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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Tram Depot Experience

John Woodman

I have been fortunate in 'sampling' several working tram depots as an outside observer. Visits to the dwindling tramways in Glasgow, Leeds and Sheffield during the late 1950s; plus of course Blackpool's then extensive structures at Marton, Fleetwood, Bispham and on Blundell Street all provided a fulsome flavour of traditional tramway operation (in Britain). Wearing uniform in 1963 I even managed to catch a closeup viewing of a German system, complete with trolleypole power collection, just before final closure - in Paderborn, Westphalia. This system's extensive rural network linking various small villages and communities with roadside single track running - going so far as the Exterstein landmark, and Teutoburgerwald with its shadow of a famous Roman legion defeat very much a constant backdrop.

Below : Krakow Tramway's new museum in the final stages of construction with an elegant frontage. Tram rail being prepared for installation outside. An image taken by the author in 2006.

The use of former depot structures as permanent memorials to trams and travel of earlier decades is relatively common in Europe - serving as educational and historical venues for new generations to gain their own perspectives. Both Brussels and Liege host sizeable tram museums, whilst the city of Prague with its vibrant tram network has assigned a large depot to conserve a comprehensive collection of old cars, including works vehicles. This contrasts with Glasgow which originally assigned the tramway Paint Shop at Coplawhill to house a more parsimonious group of representative types after closure of that system in 1962, The collection has since moved twice and is now housed in a modernistic structure adjoining the River Clyde; with an exceptional display embracing trains, cars, buses and boat models among other artifacts of that city's industrial past. Another European city proud of its tram heritage is Vienna, with its extensive city network as well as the seperate interurban line running out from the city centre to the neighbouring spa town of Baden (a sort of Germanic Lytham). A former running depot has been exclusively turned into tram exhibition space with access tracks onto the city network. Similarly Zurich has assigned a depot to its museum trams - all in immaculate blue and white liveries (with a few earlier exceptions). Here too access tracks connect with a service line allowing special tours operated by the local enthusiasts organisation.

Both Stockholm and Oslo also staunch proponents of urban tram services each maintain sizeable displays of preserved vintage cars in one time service depots - both accessible to the public and being used to base regular heritage tram operation with volunteers. No doubt one could go on endlessly with similar practical examples in other countries. The underlying message being one of community support and involvement with historic tram preservation across Europe (and further afield). My visit to Istanbul a few years back provided evidence of the extent of public empathy with traditional trams - with both museum displays as well as running lines in busy city streets.

Regrettably both Sheffield and Leeds which were the last two English cities to replace their trams with buses - have nothing to show of their early systems, whilst Liverpool likewise declined to honour the role of its equally famous trams with any permanent memorial. Fortunately the embryonic Tramway Museum Society which sprang up? in 1959 assembled representative cars from around the country on a former quarry site in Derbyshire. Here a resplendent collection housed under cover in several structures also provides rides along a cliffside line.

Street vendors compete with passing vintage Istanbul trams on Taksim street in Istanbul. The trams are of German origin (possibly in design if not manufacture) from the 1920s. Photo : John Woodman

Below : Scranton, PA had a distinctive small town 'trolley' system up to the 1950s with a batch of 'new' cars in the late 1920s built by Osgood-Bradley and the latest thing in tram design (in the USA). They preceded the development of the famous 'PCC Car' design the following decade. One of Scranton's 'Electromobiles' is seen here - note its new fender design which may well have been copied by English Electric's design team in Preston when formulating the radical new 'rail coach' pattern in 1933.

Below : Works staff manhandle a colleague's parked car to allow this Coronation tram to proceed out of the Workshops and onto the connecting track behind the camera. It seems as if another parked car may have to be removed if the tram is to get through with the tram's driver anxiously viewing the clearance on the sharp curve adjoining Blackpool Transport offices. The same scene remains today.

Blackpool has the good fortune in retaining its own distinctive trams as well as a still functioning tram depot and workshops - installed in the 1920s and 1930s. Although diminished in scale today the workshops still retain essential elements found across British tramcar installations from Edwardian era. In those times trams were wood framed needing the skills of carpenters and associated crafts and Rigby Road Works thus had its own specialist staff and trades needed to keep what became vintage rolling stock - rolling. A capacious new depot was built in the mid 1930s to house an expanding fleet of more modern trams then arriving from the Preston factory of English Electric on Strand Road. These were joined by equally modern trams built in 1937 at Loughborough by the Brush Engineering Company. Nearly a hundred years later, a respectable number of these trams continue to find shelter in the same depot building - albeit showing the passage of time and millions of miles covered over seafront tracks.

In this context retention of these survivors within this now classic setting delivers a self-made heritage visitor attraction in Council ownership; complete with connecting link on to the Promenade tramway. Whilst a culling of site infrastructure is now needed which will see much of the original Works buildings razed to make way of 21st century electric vehicles of a different order - the chance to establish in a traditional tram depot and maintenance exhibit open to paying visitors of all ages year round, is one which needs to be grasped with both arms.

This would allow for scheduled 'tours' from Rigby Road as part of the exhibition experience - as well as multi media display of the tramways evolvement since 1885 using the marvellous film and images taken by many enthusiasts and supporters over three centuries. If Merlin or the Pleasure Beach became involved - combined ticketing for these star Blackpool venues could readily be factored in. It is worth recalling that the tram depot structure at Rigby Road was designed to function as an exhibition centre with vehicle access doors on its western side.


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