FHLT - Trams Galore 2
One of the key targets of the FHLT in the run up to the upgrade of Blackpool's tramway to light rail standards in 2011 was the unique one man operated double deck rebuild of 1979. This was an extremely ambitious project of Blackpool Transport Department's engineering team at Rigby Road and followed on the series rebuilds of single deck 'rail coach' models from 1972. Numbered 1 to 13 this work was successful in reducing the operating costs of the tram service by removing need for conductors at a time when wage costs were inexorably rising. Whilst the tramway deficit was not entirely removed the introduction of one man units during the winter season ameliorated the Department's overhead costs.
At the same time the Department's move away (finally) from rear platform double deck buses to one man operated single deck units on most (but not all) services similarly placed considerable savings and staffing benefits on the bottom line. New double deck buses brought into service under the management of Derek Hyde continued this pattern with front entrance Atlantean models during the 1970s. The need for large capacity trams to cater for peak school travel times particularly on northern sections of the service to Fleetwood meant adding double deck units other than the 'Balloon' models which required a three man crew. A redundant example was brought into the workshops to be rebuilt with front entrance (and exit) doors enabling a driver to handle fare transactions on entry.
Below : 761 undergoing its transformation in the Bodyshop with the centre doorways being panelled over. John Woodman Archive
Balloon car 714 acted as the test vehicle for this extensive reconstruction which included restyled end units provided by Metal Sections Ltd. a firm with experience in constructing single deck trailers for both Hong Kong and Bangkok's tramways. The prefabricated end units were 'bolted' on to the teak frame bodywork of the modified car whilst offside rear facing stairs were fitted directly behind the driver's position. In this configueration 714 took on a semblance of current front entrance buses then taking over urban bus design in the UK. Strengthened bogie frames utilising the English Electric versions were added to the car's underframe. In this form nearly 100 seats were provided to overall capacity thus making the design the largest capacity tram in the much reduced fleet (numerically speaking). Designed solely by Blackpool's core engineering staff the new car was given a further fleet number - 761 and designated as a 'Jubilee' model. Repainted in a close approximation of Blackpool's then standard double deck Atlantean buses the new car gave stalwart service year round although the single front entrance doors and driver only operation gave rise to slow loading (and unloading) in service. 761 was later sponsored by the Wynsor shoe retailing firm in whose overall orange colour scheme it finally operated up the the very last night of regular tram service in Blackpool.
Below : 761 alongside Centenary 648 recently also remodelled but retaining its original end styling and actually intended for the National Tramway Museum. Image : John Woodman
Before proceeding with a follow on rebuild it was determined that elimination of the centre entrance doors (and stairs) was ill suited to year round operation. The second conversion would therefore retain a centre platform door for exiting the tram, naturally reducing the seating capacity and requiring reconfigueration of the stairways. Balloon 263 would feature similar restyled end frames and strengthened bogie frames, among other adjustments - emerging in 1982 as Jubilee Car 762. Both of these remodelled Balloons would remain unique in the fleet until the upgrade of the system in 2011. The FHLT were particularly keen to retain one example given the originating need to serve peak school service runs on the northern part of the line to Fleetwood (in the winter season). It is worth pointing out that the Marton tram service with numerous schools along its inland route - also faced similar peak hour needs during term time. For this purpose two Balloon cars were based at Marton tram depot and fitted with swivel head trolleywheels for a line with numerous curves, unlike the rest of Blackpool's tramways. These appeared on weekday timetabled duties to coincide with morning and afternoon school openings and closing times.
Number 762 had been earmarked for preservation at the National Tramway Museum thus ensuring both trams were safeguarded following on the light rail operating criteria being implemented when much of the existing tram fleet was made redundant (or so it seemed at the time). The FHLT arranged private sponsorship of 761 which was transferred to storage in Fleetwood where it remained for several years. The initial site off Copse Road was subsequently required by its business owners, at which point it was determined to make the tram available to the tramway heritage operation established by BTS at Rigby Road. Thus the car returned to its original 'home', although so far maintained in storage. Number 761 is a remarkable example of the skillset once prevalent at Rigby Road Works and the considerable effort involved in remodelling a double deck tram with local craftsmen and in-house design team. The tram is an impressive tribute to successive generations of tramway engineers and bodyshop workers at Rigby Road.