Blackpool’s new trams embody borough’s spirit of progress.

Blackpool's first Flexity 2 tram, car 001, is seen inside the Starr Gate depot on Sept. 8, 2011. Photo courtesy of Lancashire radio station 97.4 Rock FM. Click image for their story about the event.

It was an entrance befitting a seaside town known for its unabashed theatrical glitz.

Fiddlers in heels played with gusto as clouds of mist enveloped the portal. Strobes stabbed at the fog with multi-hued pulses of light. Glass doors gracefully swung aside, and the main act rolled through the clouds like a rock star taking the stage before an adoring crowd.

Forget screaming teens and mosh pits. The hottest ticket in Blackpool on Sept. 8 wasn’t a stage act or burlesque show, but the debut of the seaside resort’s next big thing: The adoring crowd was mostly comprised of civic dignitaries in business attire, while the star attraction was, of course, a sleek new five-section articulated tramcar decked out in a livery of white, black and deep purple.

In a ceremony at Blackpool Transport’s new Starr Gate tram depot, guests and the media got a first, formal look at the tramway’s first Bombardier Flexity 2 tram, car 001. It is the first of 16 new vehicles slated to enter revenue service at Easter 2012, bringing the seaside tramway solidly into the light rail era as the most high-profile element of a £100m system upgrade.

Stagecraft aside, the debut of tram 001 embodies the long-lost spirit of Blackpool as proudly proclaimed by the lone word emblazoned beneath the borough’s coat of arms: Progress.

The project, and these new vehicles, have not come to fruition without being dogged by some controversy. Some of that controversy was the practical kind — about the project’s cost, whether it was worthwhile in its own right, whether the money would be better spent on other transport-related investment. One would expect that sort of debate with any public infrastructure project of this size. Time will tell whether this has been a worthy investment. It also must be viewed in conjunction with other major undertakings which surround Blackpool Council’s £250million plan to rejuvenate the resort’s reputation and economy by encouraging visiting families to stay longer. Among the most visible efforts are significant improvements to the seafront and a £20m renovation for the landmark Blackpool Tower. Opened in 1894, the Grade 1 listed tower was purchased by Blackpool Council in 2010 and recently reopened to visitors, and rave reviews, after its 10-month refurbishment.

For our purposes, what has been interesting in the case of Blackpool’s tramway upgrade is the vociferous debate between those who support the project and the new cars, and those who see the whittling down of the heritage fleet as a betrayal of Blackpool’s transport heritage. In a country where “heritage” of all stripes is a major industry and the source of much national pride, this is no small debate, and I respect those whose views are driven by a passion to preserve that which they see as venerable and valuable about Britain, including historic transportation vehicles.

There is, for example, a Facebook group called “Keep Blackpool’s Trams.” Of course it refers not to the system — which isn’t under threat — but the vintage vehicles. The group can be found here, though you’ll have to log in to Facebook to view it. The discussion, even between friends, can be rather sharp at times.

Two vintage cars which have already left Blackpool are Brush car 623 and Balloon 702, seen here in storage at the Museum of Museums at The Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester. The Manchester Transport Museum Society has launched an appeal to build a new depot for these and other cars currently in storage at various locations. Photo courtesy of the Heaton Park Tramway with thanks to Andrew Hazlehurst. Click image for the tramway's depot appeal website.

One would think, to read some of the commentary, that the plan is to retire every last vintage tram and unceremoniously scrap them behind the depot. That is not the case.  A number of vintage cars will be retained on the system, albeit subject to some modern alterations (again the topic of much debate) and primarily limited to central portions of the 11-mile line. I agree with those who say that much the system’s historic character will be lost. The motley collection of trams from various eras (and indeed, various towns) which has brought sparkle and charm to the system for decades will be whittled down to a comparatively few specimens shuttling around the tourist areas. I am a tram enthusiast in every sense of the word, and this is a bittersweet moment in the history of a legendary tramway.

Yet, I also am a supporter of trams and light rail as a viable method of urban transport for modern cities: I believe in the mode. The continuation of tramway operation in Blackpool, one of the world’s first and now longest-serving electric tram networks, is to be celebrated. That the system will move into its next epoch by hosting the world premiere if Bombardier’s latest model of modern tramcar is an exciting development which is absolutely in keeping with the line’s history and Blackpool’s own motto.

Melbourne’s W-class trams have been at the heart of a somewhat similar debate. My thoughts on that subject from an October 2010 blog post have some relevance here:

An extensive tramway network such as Melbourne’s exists for the expeditious transport of the general public. It is not a museum piece but a large and costly element of urban infrastructure maintained at taxpayers’ expense. It exists to complement other growth and development goals, including minimizing auto dependence in a congested metropolis. As such, it should be maintained to the highest standards of service and efficiency — and that has, rightly, meant the evolution of its fleet to better meet the needs of modern commuters, including the disabled and less able. The idea that cars mostly built in the 1940s and ’50s (indeed, some from the ’30s) could continue indefinitely as the backbone of a major metropolitan tramway is a ridiculous bit of fantasy.

Alternatively, wholesale elimination of such cars from operation in Melbourne seems more than just narrow-minded: It would amount to no less than an act of cultural vandalism.

Long since departed from Blackpool, "Marton Vambac" type tram 11 is seen during the Beamish museum's "Power from the Past" event earlier this month. It was on loan to the County Durham museum from the East Anglian Tramway Museum in Carlton Colville. Photographer Jack Gordon notes that the car "was built in 1939 and, after numerous modifications (starting life as a much more open 'Sun Saloon') ended up in the condition now seen, generally working the inland Marton route that closed in the early 1960s." With its Variable Automatic Multinotch Braking and Acceleration Control (VAMBAC), such a tram represents the innovative character of many tram types used in Blackpool in more than 125 years of electric operation. Click to view this stunning car in all its glory.

Blackpool’s seaside line is not a major metropolitan tramway, but it is not merely a tourist attraction, either. It is a working public transport artery which carries 6.5 million passengers per year, serving local commuters as well as seasonal visitors. I think that is especially the case with the quasi-interurban portion of the line between Fleetwood and Blackpool, beyond the twinkling lights of the key tourist precincts. And if the system ever is extended inland, as some planners hope, it is hard to imagine that any such extensions could succeed if designed as anything other than modern, high-capacity additions to a regional transportation system, served by vehicles which meet contemporary performance and accessibility standards.

The new Flexity 2 vehicles, if successful, could demonstrate for the public and policymakers the value of expanding modern light rail transport to other parts of Blackpool and help build support for such projects. Done properly, it’s not inconceivable that such extensions could host limited or occasional heritage operation, giving enthusiasts new locations to ride and photograph vintage trams.

Much of value has been sacrificed over the years in the name of progress. I doubt, however, that few tram enthusiasts would argue that the men who brought conduit cars to Blackpool in 1885 — inaugurating Britain’s first electric street tramway — were not progressive. Nor, do I suspect, could anyone legitimately cry vandalism at the replacement of those tiny 1885 conduit cars by larger, faster vehicles, or at the subsequent displacement of their early 1900s successors by Blackpool’s “streamlined fleet” in the 1930s.

Another shot of 001 in inside the Starr Gate depot courtesy of Lancashire radio station 97.4 Rock FM. Click image for their story about the event.

Blackpool’s tramway has for much of its history been one of the most progressive in Britain. That, coupled with the distinctive circumstances of its location in the nation’s preeminent seaside resort, enabled this transportation gem to survive when all others fell.

Those sturdy 1930s cars and some of their slightly younger cousins still have some life in them, as they doubtlessly will prove in operation alongside the new cars, as well as in museums.  But innovation and evolution have characterized some of the most important tramway developments in Blackpool since 1885, and there seems to be no good reason why that should not continue.

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