January 1886: Blackpool’s electric trams

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Blackpool had the first electric tram system in the UK, and it survived the vogue for removing tram systems in the 1960s. But its original technology had problems with the British seaside weather.

Trams used to be a feature of pretty much every British city, transporting the populace around via tracks embedded in the road and forming a spiderweb of cables over the streets. Dying out in the 1960s, they are now starting to make a comeback with new networks in cities such as Sheffield and Croydon (although it’s advisable not to mention them to anyone from Edinburgh — the chaos caused by the Scottish capital’s delayed tranway project is a continual sore point).

The first electric tram system in Britain was in the country’s most archetypal seaside resort, Blackpool, and it survived as the country’s only tramway through the 1960s and up to today. The Engineer was there at the very beginning, commenting that development of electric locomotion had been slow to catch on in Britain, compared with Germany and Austria, and speculating that this may have been owing to delays in installing electric lighting systems in British cities (municipal infrastructure beset with delays — just goes to show there’s nothing new under the streetlights).

One of Blackpool’s heritage tram fleet

Blackpool’s trams departed from the original system for electric trams, developed by Walter Siemens in 1880, by depending on transmitted electricity, rather than each tramcar carrying its own battery. This system had been invented by Holroyd Smith, an engineer from Halifax, which used a conduit in the road, between the two rails, to carry the electricity. The current was picked up by metal rollers suspended underneath the car, arranged so that if any large object fell into the channel carrying the electric rail, the pickup would disengage and the tram would stop.

This system caused major problems, because Blackpool is by the sea. During bad weather, waves would wash over the promenade: the seawater would short out the system and sand would clog the channel. In 1899, overhead wiring was installed.

All dressed up: tram for the Blackpool Illuminations

The network has been upgraded, and the old trams were finally replaced with modern vehicles in 2012. Despite this, the old ‘heritage fleet’ still runs on weekends and holidays and during the summer, and special illuminated trams run when the town’s famous lights are illuminated in the autumn.