The Blackpool Tramway is a monument to the entire history of railed street transport in Britain.
Blackpool had the very first electric street tramway in Britain, opened in 1885, and it now runs a modern light rapid-transit (LRT) service, alongside a varied collection of heritage trams for tourists and enthusiasts.
Until after the First World War three tram operators between Fleetwood and Lytham St Annes each ran two fleets – entirely conventional trams for local traffic alongside a range of designs to cater for crowds of holidaymakers who wanted to ride around enjoying themselves, preferably in the open air when the weather was favourable.
In the 1930s when a new transport manager, Walter Luff, was appointed he quickly realised that it would be impossible to handle the Promenade crowds with buses, particularly in the autumn Illuminations period.
He commissioned a suite of four ultra-modern tram designs primarily to work the Promenade service – luxurious, streamlined single- and double-deckers, some of them open to the fresh air for summer services.
After the Second World War, while every other tram operator in the country went over to electric trolleybuses or diesel motor buses Blackpool still needed the segregated Promenade tracks, stretching from Starr Gate in the south to the outskirts of Fleetwood in the north, to shift the crowds up and down the Promenade efficiently with the best possible view of the Illuminations.
New trams were far more expensive than new buses, however, so the 1930s fleet soldiered on, patched, repaired and many of them rebuilt in new guises.
The only completely new trams to be added to the fleet after the 1950s were eight Centenary cars, built around the time of the tramway’s hundredth anniversary in 1985, when Government subsidies became available for new trams as well as buses.
Eventually the game was up, and the Victorian tramway was upgraded to modern LRT standards, with a fleet of sixteen sleek articulated trams which took over the basic service in 2012.
Nowadays, the Blackpool Tramway has three fleets: the LRT cars are the “A” fleet, nine modified 1934-35 double-deck Balloon cars are the “B” fleet with widened doorways so they can stop at the raised LRT platforms, and the “C” fleet is a huge and varied collection of rolling stock dating back to, and before, the 1930s modernisation. Some of these trams are operational; others await repair or restoration.
The “C” fleet’s traditional home, Rigby Road depot, had an uncertain future in the period when the LRT fleet was planned and installed. The new fleet eventually went to a purpose-built depot at Starr Gate, and Rigby Road was designated the base for the heritage fleet, despite a long-standing backlog of building maintenance.
It’s now intended to double as a working tram depot and a museum, branded as Tramtown. The building needs attention to make it weatherproof, and some at least of the relics on wheels that have fetched up there need to move elsewhere to increase display space.
At present Rigby Road is a uniquely fascinating treasure-house of transport history, open to the public on bookable tours led by enthusiastic volunteers.
If you enjoy rail transport, it’s not to be missed.