The tram’s history
Introduced in 1962 and modelled on a train from a western film, the Illuminated Western Train Tram attracted long queues in its heyday as seaside visitors waited for a ride. It was withdrawn from service due to old age in 1999 and for some time was under threat of being broken up for scrap.
Thanks to the Lottery Heritage Fund, between 2007 and 2009, this national icon was completely rebuilt and fully restored to its authentic 1962 condition externally, whilst internally, the carriage was returned to its 1928 appearance. It is also the very first Blackpool tram to be fitted with wheelchair access, which has been incorporated into the rebuilt locomotive without altering the external appearance of this historic vehicle. A ride on the tram is a trip down memory lane for Blackpool’s locals and visitors alike.
From the very outset of the project, Blackpool Transport Services received over a thousand letters from the public through a Gazette appeal, hoping to carry on the tradition of a ride on the Western Train Tram. Sir Cliff Richard, who travelled on the tram to the ABC Theatre in Church Street to reopen the theatre and launch the first summer show there in 1963, said at the time of the Lottery Grant announcement in 2007:
“It’s hard to imagine Blackpool without its historic trams and, without initiatives such as this, they could one day be lost for ever. Like thousands of others, I have fond memories of my trip on this famous tram, and think it’s fantastic that a whole new generation will be able to share the experience.”
The current conservation work including bodywork repairs, full repaint and rewire aim to continue and maintain this ongoing tradition.
From an idea to a reality
At the time, television, albeit black and white and poor definition, was still the latest wonder, with many people still aspiring to TV ownership, or at least TV rental. One of the most charismatic children’s programmes was Casey Jones, which took the then highly popular Western genre and built a series of weekly railway based dramas set in the Old West around the eponymous train driver and his young son.
The new tram took the Casey Jones train as its popular template whilst as its starting point it used a 1928 Pantograph Class tramcar, newly withdrawn, which with its high clerestory roof looked very like a late 19th century American railway coach. The cabs at either ends of the tram were replaced by open balconies and half of the western train’s structure was complete.
At this time, Blackpool Transport had just introduced its fleet of Twin Car trams, having purchased a dozen sets of electrical and air control couplings, permitting the use of unpowered trailers. A spare set of couplings were used to link the Pantograph-derived coach to an all-new railway locomotive body which was constructed from the remains of a withdrawn 1934 single deck tram. Other than the chassis and rear saloon, little survived of the 1934 tram but the essential outline of an American 4-4-0 locomotive and tender was created to tow the coach, with passengers riding in both the coach, and the loco tender, whilst the driver was seated in the glass fronted locomotive smokebox.
How the illuminated tram came to life
All of the Blackpool Illuminated Feature Cars have been built on the frames and chassis of earlier trams and the Western Train is no exception. The motor unit or “Locomotive” towing car is built on the chassis of a 1934 English Electric Railcoach and very little survives of the original, save for the rear half of the passenger saloon, which has retained many original interior design features from window level down.
The trailer or “Carriage” was formerly a 1928 Pantograph tram and essentially very little was altered from its original appearance save for the removal of the driving cabs. It is one of only two remaining vehicles of its type out of an original fleet of ten and is now the only remaining one in Blackpool. Internally, even more of the original survives and the interior fabric was restored to “as built” condition.
The Illuminated Western Train tramcar is a very special and unique vehicle. It is an icon, both in terms of the world renowned Blackpool Illuminations and also the historic and much loved Blackpool Tramway Experience. It arguably provides one of the most exciting and tangible links for future generations from all ages and all walks of life to enjoy their heritage.