Heritage trams. What are they? Where and when can we see them?
To browsers in Tower Models of Cookson Street or for those visiting the toy shop while waiting for the Fleetwood ferry, shiny colourful heritage trams are as familiar a sight as the sleek new glossy trams that arrived with the new tracks in the last few years to replace the old cream and green vehicles. Some of the most famous heritage trams known to residents and tourists are the rocket, ship and gondola trams which roar up and down new the tram-tracks each year below the miles of overhead attractions and past the promenade tableaux during the Illuminations.
Back in 2015, Martin Gurr, tram-lover and long-term co-ordinator of the tramway promotions was at Blackpool Transport’s Rigby Road depot to let us in on some trade secrets.
Martin has been passionate about trams since the age of five when he came to Blackpool on holiday from his London home. So keen is he, that Martin is now the Operations Manager for Blackpool Heritage Trams. Martin, who before moving to Blackpool in March was a volunteer at the Crich Tram Museum in Derbyshire, is also a driver for Virgin Trains and now works alongside Brian Lindop, the Head of Heritage Trams.
Martin is employed, as a volunteer, to organise staff training and rotas and the number of staff and trams required each day that the trams are operational. In previous years the vintage tram service ran for just nine days but now they run every weekend and Bank Holidays between North Pier and the Pleasure Beach from Easter until the end of the Illuminations.
Apparently, there are at least a further twenty-three vintage, unusual, old and very old heritage trams in assorted shapes and sizes living in the Hopton Road tram depot, the oldest dating from about 1901. You may catch sight of some of them on weekends throughout the year or during special events, or perhaps at the annual trams festival in Fleetwood. The heritage trams run alongside the sixteen new, modern flexibility tram service which arrived in 2012 following the upgrade of eleven miles of track and a new depot.
Blackpool Tramway is one of the oldest electric tramways in the world dating back to 1885. It opened on 29th September of that year and originally ran between Cocker Street and Dean Street. Blackpool is only one of three places which operate double decker trams, the others being Alexandria in Egypt and Hong Kong.
Martin oversees teams made up of Blackpool Transport employees and about twenty-eight volunteers, some of whom travel huge distances across Britain to drive, ride on, tinker or mess about with or just to be near their favourite models for the holidays or if lucky, throughout the Blackpool tourism season. He explained that each heritage tram is a unique personality with its own quirks, even within the same model range. While most remain anonymous, a few bear their own names. The Princess Alice is an elegant open top double decker christened following a royal visit. One tram is named after local film star musician, George Formby, another is named for a retired Blackpool Transport employee and the Walter Luff remembers a manager of General Motors whose daughter attended the inaugural ceremony. There is a Lytham heritage tram, as seen on a classic transport poster and three of Blackpool’s familiar standard boat trams live in San Francisco. Elton John is believed to be a fan, keeping a Melbourne tram in his back garden.
There are monthly and yearly examinations to be passed and lessons to be learned as, while Transport employees undergo training and work with trams ordinary and not so ordinary all year round, the army of volunteers, several on holiday from the Tramway Museum in Crick in Devon, must learn to drive, conduct, repair and restore Blackpool’s stock of heritage trams, some also being responsible for administration, others for promotions. The volunteers are easy to work with, according to Martin, who appreciates they work with heritage trams from choice and acknowledges their passion for their subjects. The professional standards are therefore very high. Not only must all the heritage trams always look beautiful and well preserved but crucial technical considerations require a sound knowledge of heights loaders, paint types, tracks, rails, winders and other mysterious trammy terms.
The fleet of bright heritage trams parading up and down the promenade this year together with the new modern trams rejuvenating the coast, remind everyone of local heritage, business and tourism but also recall the poignant history of the older, rickety yet ever reliable trams crashing through Blackpool’s winter rains and winds throughout the year. One-hundred and eight of those older trams were sold to use in other locations around Britain or sold for scrap and their faster, quieter, smoother replacements are expected to break even in around ten years.
Meanwhile, the Hopton Road depot is open on request to visitors fascinated by the old heritage trams and guided tours can be arranged to this all-weather attraction conveniently close to the town centre.
Lynne Charoenkitsuksun & Diana Holden