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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The UK's Last Traditional Trams

John Woodman

While they may not fill everyone's idea of a 'traditional tram' in fact Blackpool Council's final orders for seven four axle front entrance single deck trams beginning with 641 in 1984 proved to be the very last design before light rail modular designs.

Number 641 was the prototype car built in Blackburn by that town's coachbuilding firm - East Lancashire. It was followed by two successive tranches of 3 trams each 642 - 647. The UK company GEC Traction opted to order a single car to the same design in order to test out new bogie technology - which was then used on Blackpool's seafront service under trial with the fleet number 651. It was expected that the Council would order a third tranche of three more Centenary cars to complete replacement of the by now worn out OMO car survivors in the late 1980s - but this was not to be. Instead a deal was done with GEC to purchase 651 less its trial bogies with replacements to the same design as the rest of the Centenary 'fleet'. Number 651 duly became 648 and received a mid life upgrade with retro body styling before final withdrawal along with the rest of the class in 2012. By this time new light rail startups in Sheffield, Manchester, West Midlands, Croydon and Nottingham had all been equipped with imported articulated low floor equipment - all to entirely different specifications and bodywork design from competing European suppliers. Lothian Region would follow with its own design for the new and expensive tramway.

Below : Prototype Centenary 641 being prepared for its 'launch' to celebrate Blackpool FC on the Pleasure Beach display track. The tram's trolley gantry is being fitted on to the roof.

Below : just repainted 645 in a striking red colour with inverted white frontal 'vee' (shades of Sunderland Corporation Tramway) - on test passing Bispham station.

No UK manufacturer took up the challenge to design and build new trams following the path of Blackpool Council in the 1980s. The exceptions being the large fleet of high floor rolling stock in use on Newcastle's network, and an initial batch built for the Strasbourg system - a rare UK export order. Withdrawn at the onset of the light rail upgrade in 2011 - the eight Centenary cars became surplus and available to interested parties. The FHLT acquired 641 for display at Starr Gate and an intended heritage exhibition on Fleetwood's waterfront - the latter now dormant. A further Centenary car used to advertise a local home furnishings business - Paul Gaunt Ltd. was intended for the same project but vandalised in Blackpool and subsequently scrapped.

Above : No not Colin MacLeod this time but a satisfied purchaser of 643 inspecting his new tram at Fleetwood prior to its transfer to a railway centre in the Midlands for repainting before formal handover to a special school.

All Images on this blog taken by John Woodman and copyright

Remarkably the National Tramway Museum collection at Crich showed no interest in securing a representative Centenary car - no doubt something the TMS will come to regret in later years. Instead a northeast startup collection stepped in to purchase a survivor for static display while Blackpool Transport's embryonic heritage team filled an important gap by retaining and repainting their surviving example 642 to provide nostalgia tours.

Three Fylde companies each acquired a Centenary car for display. Only the Farmer Parr site near Fleetwood retains its example. The tram which went to a caravan / sorry mobile home park at Windy Harbour was finally returned to Rigby Road Deport, whilst the car purchased for another mobile home park - this time opposite the Farmer Parr site, was donated to the FHLT and moved to their leased property at Wyre Dock. In time it was acquired privately from the Trust for a school classroom at a specialist centre in the Midlands where it now resides. Thus seven of the final eight cars built for Blackpool do indeed survive - but none at the national tram museum collection.


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