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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Goodbye To Traditional Trams

John Woodman

The departure of Blackpool's final trams from regular service marked the end of designs unique to the resort's famous seafront operation in 2010. The town's Rigby Road Workshops had managed to sustain its service as the sole tram system in the UK following closure of the final Glasgow tram service (9) in September 1962. Like Glasgow's equally famous Coplawhill tram works, Blackpool's workshops with local skills became responsible for developing successive tram designs in the postwar era - the result of withdrawal of British manufacturers from the tram construction sector.

Most noteworthy were the small series of new trams able to maintain year round service following on the less than successful 'Coronation' class which emerged in 1952 and proved to be the most troublesome and expensive design on the Blackpool tramway - designed and built by Wakefield based Charles Roberts Company. Following this ill judged contract - Blackpool's transport managers followed their own judgements in producing 'home-built' designs utilising pre-war equipment. The 1958 'Progress Twin-Car' example each using two former rail coaches morphed into a ten strong series requiring new lightweight trailers. These were were further modified with driver controls added at the rear of seven of the sets to provide more flexible operation along the eleven mile tramway. All seven examples surviving into the light rail era and entering preservation.

1958 Blackpool's prototype 'Progress Twin-Set' utilising two English Electric rail coaches

The push for greater staffing economies inexorably led to the Works rebuilding even more of the same English Electric 1930s rail coaches into front loading cars capable of driver only operation. A total of thirteen examples emerging from Rigby Road Works allowing a transitional phase during which the bus fleet similarly moved away from crew operation to driver only vehicles (both single and double deck). Understandably using nearly fifty year old equipment the 'One Man Operated' trams numbered 1 to 13 had shortened service lives whilst saving the tram service from closure and replacement by buses - an oft tempted option for Blackpool's Council.

1972 : Blackpool's prototype One Man Operated car (OMO 1) seen here on test at Little Bispham being viewed by the Transport Manager, Joe Franklin- right. A radical rebuild of the same class of 1930s English Electric railcoach.

Below : An experiment in redesigning a Balloon car for one man operated condition (761) seen here in the Bodyshop undergoing repanelling in 1972. Note the new front entrance doorway and panelled over centre entrance.

The need to experiment similarly with double deck examples resulted in heavy rebuild of two of the system's 'Balloon' cars (newly numbered 761 and 762). It was found that workshop time in the reconstruction of these two trams was uneconomic and they remained unique. By 1984 heavy wear and tear on the rebuilt rail coaches now running year round with extended frames proved too much for their modified bodywork and contracts awarded to build a wholly new single deck prototype. Blackpool's then bus supplier - East Lancashire Coachworks in Blackburn was the successful winner in a tendered competition presenting its prototype (641) in 1984. Close collaboration between the Rigby Road engineering team and the company resulted in a workmanlike new car fit for Blackpool's individual needs. The same team also attempted to 'modernise' further 'Balloon' cars by removing the curved end features of four examples and replacing swing back seating with fixed bus style design. The resulting appearance did not find favour alongside complaints over the loss of the 1930s streamline design.

Two successive tranches, each of three cars followed in successive years, allowing withdrawal of the remaining 'OMO Cars' at the expiry of their serviceable condition. A further example (648) had seperately been built in Blackburn for GEC Traction who needed a test vehicle for new bogie designs being formulated by that company. Blackpool Transport gave its support to trial operation alongside its own seven 'Centenary' cars (641 - 647); thus the resort gained eight new trams in the final era of traditional tram operation. These represented the final chapter of UK tram development, and indeed the end point of 'bogie car' design entirely. By the 1990s modular articulated cars sourced from European factories and select global companies dominated the tram manufacturing business - eliminating individualistic styles of tram operators from Toronto to Melbourne.

Blackpool's final (new) tram design = the 1984 Centenary class numbered 641 to 648

Images ; John Woodman

Regulations governing disability access also meant that new trams (and buses) had to conform to low height stepless public vehicle design. Thus further development of light rail in the UK (and elsewhere) meant introduction of low floor models usually to a modular design with multiple entry points (much like London's Underground trains). Rigby Road had no experience of this format and instead Blackpool Transport provided operational testing on its tramway to a UK company (in the northwest) developing a model suited to Britain's aspiring light rail schemes.


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