soon as their financing terms had been completed.
If anything the case for establishing a UK tram design and construction resource is even more relevant today in an era when electric powered transport has become an essential aspect of public procurement. The 'Trampower' team now working to introduce a new light rail operation for the City of Preston, have their sights set on achieving this through hard fought testing of UK built models, two of which have had cooperation of Blackpool's tramway operator by provision of trial running rights along the seafront line. This was precursor to an approved model emerging for wider application in this country. It is to be hoped that this Lancashire initiative finally results in a UK production centre to sustain a second generation British tram industry.
The constant news of even more trams arriving here from continental Europe to fill the void left by UK industry since the 1950s is repellent. Particularly when taxpayer funds and UK government subsidies are being generously applied to sustain skilled manufacturing jobs in Spain, Austria, Germany and goodness knows how many other European countries. And particularly when (in this case) the end products prove to be lemons. Blackpool has so far got by with eighteen foreign built trams for its light rail service - without any major problem. It is however reassuring to know that a modest number of remodelled 1930s trams (built in Preston) are on hand to supplement or takeover the service in the event of a catastrophic fault emerging in the Bombardier design (which appears unlikely). Not so the case in Birmingham. Birmingham's last trams built for the UK were in fact for Blackpool's new 'Progress Twin-Car' sets in the early1960s. A few still stand ready (as control trailer units) in case West Midlands Metro have to scout for early replacement rolling stock.
The time to 'buy British' when it comes to expensive light rail rolling stock contracts is now - having freed ourselves from the octopus-like tentacles of former Brussels overseers. Action this day....