• John Woodman

THE FHLT AND ITS TRAMS - PREAMBLE

John Woodman


Over the previous decade a very small band of local supporters worked tirelessly and at their expense to bring about a permanent memorial to the long history of the tram service connecting the town of Fleetwood with Blackpool. Its origins lay perhaps unsuprisingly in the Isle of Man across the Irish Sea from the Fylde coast. Here enterprising pioneers built not one but three electric tramways in the waning years of the 19th century; each with an entirely different character. The high point on the island being at Snaefell where a line was built up to the very summit with the aid of special safety rail. Thus the Snaefell Mountain Railway (SMR) became firmly established right up to the present day as a must visit experience for tourists.


A lengthy coastal narrow gauge electric line was similarly constructed from a terminus on Douglas promenade to Ramsey in the north west of the island. A connection was made at Laxey for travellers to change on to the Snaefell service. The variables of winter and summer services called for a mixed fleet of single deck closed saloon trams, and large fleet of open crossbench cars used with matching trailers at peak times. The Manx Electric Railway operates to the present day with original equipment - albeit with reduced passenger numbers from its formative years in the 1900s.


A third electric line, this time operating double deck trams to an unusual open crossbench design with passenger access only from one side. This was forced on the Douglas Head Marine Drive operation as a result of the track being constructed along a cliffside with shared roadway on one side only. The DHMD was mothballed at the outbreak of World War Two: both cars and depot lay undisturbed to the late 1940s. One car was saved when the entire line complete with depot and tram fleet was scrapped. Douglas itself even boasted a cable hauled street line, and horse drawn promenade tramway - the latter amazingly still being lovingly maintained as a summer season visitor attraction along much of its original seafront route.


Following on the success of these Isle of Man electric tramways - attention turned due east to the Fylde coastline by promoters. Blackpool's town tram services had already been inaugurated in 1885 - using a third rail power system known as 'conduit' which did away with need for overhead electric power wires and poles. This had proved troublesome and its shortcomings were immediately exposed with opening of the new interurban coastal tramway between Fleetwood, then a thriving fishing port with the centre of Blackpool - a line of eight miles, mostly on reserved tracks between the two towns and built to the wider 'standard' gauge. Using experience gained from the Isle of Man service a similar mix of enclosed winter saloon cars and open cross bench trams for summer traffic - to the same design as the MER fleet was introduced. Depots at Bispham and Fleetwood served the tram fleet which totalled forty one at the end of its operating lease of twenty one years. Blackpool Corporation Tramways taking over the entire company assets in 1920.


Again immediate success and popularity of the new service (and its operating reliability with overhead power and trolleypole current collection) motivated Blackpool's Town Council to convert its seafront conduit lines to similar overhead systems using larger cars.


That this pioneering electric interurban service continues to the present day is testimony to well founded optimism and preparation by the original backers and management. A decision to upgrade the service to a light rail standard required by legislation a century later meant that a new generation of trams was required by 2009. Designed for low floor (stepless access) involved low platforms being installed at station stops along the entire line (now 11 miles from end to end). All of the existing tram fleet then operated by Council owned Blackpool Transport Service Ltd. became immediately incompatible with public service. Dispensation for continued operation of modified double deck trams capable of running alongside the new imported light fleet sixteen in number. A total of eleven rebuilt examples assured a modicum of Blackpool's much loved double deck trams to be used as part of the light rail service from 2012. The balance being stored or made available to heritage museum schemes, along with most of the single deck fleet.


Blackpool Transport Services was prevailed upon to also operate a seasonal 'heritage tram' service in the form of limited tours apart from regular services. This understandably utilised much of the stored tram fleet retained inside Rigby Road Depot. Popular among tram enthusiasts ridership did not meet expectations despite heavy publicity and marketing. Exceptions were use of the open 'boat' cars in warm summer weather and bank holiday weekends; whilst the autumn Illuminations offered advantageous viewing from the double deck trams compared to less than satisfactory crowded low floor units ill suited to the needs of nighttime travel. Use of the special illuminated feature cars continues as an essential visitor element of the 'Lights' experience.


Uncertainty over the future of the traditional fleet and the absence of a professionally managed tram museum open to the public in Blackpool prompted this modest initiative by the newly created group, known initially as 'Friends of Fleetwood Trams' to save representative examples of the traditional tram fleet deemed surplus to requirement by 2009.


Below : A survivor from the original Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramroad Fleet - Box Car 40 seen here at Bispham Depot on an enthusiast tour in its 1960s repainted condition for the 75th Anniversary of Blackpool Electric Trams. Image Copyright John Woodman

The rundown of Fleetwood's dockside land and fishing trawler infrastructure offered chance to create a year round leisure visitor venue in proximity to the town centre. Parallel efforts to reopen passenger train service from the same portside using mothballed railway right of way as far as Poulton station were taking form during this timeframe - offering joined up regeneration schemes for the town.


to be continued :








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