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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Twilight Of The Tram (For the Time Being)

John Woodman

Britain's slow recovery from the ravages and costs of conflict ending in 1945 saw a decade of rebuilding physical infrastructure while facing a new reality of the country's diminishing role in the world: although its influence still remained strong enough to command a seat at the top table in world affairs. Whilst former enemy Germany moved swiftly to rebuild its bombed out cities and towns (and railways) ensuring retention of tramway infrastructure and modernising fleets - Britain opted to continue with dismissal of urban railed transport in favour of home produced buses reliant on imported oil and rubber.

The delayed process of tram replacement by buses (and trolleybuses) meant continuance of tramway closures across the country from Belfast to Bradford. By the mid part of the 1950s this sad litany of final runs accompanied by crocodile tears of Aldermen and Councillors was an all too familiar news headline. London's last tram ran in 1952 in this decade, which was marked by ever frequent tramway closures. Sunderland in 1954, Edinburgh in 1956, Liverpool said goodbye in 1957 and the tearing up of miles of well laid out tramway reservations to suburbs and beyond, Aberdeen closed in 1958 whilst Leeds held out almost to the end of 1959 with Sheffield following in 1960 - the last English tram system to close, leaving just Blackpool affixed to continued operation.

Above : privately preserved London HR2 class tram so typical of the capital's tram system up to the very end in 1952. Number 1858 seen here stored within Chessington Zoo but now a popular ride at the East Anglia Transport Museum near Lowestoft and only example of this class.

Twilight of trams in Sheffield (above) a 'dome roof car of 1938 - and in Leeds a 'Horsfield' type :

Glasgow's once extensive network succumbed in 1962 despite having built over a hundred new trams since the war's end. Its closure almost coinciding with Blackpool's solitary all street tram route - to Marton in the same year. By 1960 Blackpool Council had determined that its street tram services were destined for replacement with new buses to a standard British format of double deck open rear platform pattern. Ten examples having been tested from two competing tenders in 1957 - with the added expectation that the town's marriage to centre entrance buses would finally fade away during the following decade. It duly did. The tram fleet however was another matter entirely - given the absence of any UK manufacturers in the tram building sector coupled with the high capital costs of new trams (of any kind).

Fortunately Blackpool managed to retain a toehold in tramcar design and construction through its integrated workshops at Rigby Road where a cadre of skilled staff retained familiarity with the especial requirements of railed electric powered rolling stock. Thus the 1920s works took in hand successive challenges postwar to produce upgraded and modernised trams utilising much of the 1930s fleet. A less expensive exception was the purchase of ten new unmotored trailers to complete the planned 'Progress Twin-Car' series inaugurated with an experimental pair of 1930s rail coaches in 1958. A special part of the Tramcar Body Shop's remit was design and construction of illuminated 'floats' using surplus trams, This began during the 1920s with a further generation of remarkable designs being 'launched' in 1957 starting with a 'Paddle Steamer', followed up with an illuminated space rocket, western train (coupled set), hovertram and naval 'frigate'. Subsequent work involved the conversion of a Brush single deck tram to double as an illuminated trawler sponsored naturally by Fisherman's Friend of Fleetwood; and redesign of the 'Frigate' to an improved style. The 'Western Train' was also completely rebuilt (at least the 'locomotive') under a generous grant from the HLF.

Retaining the interurban seafront line, almost all of which was on reserved track excepting the street running section within Fleetwood - gave pause to the handful of Council Members intent on complete conversion of Blackpool's trams. Instead a worthwhile effort again by the Works saw redesign of thirteen centre entrance single deck cars (again from the 1930s) to become end loading one man operated trams retaining their centre doors for exiting passengers. Resulting savings on staff costs helped relieve the transport department of operating deficits during the winter season.

Below : Germany's response to postwar urban transport needs. The 'grossraumwagen' - articulated trams to high floor design. In this case examples delivered to the city of Bielefeld in the 1960s.

The role of the 'OMO' fleet would ensure continuance of Blackpool's seafront tram service into a more stable era; one in which trams were beginning to be recognised as a credible urban transport mode (in the UK). Unfortunately no domestic supplier or indeed industry resource continued in the UK market unlike in France and Belgium (and Germany) where revival of tram operation took on a much more robust cause which continues into the 2020s'. Blackpool fell back on the cooperation of a Lancashire bus body builder -, East Lancashire Coachworks of Blackburn, to find a supplier able to construct a modest number of new one man operated trams arriving with 641 in 1984. The 'Centenary' fleet held down the service as the OMO conversions began to be withdrawn and in turn safeguarded the tramway in its entirety until the light rail era arrived funded by a central government grant allied to Blackpool and Lancashire County Council subventions.

Total reconstruction of the entire eleven mile long route including a new seafront depot, substations and low platform station stops was then accompanied by delivery of the resort's first foreign built trams in the form of sixteen modular low floor cars which began service in 2012. Not that this was the last endorsement of the tram's important role in the town. A new on street extension, complete with three way junction at Talbot Square, will see the trams again returning to their originating role of 1898 delivering passengers to and from Blackpool North Railway Station. Work on completing this segment is underway with expectation of completion in late 2022. Further redevelopment strategies both in Blackpool and the Fylde coast do not rule out enhanced light rail operation during this decade. Thus have we gone almost a complete circle ; one in which at least my lifetime has witnessed.

All Photos copyright : John Woodman


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