Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Buxton: August 14, the story of the film of the book of the tram

We open our story, dear listeners, on the carpeted floor of a Class 185 - because no good story opens with someone eating a salad. So far today I have washed my hair (what there is of it - low maintenance is great), run full tilt up a 1 in 10 gradient with a 15kg backpack, caught my train, caught my breath, chatted via an on-screen keyboard, eaten a pasty and waited while a PIDS wavers to and fro about which of two late trains expected at 11:50am will occupy the platform first.

So I'm sharing this doorway with one suitcase, two prams, three toddlers, four parents and five other people. Apparently this time of day is a kind of peak hour for the trip from Manchester to Blackpool, I have no idea why. A lot of people were using it as an ersatz suburban service to travel between the various Manchester stations. Why can't we have dedicated metro services for that?

The crowds emptied out somewhat at Salford Crescent, leaving just the two prams - and even though the conductor told the mums to make sure they weren't blocking the aisle they don't seem to have worked out that they would very easily fit side by side between the doorway wind barriers. Ah well.

Four years ago when I visited Blackpool the trams were a mix of 1930s timber bodied classics (mostly double deckers) and some metal ones from the 80s which had a motor sound just like our As and Bs. Since then I've heard the whole system has been modernised - a fleet of new trams, track upgrades, the lot. It'll be interesting to see whether it's become boring.

Also it'll be interesting to see whether they've kept the high wires. Having double decker trams the overhead was higher in proportion, which meant the few single decker trams, and all the 80s ones, had a sort of scaffold amidships which held the pole or panto up off the roof so it could reach the trolley wire. Mystery! Will the new trams have a scaffold? Will they have super long pantos that can reach the wire from a normal roof height? Or will they have lowered the wires? Time alone can tell.

Staffing will be another question. The double decker trams needed a crew of three, one driving, one selling tickets and one closing the door at every stop. It was a folding door and had a sort of padbolt arrangement with an electronic sensor to stop the tram from moving until the door was closed (which obviously wasn't there in the 30s, they must have added it - so why didn't they add completely automatic doors?). Most modern trams are set up for single person operation, with an automatic ticket machine. We'll see!

There's a lot of different ways to get from Manchester to Blackpool by rail, but this service is running on what looks like the most direct route - not the fastest (because it's possible to use more of the high speed main lines) but the shortest. We're forming a kind of interurban service stopping every 5min or so, which really isn't what these Class 185 sets are good at. We're never getting near top speed, and most people aren't going to have a chance to take advantage of the in-seat power points or buffet trolley. And who wants to pay for first class on a 15 minute trip? Still, it could be worse - at least they're not a vestibule layout which makes loading and unloading painfully slow. First Trans Pennine have the contract and this is the rollingstock they own, it's not worth buying or leasing some Sprinters just because they could better use 160km/h trains elsewhere.

Listeners we cross now to our correspondent in Fleetwood, at the northern terminus of the Blackpool & Fleetwood Tramway. So over to him.

Yes dear listeners, I'm posting from a waterfront cafe at the ferry pier. But first for the story so far.

I arrived in Blackpool and after four years of wondering what it reminded me of it came to me - it's just like the photos of Spencer Street in the 50s. Bare, windswept asphalt platforms, no benches or shelters for waiting passengers, and not all that many trains either. Somehow the light under a grey sky makes it look like a very early colour photo too.

Heading out the main exit I saw that the entire area is being refurbished or redeveloped, all the roads look different, and almost nothing was recognizable. Still, the beach and tramway are that-a-way.

Half a kilometer later I was at North Pier stop, and an unmistakable five section Flexity was approaching. The pantograph looked fairly natural but double decker buses were driving under the wires with no ill effects, so I'm not quite sure what they did there. Further investigation to come.

It's a bit of a distance to Fleetwood, and a good bit of it is city running so it takes a while. It's almost 100% off road though, so if a tram's running late it shouldn't be too hard to juice the thing a bit and catch up time.

The floor in the doorways is painted blue, and the conductors actively move people out of them to either sit down or stand in the aisle. It's a good idea.

There are still two conductors on each tram, and since they don't have to lock the doors any more they have time to announce the various landmarks at each stop. I still can't make up my mind if this is a tourist service or a commuter one - although in the summer there probably isn't much difference.

I'll have to go through old photos to see what the stops were like before, but the ones we're using now are very strange. From a distance they look like platform stops like ours, but there's still a step up from there into the tram! On examination it looks like the stops are slightly lower, and we know from the press releases about our own Bombardier trams that they have a sloped floor to reach "normal" height. These ones slope down to the doorway, but just not quite far enough.

On the Fleetwood section most of the track is open railway-style rail on concrete sleepers, because it's the right thing to do. At stops there's a steel treadplate cover between the rails, in sections about 1m long, bolted to the sleepers. It's quite thick tread plate, about 20mm I'd estimate. Clever way to pave the surface between the rails - easy to remove for trackworks, and probably even reusable.

The next stop bell on these things is quite piercing. It sounds like a bell sound (as you might find in any Volgren bus) layered over an electronic tone like some of the older Custom Coaches bodies. At least the "door closing" alarm is fairly unobtrusive.

Last time I was here one of the things that really surprised me was mid-line balloon loops. With double-ended trams that shouldn't be necessary. Now there are crossovers at various places, which is much more sensible because it doesn't take up extra land. The Little Bispham loop is still in place, but it looks very rusty. I wonder whether the new trams are allowed around corners as sharp as that?

A few other "operational flexibility" features look fairly rusty too - there are just a few triple track sections, just long enough for a tram, which can be used for terminating a tram short or as a refuge for a failed vehicle. If there were express services it would allow them to overtake stoppers too, but there aren't. But as I said, they're pretty rusty.

Curves are heavily checkrailed, and it looks like they haven't been renewed since four years ago. A lot of it has had the rail grinder applied though, because the ride is smoother now, on a low floor tram with an unforgiving fixed wheel base, than it was last time around with a proper bogie tram.

As I look out the cafe window on the vast expanse of damp sand and blackish water, with the timber pier jutting out across my field of view, it feels like I've been transported into a different century. I could imagine "The Leaving of Liverpool" being written here (maybe under a different title) because the scene seems to go with that kind of music.

As I turn around and look at the cafe, that feeling only gets stronger. Most of the furniture and fittings date back to the 20th century, if I'm not mistaken. Prominent notices tell us that "TOILETS ARE FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY" and that anyone using them without buying something will be asked to pay 20p, which will be donated to charity. The only nods to the modern era are a recycling bin and a notice saying "The hours from 10am to 3pm are to be completely mobile phone free. This applies to all staff". This is true 1950s customer service, dear listeners. A rare find.

Still, the mushroom soup tastes good and the table is clean enough that I'm not afraid to get Clippy out and write some blog - easily as clean as the carpet of the Trans-Pennine Express I was on just before.

I'm going to hand you back to the studio now, because it's time to catch a tram back to Blackpool and check out the line to Starr Gate. Hopefully I can get a seat up front with a view forward. Midga di Macaroni, Fleetwood Ferry Pier.

Thank you Midga. Yes the tramway has been significantly modified and is now quite similar to other tramways in other cities. Listeners we're going to cross now to our correspondent at the south end of the tramway, Starr Gate. Mike?

Thank you Michael, yes I'm posting from Starr Gate tram stop, and I have to say it looks very different from four years ago. There's a brand new tram depot here in the middle of what used to be the balloon loop. The western arm of the loop has become the depot access track, and the eastern end has the stop and then another access track which runs through the depot's tram wash road. It's really a very clever use of the available land Michael.

Now on the way here this afternoon I saw that the access to the old depot is still in place. I presume that's where they're keeping their heritage fleet, which I've seen advertised as giving tours. Hopefully they keep them in better condition than number 237, which sits at the South Pier balloon loop to mark the heritage tour booking office. It's been painted gold all over with some modern artwork over it, but on closer inspection it's pretty clear that the bodywork is in a very sorry state.

Michael I know you and the listeners were wondering about the height of the trolley wire, well I can tell you that the pantographs I've seen have been stretched out quite a bit higher than what we're used to seeing in Melbourne, I think we can say for sure that the manufacturers went for a hybrid option of using a pantograph with plenty of reach, and allowed it to run just a bit further out than it would on a network with wires at a normal height. Mike Macropus, Starr Gate tram stop.

Thank you Mike, and we're going to return now to Blackpool North station, where it's nearly time to catch the train home. By dint of stronger muscle we have arrived with six minutes to spare before our Trans-Pennine Express departs. However, due to the low train frequency, Blackpool North Station has the option of locking the doors giving access to the platforms one minute before a train departs, which prevents passengers from delaying trains by rushing onto them at the last minute. While an admirable goal, this has the side effect of causing a queue of about fifty people to form at the locked door. This system belongs in the 1950s along with the Fleetwood cafe.

Before we leave Blackpool I'd like to thank our sponsor Fisherman's Friend, whose magic lozenge factory is between Blackpool and Fleetwood, facing the tram line. Fisherman's Friend, for all your radio-equipped headwear needs.

And that wraps up the news bulletin for tonight. Your team tonight was Clippy and the Android, with 240V power provided by Trans-Pennine Express. You have been listening to Goodnight.

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