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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Heritage Or ?

John Woodman

The recent unveiling of yet another old Blackpool tram dolled up to celebrate the life and fame of Reginald Dixon who was for many years the resident organist of the Tower Ballroom, and its operation as a 'Heritage Tram' joining the growing number of similarly rebranded examples raises the question of what is the purpose of the current 'Heritage Tram Tours' set up. Other than raiing funding to cover costs of Rigby Road's 'heritage' activities.

I have nothing against remembrance and celebration of notable contributors to Blackpool's heyday as a popular seaside resort - Reginald Dixon and Charlie Cairoli et al. There is a long list of notable performers and entertainers forever associated indelibly with the town's leisure history. This extends of course to the great Sir Stanley Matthews, Stanley Mortenson and the continuing strengths of Blackpool FC in the English Football League. However there are more impactive ways of recalling the success of these once familiar 'names' in the town's colourful history. One would be through revamping the autumn lighting displays to incorporate special tributes along the promenade replacing much of the tired and all too familiar repetitive material appearing each year.

Just how long Blackpool's 'Illuminations' can sustain its 'pull' forever repeating the same lighting features without fall off in visitor numbers during the autumn months? A tableau or series on the renowned 'Tower Circus' would be a start, whilst the town's football team still playing in its longstanding home at Bloomfield Road is a further worthy subject for the designers planning new displays (if they indeed exist). Which of course brings us to the role of the tramway in providing a memorable 'Ride The Lights' experience. Unfortunately the current tram fleet is massively unsuited to providing anything close to an enjoyable experience for visitors wanting to see the promenade light display - or indeed any lineside display. The only exceptions being premium fare rides on the handful of 'illuminated' cars with their limited capacity and sparse service. Otherwise low slung Bombardier trams with darkened glass windows and standing loads offer only disappointing options for most visitors - particularly those with young children.

Blackpool's original Illuminations team had prepared designs for Balloon cars transformed with external lighting features (as opposed to extensive rebuilding). Regrettably these never made actual operation, but many of the trams themselves still remain marooned in Rigby Road awaiting a chance to renew and freshen the 'Ride the Lights' experience without significant capital outlay. The 1960s saw two of the veteran Standard cars being given an extended lease of life by not dissimilar addition of external lighting applied to the bodywork - whilst at the same time providing enhanced viewing through unblemished windows on both decks. The duo additionally provided attractive Promenade extra service capacity during the summer peak months. Sadly both were withdrawn in 1966 - one example making it into preservation (and continued operation) near Lowestoft.

An Illuminations Department special display feature from the 1950s - creative design at its best.

Whereas Blackpool is of course still lacking a tram museum celebrating the town's harnessing electric power as a pioneering urban transport system which continues right up to the present day : the stimulus for developing even a core exhibition and public display as a year round attraction so far has proved sadly beyond the reach of the Council's movers and shakers. Whispers of a tram museum emerging from reorganisation of the home of Blackpool Transport at Rigby Road remain just that. In similar fashion to the fleeting aspirations for Blundell Street Depot heritage museum in concert with Leyland's remarkable collection of buses and commercial vehicles, and the unfulfilled promises of a modest heritage tram display proposed alongside the new build Starr Gate Depot as part of the tramway infrastructure upgrade a decade ago - have all been unfulfilled ambitions.

The Lancastrian Transport Trust as well made a brave stab at securing Council endorsement for use of the tramway connected site at Thornton Gate for a permanent display of its own collection; whilst of course the Fleetwood Heritage Trust struggled to gain meaningful public sector support for a permanent memorial to the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad (1898 - 1920) as an integral component in regenerating Fleetwood's dockside land. What is left are idiosyncracies of today's 'Heritage Tours' offer - which seemingly attract sparse public ridership numbers outside of the small cadres of tram enthusiasts all too familiar with Blackpool's offer.

For those of us with firsthand memories extending back to the time when Blackpool Corporation Transport Department magnificently ensured an efficient and creative turnout of both buses and trams representing England's leading coastal resort - this squandering of unique transport heritage is very much a failure of civic leadership through several decades. Even the solitary marker commemorating the town's introduction of electric powered transport in 1885 and proudly unveiled in 1985 - quietly disappeared from its prominent position at North Pier's tramstop some years ago. Reflecting indifference of successive Councils and politicians to meaningful use of a unique and historic transport asset, beyond generating passenger revenue from an eleven mile coastal route.


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