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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

Why I'm Not Subsidising The Western Train's Makeover - Transparancy Please.

John Woodman

Transparancy is needed on how Blackpool Transport's heritage and illuminated trams are being funded and just who owns them. The recent online posting soliciting contributions from enthusiasts by 'Heritage Tours' towards completion of the Western Train's latest overhaul at Rigby Road Works to allow it to return to service in 2021 - poses questions over whose responsibility it is to maintain the special trams intended to complement the resort's annual illuminations display.

Blackpool's Heritage trams have been taken 'in house' by Blackpool Transport during 2020 following concerns over their excessive operation in recent years. This saw ever expanding 'tours' during months when the heritage fleet should have been rested at Rigby Road to allow for maintenance and servicing of elderly trams nearing their eightieth anniversaries. The sight of almost empty classic trams trundling up and down the promenade - seemingly aimed at Blackpool's visitors nearly year round, evidently served the indulgence of a small to modest number of transport enthusiasts discounted hidden costs of wear and tear on vintage rolling stock - was far from politically correct. And evidently a huge burden on the hardpressed skeleton staff remaining at Rigby Road's engineering workshop and depot. This could not be allowed to continue.

Below : The 1958 illuminated tram 'Blackpool Belle' - with a paltry number of passengers on the lower 'deck' outward facing bench seating. The car is seen without its later disfiguring external advertising for a brand of 'Scotch Whiskey'. John Woodman Archive

Below : One of the two 1920s Standard cars fitted out with exterior lighting (158/159) showing off its illuminated profile outside Rigby Road Depot (both were withdrawn in 1966 - one survives sans lighting at the East Anglia Transport Museum), Image : John Woodman Archive

The especial sight of the illuminated trams was intended as the 'Tramways Department's' contribution to the resort's autumnal 'lights'. Originally the illuminated fleet were marvellous moving 'tableaux' created by generations of craftsmen in the tramway workshops, aided and abetted by their colleagues employed by the town's Lighting and Illuminations staff - at one time sited 'a few doors down' along Rigby Road. Up until the advent in 1959 of the 'Blackpool Belle' the handful of illuminated feature trams were wholly funded from the Transport Department's budget. The 'Belle' introduced a chance for the Department to modestly recoup this outlay by having its latest creation carry premium fare paying passengers (in modest numbers). Thereafter following in quick succession further creations in the form of 'Tramnik One' with its angled space rocket fuselage; then the sponsored 'Western Train' underwritten by a television broadcast company with significantly larger passenger capacity; and two further nautical themed designs : the Hovertram sponsored by Shell, and the 'Frigate' tram. A final addition came through the subvention of Fleetwood based 'Fisherman's Friend'. The latter cleverly intended to operate as a regular service car, whilst doubling up as an illuminated tram for the autumn 'Lights' season. Two of the ageing 'Standard' cars were also recruited as additional feature trams through the less expensive outlay of external lighting surrounds on both decks. All of this work was carried out by Blackpool's engineering workshops - well staffed and funded from within the Transport Department's budgets.

Blackpool's illuminations display have latterly fallen on hard times with successive staffing cuts and internal reorganisation of their management during the past decade (or two). Blackpool's unitary authority status outwith Lancashire County Council - has strained the town's finances even before the full impact of the current 'Covid Virus' became apparent last year. As the smallest local authority with responsibility for light rail operation in the UK - the present operator 'Blackpool Transport Ltd' wholly owned by Blackpool Council, somehow manages to maintain a credible year round service, soon to be extended by an on-street branch linking with the town's main railway terminus - Blackpool North. Having to host and maintain what has become an overly large fleet of old trams even with benefit of volunteer operating crews; requires tight controls combined with commercial revenue driven priorities. Handfuls of hard core tram enthusiasts infrequently taking a ride do not match up with daily accounting realities, nor workshop time and expenditures,

The resort's autumn illuminations display was (and to some degree still is) seen as an extension of the town's seasonal visitor draw - now up to the second week in November. Subsidised from the Authority's finances to a great extent it is a boon to the resort's innumerable bars, b&b sector and hotel operators large and small, plus myriad seafront leisure businesses starting with the pier(s) operator, and the Pleasure Beach company with Merlin's Blackpool operation. Efforts to raise subventions from these commercial beneficiaries have modest success, whilst the seemingly ever expanding drinks trade no doubt make a contribution of sorts = details of which are hidden in the small print (if at all). One notable positive has been success in raising sponsorship of sections of the Lights display with the example of Beaverbrook being especially noteworthy. However the principal burden falls as ever on Blackpool's tax payers. Against this are consulting fees and costs of third party 'advisors' together with deskbound 'managers and specialists' - usually recruited from outside of the Fylde.

We are informed that the 'Western Train' is the most popular member of the town's heritage tram fleet - attracting frequent private hires and promotional events. This should be able to sustain the costs of its maintenance and operating overhead. Given that the tram's construction at Rigby Road in 1958 (I was there) was initially subsidised by 'ABC Television'; and later rebuilt paid for by a heritage grant (HLF); this latest appeal to donate funds for its continued use is unseemly at best. A breakdown of revenue and costs incurred through or by 'Heritage Tours' is now long overdue, or better still, Blackpool Transport Ltd. whose success elsewhere, despite very difficult times, has managed to sustain a network of services with new buses that are the envy of other communities. As a longtime Blackpool resident and observer (and user) of our local transport over (far too) many years I am keeping my hands in my pocket when it comes to the 'Western Train'.


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