Friday 6 April 2012

15: Trams, Trams, Trams

Hello and welcome to blog number 15 which, as regular readers will guess, is basically a 'Tram Special Edition' as the long awaited, £100 million, new look Blackpool Tramway opened this week.

Over the last month or three I've tried to document here the build up to this occasion, which at one point I wasn't sure would happen. To say Blackpool Council were leaving it to the last minute to get the final touches done is something of an understatement, in fact there's still plenty to do. Several stops still have stickers on saying they aren't in use (when they are), others still haven't been fully built (notably the terminus at Fleetwood Ferry), and yet more, all the ones on the ballasted track sections, are having to have metal plating fixed between the tracks on the behest of the Railway Inspectorate. Something to do with the risk of people falling under trams off the platforms.

Anyway, the first tram with passengers ran on Tuesday 3rd April purely for invited guests and the Press. The following day marked the start of the full initial timetable with a tram every 20 minutes the whole length of the line. It has been such a long drawn out rebuilding that it was actually September 2009 when Fleetwood last actually witnessed trams in service!

The first tram left Squires Gate, at the south end of the line, at 0500 on Wednesday with about 20 enthusiasts aboard. Not including me though; I wasn't going to get up at that time of day! It departed Fleetwood Ferry at 0555 on the return journey and got 10 yards before derailing. Due to the high winds over night sand had blown into the track and become packed solid, causing tram 006 to come off on the first corner as it departed the stop. After all the publicity the previous evening about the new service on local TV, needless to say this incident also made the headlines. I can vouch for the effects of the wind though as after just 20 minutes there my hair and ears were full of sand.

My original plan was to go over to Blackpool on the Thursday to have a ride and take some pictures, however I pursuaded the wife to go for a visit to the Fleetwood Freeport Shopping Village on the Wednesday. The forecast wasn't fantastic; indeed some parts of the country were suffering from Blizzards, with a train getting stuck in a drift near Buxton; but the afternoon turned out lovely on the Fylde, despite the wind. As a result I managed a few shots in sun so didn't need to bother with a camera the next day and could just concentrate on riding and having a few beers.

The 20 minute timetable had completely fallen apart with up to 40 minute gaps. This was mainly due to the sheer number of people trying out the new vehicles, I saw stops with 40-50 people waiting and many trams were completely full and standing. I also think the end to end times are somewhat over optimistic, especially as the top speed is currently limited to about 30mph. In addition of course the crews are still getting used to their new equipment. The last-minute nature of track repairs which has impacted on driver and conductor training has I think showed through.

Having said that though, as I found out the following day, the trams themselves are superb to ride on. Yes, most are too full because of the limited start-up frequency over the Easter holiday; but when you travel on a reasonably loaded tram the ride and environment are outstanding.

So, on the Thursday I went over, without my camera, on what turned out to be another gorgeous but cold day. I caught the 1040 from Squires Gate, which departed 16 minutes late and lost a further 16 minutes enroute. It was busy, but not too much so, and indeed once past Bispham didn't stop at many stops so the timetable definately needs looking at. What doesn't help at the moment is the fact only one tram at a time can occupy the section between Fisherman's Walk and Fleetwood Ferry, as the newly built additional sub-station is not yet fully online. They are actually using a single-line 'token' which is kept in a locked case at Fisherman's Walk. This wouldn't be a problem if the 20 minute frequency ran correctly but with bunching, trams are often having to sit at the stop for quite some time to wait for the one in front to return from the terminus.

Later on in the day, brand new set 012 was delivered to the Squires Gate depot. The unloading process caused even more delays to the service with at least a 30 minute gap in departures. Modified Balloon 724 was pressed into service: I saw it at Bispham heading for Fleetwood, hotly persued by a Flexity on a short working to Thornton Gate and another also heading to Fleetwood. Apparently the Balloon broke down further out up the track, though I was in the pub by then!

By evening the service was getting more back to schedule. Watching them go too and fro at Fisherman's Walk (from the interior of the Strawberry Gardens Public House), they seemed to be maintaining more or less the booked frequency, albeit leaving Fleetwood about 5 minutes late. Once they get a full 10 minute low-floor operated frequency in, and the crowds settle down to normal travel patterns, it should just require minor tweeks of the timetable to make the service reliable.

Well, apologies to any readers who aren't tram enthusiasts, but I felt I should cover this 'event' in depth as I've been talking about it ever since I started this blog. I will get back over to Blackpool for some more pictures when the service has bedded in fully and the additional Balloon operated journeys, also the Heritage Tours, are up and running. All in all, teething troubles apart, it has the makings of a fantastic light rail system. I'll leave you with (above) a shot from 20 years ago at the Fleetwood Ferry terminus of one of the original One Man Trams. Thanks for reading, hopefully 'normal' railways will feature next time!

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