The last time I had a chance to indulge my inner anorak talking to someone from the National Tramway Museum, Crich I made a point of asking why, whenever I visit the museum, I never get the chance to ride on the dignified, elegant Sheffield trams I remember from my childhood.
The superbly restored Sheffield 74 operates quite often, but otherwise the Sheffield vehicles in the collection stay in the depot.
The two Crich volunteers, who themselves happen to come from Sheffield, looked a little shamefaced, and said they were itching to get their hands on repairing and restoring Sheffield’s Last Tram, the Roberts car 510, which had a number of technical defects and needed a complete overhaul: it has since been beautifully restored and returned to the rails on May 17th 2014: http://www.tramway.co.uk/events/best-sheffield.
But what, I asked, about the two most representative Sheffield trams, the Standard 189 and the Improved Standard (similar but with curves) 264?
It seems that they both have serious bodywork defects. The frames are creaking and they aren’t safe to run.
I felt like Dame Edith Evans, who refused to play Lady Macbeth because, she said, there were some pages missing from Shakespeare’s script: “Why does she go mad? She was perfectly all right at dinner.”
Both these trams came to Crich in 1960, straight from the streets. They were perfectly all right when they left Sheffield.
When the museum began running services in 1964, those trams that were already in running order were the mainstay of operations.
Gradually, new restorations joined the fleet, and the Sheffield standard trams were parked up indefinitely.
In fact, the humid climatic conditions at Crich mean that even over a winter, trams stored in the depots attract damaging amounts of damp, and the lower-deck panels of 189 have suffered particularly badly: http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=7643.
There’s an additional irony. 264, which always ran in the mid-1930s cream-and-blue livery, has been repainted twice since it reached Crich. 189, on the other hand, has the older, elaborate, traditional Prussian blue livery that dates back much further.
As such, it was rarely if ever repainted after it was built in 1934. Once the elaborate lining and lettering had been completed, such trams were given many layers of varnish. Every few years, the varnish was sanded down and reapplied.
So, my Crich contacts told me, the actual paintwork of 189 is a historical artefact, and as such should be preserved intact.
The fact is that Crich, like almost all museums, has far more exhibits than it can show at once. But its pioneering raison d’être from the early 1960s onwards was to run as a working line, alongside the early preserved railways like the Talyllyn and the Bluebell.
So I hope that before I become completely doddery I’ll have the chance to catch an orthodox second-generation Sheffield tram, as I used to do when I went to school in the 1950s.
For information about the National Tramway Museum, see http://www.tramway.co.uk. There is a detailed and richly illustrated history of the museum at http://tramways.blogspot.com/p/crich-1959-1969.html, http://tramways.blogspot.com/p/crich-1970-1979.html and http://tramways.blogspot.com/p/crich-1978-1979.html.