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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Trams Museums and Lessons to be learned

John Woodman


Blackpool has belatedly began to realise the historical importance of being the first UK town to operate an electric powered tramway (in 1885) in a decade during which the new energy source began to sweep away steam and horse drawn urban transport. Given the varied and sometimes exotic competitors such as gas power as demonstrated by the Blackpool St Annes and Lytham tramway - it would take but a few years until overhead electric powered lines became an accepted part of urban landscape throughout the British Isles from Cork to Aberdeen.


But Blackpool came first thanks to the creative energies of a singular gentleman, Holroyd Smith. His efforts and role will become central to the newly announced Tram Town heritage attraction planned for a part of the Rigby Road transport complex. Ironically a fundamental restructuring of the tram and bus operations based at Rigby Road has been brought about by Blackpool Council's approval of its wholly owned commercial company Blackpool Transport Services Ltd. founded in 1986 to replace its bus fleet by 100% electric vehicles within the next few years. This has meant the installation of power sourcing equipment and technologies to replace the long familiar diesel pumps onsite. Maintenance and servicing of electric buses requires new skills and systems far removed from 20th century practises - with resultant training and infrastructure being to hand. To its great credit both the Council and BTS management have ticked all the necessary boxes to bring about an all electric bus fleet and services - in addition of course to the long established electric tramway, itself the subject of expanded route plans and options. Below : Gas power propelled the early trams running between Lytham and Blackpool. These did not last long with a strong gale blowing down the depot at Squires Gate. Overhead electric power replaced the entire fleet and line. Top deck seating was elementary ! Photo : John Woodman Archive


Previous generations of Council employees familiar with the skills necessary to sustain what became a virtual working heritage line, have now passed on with a handful of staff maintaining the remaining tram fleet and its century old technology. While minds turn to the experience of the handful of UK tram museums - there are eminent lessons to be gained from exemplary municipal heritage operations elsewhere in europe. Online perusal of the video websites for Naumburg and Rostock transport systems - just two examples in Germany from many, offers insight into the educational value of tramway museums in other European urban centres where civic investment and manpower sustain professionally run visitor venues (and operation).


Before plans are laid to rest (as it were) on the format and content of what is to become a stellar (it is to be hoped) heritage attraction at Rigby Road, the shift away from a seemingly incessant fixation of running Potemkin styled heritage tram 'tours' is commended. Understanding the pivotal role Blackpool played in hosting not one but three seperate tramways by 1900, each contributing its own individual power system (undergound conduit/gas/electric overhead power) - is an essential fault line to begin a story of this town's pioneering engagement in urban tram development - one which continues to evolve in the 21st century. Not forgetting electric street lighting and Blackpool's long lived illuminations displays: all of which stemmed from the shared 'Electricity and Tramways Department' based in Shannon Street and the Foxhall district.


To grasp the fulness of an era well before the Kaiser's army set foot on the soil of Belgium, changing world history - it is worth stepping back to those early years of electricity. A forthcoming well researched book on this very subject has been prepared by local author Brian Turner and will be published next year.


Not a Fylde coast tram but indicative of the formative years of electric tramway expansion, In this case a brave test of local ability to withstand all manner of extreme weather conditions - by the hardy citizens of Nelson. Not dissimilar models were introduced on the 1898 Blackpool and Fleetwood Tramroad, among other systems brave enough to try out 'combination cars' in the UK. Photo : John Woodman Archive





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