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Blackpool’s heritage tram force continues as a resort linchpin

One could say that without the trams, the Illuminations and the Pleasure Beach, Blackpool would be finished, the image destroyed (other attractions are available) and the soul removed.

Despite the Blackpool Tramway system’s top to bottom refurbishment and the marvellous Flexity 2 modern trams’ advent in 2012, the heritage trams (formerly ‘the trams’) continue to ply the promenade adding to the resort’s somewhat retro ambience and providing tours from specially configured tram stops. Following #blackpool on my Instagram, after the Tower over the comedy carpet, the Western Train illuminated tram has to be the most frequently occurring image. People love it, along with the rest of the fleet.

Balloon tram in a light maintenance area, ready to take to the Promenade. Part of the ‘B-fleet’, this tram is adapted to be disabled accessible

Despite their role, contribution and impact, the heritage trams cannot be taken for granted; it’s a major logistical challenge to keep them going. Their conservation and development is headed by Bryan Lindop, managing the heritage tram set up at Rigby Road depot as a free-standing unit, now branded as Tramtown, within Blackpool Transport Services. He arranged to meet Catherine and I for a tour and a chat. Bryan exudes positivity, but the scale of the challenge he faces cannot be denied. All togged up in hi vis, he leads us through the operation.

 

Inside a vehicle holding area, we’re surprised to find that Tramtown has a tank, a WW1 pattern tank, although it is only a mock up. Bryan relates that this was a lottery funded joint project between Salford University students and Heaton Park Tramway Museum, commemorating a real such effort that took place using a replica tank body on tram wheels that was used to raise money for the war effort. As sometimes happens, the students had moved on and the wooden tank had found its way to Rigby Road depot awaiting its next role. It sits between the remains of the only surviving Lytham tram, currently a body shell after a diverse after-life in various domestic situations and the skeleton of a balloon tram that we were informed was in an advanced stage of restoration.

Catherine and Bryan discuss the operation in the heritage tramway workshop.
The wooden skeleton of balloon tram 241 (704) approaching renovation completion (apparently). WW1 tank tram to the left.
Body shell of the last surviving Lytham tram. (Nearly finished then!)

That balloon tram skeleton is in wood, demonstrating the coach built nature of many of the trams. The vehicle is being brought back to life with practical support and funding from a private individual, indicating the dedication that these vehicles elicit. Metal components including a complete new under-frame have been fabricated by the Heritage Department’s own team of highly skilled craftsmen. With new parts in place and the skeleton re-panelled and new seating fitted, this vehicle is going to look magnificent. Even I, used to seeing restoration cases, would have thought that this one was a write off, but no! Ye of little faith!

New underframe for balloon tram 241 (704) fabricated at Rigby Road.
Driver’s cab area of balloon tram 241 (704) showing the extent of work needed. The cab and driver controls will be refurbished or re-fabricated.

From there we moved into the workshop area, a place of seemingly organised chaos where clearly, much is accomplished. Racks of steel profiles run parallel to half-completed projects. A stack of seats in various moquette, reveals an opportunity for an article on the long-term design history of Blackpool tram textiles and the issues in matching moquette with the external livery. It’s surprising how hot under the collar the purists can get about such things. As an increasingly ‘satisficing’ kind of person, I’m just glad to see the vehicles running. Back on metal, there is the underframe for the Balloon tram we left in the last room.

The forge area waits to be sparked up.
A stack of seating waiting to be recovered and fitted, a refurbished tram bogie andf in the background traction motors awaiting refurbishment and refitting.

In the corner is a forge with its tools on racks and the anvil ready, enabling parts to be beaten out of raw metal if necessary. ‘We do have a lot of difficulty finding people with the traditional historic craft skills that we need,’ says Bryan. ‘If there are people out there reading this article, there may be a place for you here.’ It appears that the country’s partial disengagement with heavy industry has taken its toll, especially if you’re trying to keep a heritage tram fleet on the rails. Bryan reels off the few tasks that cannot currently be done in house and the partner companies that do those that can’t, such as traction motor rewinding and weaving the material for seat covers (to the correct pattern of course).

A beautiful vintage tram gleams in the corner, perfect but for its dodgy motor and illustrating the obstacles that have to be overcome. Hopefully we’ll see that vehicle out carrying passengers soon. Rigby Road is part of a small group of museums and attractions operating trams, including Crich in Derbyshire and Beamish in County Durham, with vehicles being swapped between them from time to time. Local preservation groups also have trams stored or operating here. Blackpool Social Club hosts a previous article on the Paisley tram, held at Rigby Road awaiting restoration. Thus, the depot holds a microcosm of local transport heritage.

Finally, we exit to the semi-open tram shed area. The trams look magnificent in their line-up, awaiting the next shift on the promenade. A variety of types have been retained, including the open ‘boat’ type, only really deployed in hot weather. There is the totally popular Western Train tram. ‘The issue for this building is the roof,’ says Bryan. ‘It’s life expired now and needs to be replaced within the next two years. We’ve launched a Crowdfunder to raise public awareness and to engage with our public, but it’s a lot of money to raise in that way. I am currently looking at various bid funding options to restore the entire building and create a bespoke exhibition hall. Without this tram shed we’re in difficulty. Two vehicles can be moved to Starr Gate in an emergency, but that’s designed around the modern Flexity fleet and there isn’t the room or the specialist facilities to house or maintain them there.’ We eye the dodgy roof warily and Bryan adds, ‘Thanks to our crowd funders, we have been able to carry out emergency repairs, so it’s secure for now and kept under regular inspection’.

By now freezing cold, we retire for a hot drink and to discuss the many things we have seen. Bryan talks about the Tramtown heritage attraction concept, building on the successful depot tours that are currently in full flow and which, since their inception in September and led by a team of specialist volunteers, have been fully booked ever since, which has to be worth a future article. But for now, we have a well-oiled machine that keeps a fleet of unique heritage vehicles in continuous working order, with many restoration projects underway or in the pipeline.

Blackpool is the only place that runs heritage vehicles alongside its modern Starr Gate – Fleetwood service fleet and shortly the extension line to the Blackpool North railway station. With this team in place, the fleet’s future is secure. We just need to sort that tram shed roof; do give through the Crowdfunder if you can. Individual contributions don’t have to cost the earth. If a million people gave just a pound, the trams would be both home and dry!

Another classic vehicle awaits final traction repairs before taking to the Promenade.
The semi-open tram shed showing ye dodgy roof. Restoration Crowdfunder link in ye text. Prithee give most generously, thank ye!

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  • I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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