Blackpool can proudly boast at having not only the oldest electric tramway in the UK but the only one to have been continually in use for 135 years – and counting.
135 Years of Progress
24 February 1884
A very important day in the life of Blackpool’s tramway. The day that, according to stories told, work started on the very first rail for the UK’s very first electric public tramway. Though the rail is long gone, the tramway it started is still with us and in daily use.
29 September 1885
The Blackpool Tramway was officially opened to the public by Alderman Harwood, the Mayor of Manchester.
Blackpool Corporation had paid for and built the tramway and the Blackpool Electric Tramway Company, which had been created in January that year, provided the electrical equipment, depot and tramcars.
It did not take long for the major weakness of the conduit system used for powering the trams to become apparent. The conduit system was so called as the trams took their power from a supply laid in a grooved slot between the tram rails which, being a seaside location, soon became full of sea-water when they weren’t actually clogged with wind-blown sand. Water and electricity not being exactly compatible it lead to a somewhat haphazard operation of the trams.
The theory of electricity supply was not as well understood as it is today and the drop in power from the generator to the distant tram, with the complication of sand and water, often caused the trams to simply grind to a halt. So much so that on many occasions they had to hitch horses to the front of them and pull them up the prom on horsepower alone!
Despite all their early problems the tramway was a success and, in 1892, the whole operation was taken over by Blackpool Corporation.
Extensions to the tramway were started by 1895 and, before the turn of the century, the troublesome conduit power system was replaced by the more reliable overhead wire system so familiar today.
Interestingly, official tram stops were not always a feature and intending passengers simply waved down the tram at any point in order to board. It was soon realised this was inefficient and made for very long journey times – sometimes even slower than walking – so official ‘stops’ were created short distances apart.
Having seen the nearby success, a tramway was opened between Gynn Square and Fleetwood by the Blackpool and Fleetwood Tramroad Company though this was not connected to the Blackpool tramway so a change of trams was necessary to make the whole journey.
The tramway separation at Gynn Square lasted until 1920 when the Fleetwood line was also taken over by Blackpool Corporation and, for the first time, a tramway connected South Shore to Fleetwood.
1920 also saw the building of a large new tram depot on Rigby Road which remains the home of Blackpool Transport to this day.
Blackpool’s tramway had, by this time, expanded inland with lines to Marton and Layton as well as lines along Central Drive and to Squires Gate.
It was the 1930’s that actually saw changes that would secure the future of trams in Blackpool right up to modern times. 1933 saw the arrival of Walter Luff as General Manager of Blackpool Corporation Transport.
Walter Luff had a vision which was, one can assume, quite radical for the time and he oversaw the modernisation of the tramway with the introduction of a fleet of luxury trams – the English Electric Luxury Dreadnought – which later became christened the ‘Balloons’ due to their rounded roofline.
Walter’s re-invention of the double-deck tram has become an icon of Blackpool and it is one of only three places in the world where tramways retain double-deck trams – the others being Hong Kong and Alexandria, Egypt.
Open decked ‘Boats’ and luxury single-deck Brush Railcoaches are also part of Walter’s legacy that we still benefit from in the Heritage Tram fleet today.
The Second World War meant many changes in Blackpool as many government departments migrated here away from the more frequently bombed parts of the UK. The tramway became an important part of the war effort in moving civil servants and troops from their ‘digs’ to their place of work or training camp.
Such was the pressure on the trams and buses that, in July 1943, the many dozens of passengers waiting at Norbreck at the end of their working day and seeing tram after tram go past full to capacity yet again, decided to take action. They sat down and occupied the tram tracks bringing a halt to all trams. Even the pleading from the Inspectors called from the depot to resolve the dispute went unheaded for quite some time. The action caused sufficient embarrasment to the government ministries stationed in Blackpool and Blackpool Corporation themselves that services were indeed improved with additional services and short running routes utilising a crossover at Norbreck.
1950 – 1980
With the expansion of bus services in the 50’s and 60’s the tramway contracted until only the 11 mile (18km) route between Starr Gate and Fleetwood remained. It is much to Blackpool’s credit though that, whilst every other public transport tramway in the UK was closed by 1962, this last bit of Blackpool’s remained in daily use and was the only one in the UK until 6 April 1992 when the Manchester Metrolink tram service was launched.
By the turn of the century is was becoming apparent that something major was going to have to be done if the Blackpool tramway was to survive. Many rails were in need of replacement and the trams were beyond the end of their working life. And so the second major change, rivalling that of Mr Luff seventy years earlier, took place.
Blackpool Council, which owned the tracks, together with Blackpool Transport Services Ltd, who ran the trams, and aided by some significant goverment and local authority grants, started the upgrade of the whole 11 miles (18km) of track and the replacement of the aged trams with modern and accessible Bombardier Flexity2 trams. It involved the building of tram stops to provide level access – the previous tram stops being ground level stops much like bus stops but requiring a large step-up to board – and the modernisation of points, cross-overs and signalling.
On 6th November 2011 the tramway, of which parts had already been closed for engineering work, was completely closed to allow work on the central section to be carried out. And thus ended the daily reign of those special trams some of which we now proudly run as our Heritage Fleet.
The new trams took to their new tramway in public service on 4 April 2012.
The story of the upgrade and the development of the tramway since it returned is another story and not for the telling here. Suffice to say that, thanks to some forward-thinking and acting people in our history, Blackpool has a unique position in the world of tram systems and welcomes visitors from all over the world who want to come and share a piece of our moving history.