My friend John from the Isle of Man had the time of his life learning to drive a tram at the National Tramway Museum, Crich.
The Ultimate Tram Driving Experience was a retirement present from his colleagues. I had the privilege of being the photographer, which brought with it the challenge of working out how to capture someone driving a moving vehicle fitted with a windscreen.
John was superbly looked after from start to finish by his instructors Nigel and Paul. Paul is a superlative driving instructor, and Nigel (nominally the conductor) kept us interested and informed and patiently answered our questions throughout the day.
The day starts, over a cup of coffee, with classroom instruction. John needed to know one end of a tram from the other, as it were, and to be aware of the safety requirements of steering fifteen tons of tram along predestinate grooves. (Nigel told us that a recent visitor actually asked him how you steer a tram.)
John’s chosen Blackpool tram was in the sick bay, so he was given a huge, bosomy Liverpool “Green Goddess”, a shiny powerful beast that hadn’t been out of the depot for some weeks and took a certain amount of getting going. At one point we had to call the Crich equivalent of the AA when 869 mysteriously parked itself on the main line and refused to budge.
I was grateful to be allowed to listen in on the entire day so that I learnt a lot that I’d never realised about these ponderous vehicles.
The technology, for instance, is at once simple and complicated; the machinery is both robust and extremely delicate. Six hundred volts moving from wire to rail through a wood, steel and glass double-deck vehicle is not to be messed with. Direct current behaves in a different way to the alternating current we use at home.
If you treat the tram properly, John was told, it’s really quite easy to move; if you’re uncertain, there can be smoke and bangs and flashes – and you can cause damage that takes time and money to put right. It very rarely happens.
I learned, watching and listening to Paul’s meticulous instruction and encouragement, that driving a tram is much more about coasting and momentum than I’d imagined. As with a car, you keep your foot off the throttle as much as you can.
Making it move is one thing; stopping it is another. This is why the regular Crich tram-drivers have one or more of seven different licences, largely because of the variety of braking systems in the historic fleet.
We were hospitably received by this exceptionally professional museum – coffee in the morning, lunch, and then more coffee at the end of the day, constant friendly attention, the run of the museum both on foot and in our own big green tram. We arrived at 10 am and left at 5 pm, and Paul and Nigel showed no haste to see us off.
I know more about trams and Crich than I’d have learned any other way, and – thanks to his former colleagues – John has another skill to add to his CV.