Leeds’ latest tram

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire:  Leeds 602

National Tramway Museum, Crich, Derbyshire: Leeds 602

For years now, a sleek modern-looking single-deck railcar has remained indoors at the National Tramway Museum at Crich.

Leeds 602 is Leeds’ latest tram – not the last to run but the last to be built – one of a pair of prototype railcars designed for an abortive scheme for subways under the city centre.

The only trams ever built by the Leeds coachbuilder Charles H Roe, these two Leeds railcars came into operation in 1953, Coronation year, hence their unusual and very stylish purple and cream livery.

The sister car, 601, had identical bodywork but used a conventional tramway electrical control system; 602 was more revolutionary, using VAMBAC (Variable Automatic Multi-notch Breaking And Acceleration), the same control gear that caused problems in Blackpool because their VAMBAC trams had alarming acceleration and a voracious appetite for current.

Both Leeds trams had little use over about four years, and both were sold for preservation. 601 was so badly vandalised at a site in Leeds that it had to be scrapped. 602 was purchased for £150, largely at the instigation of a Leeds enthusiast, Dr Granville King, and taken to Crich.

After Dr King died in 2013 – his funeral took place at Crich [http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/Tributes-paid-tramway-attraction-fan-Granville/story-19968551-detail/story.html] and his ashes are scattered there – the Museum Board learnt that he had left £250,000 specifically to restore 602 to running condition.

This placed the Board in a difficult position, because the professional conservators’ advice was to keep 602 as it was, an apparently unaltered example of 1950s engineering.

To the fury of many tram enthusiasts the Board rejected the bequest and 602 seems destined to sit in an exhibition hall for the foreseeable future.

The ensuing correspondence has been vehement and vituperative – http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=7932 – and the public-relations consequences of turning down a £250,000 legacy will no doubt reverberate for years.

There are lessons to be learned. It seems a good idea when making a conditional bequest to check whether it will be acceptable. It’s inadvisable to look a gift horse in the mouth.

And it’s easier to maintain integrity when it’s possible to be consistent. The National Tramway Museum has an unassailable reputation for restoring both operable trams – Southampton 45 and Sheffield 510 – and barely recognisable relics – London United 159 and Sheffield 74.

Many contributors to the tram-enthusiast blogs can’t understand why it’s in order to restore London County Council 1 “Bluebird” which will otherwise literally disintegrate, and not to do the same with Leeds 602 when the necessary cash is offered on a plate.

As one of the contributors pointed out, “Where some modifications to materials have to be made for safety reasons, then the original parts should be conserved in a properly catalogued archive where it is possible for more people to learn from them than while hidden in the vehicle’s internal workings.”

I’ve no credentials as a tram enthusiast. I’m grateful to be able to look at 602, but I’d much prefer to ride on it.

After all, it’s hardly Stephenson’s Rocket.

An update on this saga is at http://www.britishtramsonline.co.uk/news/?p=12743#comment-3225397.

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