Groenenhoek Tram Depot, Antwerp
As preparations begin to adjust Hopton Road Tram Depot to a transport heritage centre for Blackpool it is worth planners take a first hand look at working examples of similar urban transport museums in Europe. I have had the good fortune of seeing classic displays and installations through work with diverse European government agencies, as well as many US 'trolley' museums during my years living in New York. Almost all have merit and individual strengths in their approach and differing conditions in scale and working partnership with local transport operators; both public and private.
Possibly the one transport museum with most similarities to the situation faced in Blackpool is in a suburb of Antwerp where a former large urban tram depot has been 'upcycled' to become the Flanders Tram and Bus Museum. The Groenenhoek depot at Berchem built in 1912 and in use up until the 1990s was transferred from the Flemish transport system 'De Lijn' to a heritage group to provide display and storage space. There had been two attempts to create a museum to showcase preserved trams (and buses) in the Region of Flanders, including one which utilised a large 'Fort' built in the 1800s to protect Antwerp as part of a ring of fortifications around the city. - The restructuring of urban transport in the region of Flanders to create a single operating entity with a single brand - 'De Lijn', involved consolidation of both depots and vehicles. In this process the large depot structure in Berchem became surplus fortuitously presenting a readymade site, complete with working tramtrack access in the large Antwerp system.
The building became the Flanders Bus and Tram Museum which I visited on two occasions in the 1990s being conveniently near to Antwerp's Airport which I was using in travels to and from the UK. Not only does the extensive collection of mostly restored trams cover the history of the city's own system but also includes representative cars from Vicinal lines which operated in Flanders (and still do along the entire Belgian coastline) as well as early examples from the nearby city of Ghent; which also continues to operate electric trams as a part of the De Lijn network.
The former depot is spacious, well lit and includes displays of artifacts and historical documents from all three systems. Generations of buses are represented, principally from the postwar era, and all of course being single deck. Signage and background information on individual trams and buses is clearly displayed and the collection sticks to a concise sequence. Naturally there is an ample specialist sales point while the museum maintains an interactive programme of events, including a ghost tour in the depot itself, as well as operating tours with some of its collection, with selective dates through the year advertised well in advance. Open from April to October at weekends - the Flanders Bus and Tram Museum is an exemplary operation well worth visiting for enthusiasts and transport professionals alike.
Belgium was especially enamoured with electric trams quite early on, and fortunate in having one of its more assertive citizens go on to create an international tramway 'empire' that controlled new systems in 'foreign parts' including Cairo. Several Belgian manufacturers emerged in what is a relatively small country, designing and building trams right up to the present day (now of course all parts of global conglomerates such as Bombardier). The first US built PCC car for Europe was shipped over to Antwerp and trialled on the Vicinal coastline shortly after the end of WW2 - with Belgian built models following on to operate in The Hague and on Vicinal services.
Antwerp is a city rich in culture and historical provenance, apart from being Europe's diamond centre. When present travel constraints give way to 'normality' a long weekend in Antwerp is highly recommended. And then of course there is the excellent tram and transport heritage in Brussels, Liege and Charleroi - all within easy travelling distance. For detailed information on the Groenenhoek depot museum go to : VLATAM.be