It’s a job for supertram

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Blackpool’s hopes ride on many things but the arrival of the new super trams are pivotal to Britain’s premier resort’s future.

And now, say those in the know, we have the best of both worlds, old and new.

The new trams are turning heads on the Promenade, and the entire line should be fully operational for Easter.

The men and women trained to drive the new look Bombardiers have all been taken aback by the sheer oomph of acceleration and smooth as silk ride.

Steve Cullen, Blackpool Transport’s senior inspector (trams), drives a high performance Audi which, like the Bombardiers, is German-built, and says: “The acceleration is exceptional, so smooth.”

The much-enhanced ride makes it a pleasure to use these trams. Accessibility has improved beyond measure, a simple step across, or wheel on, from the new platforms.

With four doors to access, queues will clear far faster. And safety features resolve any risk of doors shutting too early.

From within the air-controlled cabin the driver can see security screen images from each carriage. An image can be frozen to record an incident. The driver can also directly address passengers.

There’s all-round vision outside, front, sides, rear, which should put paid to joy riding.

Atop his Captain Kirk-style swivel seat, novice tram driver Chris Harrison, 23, turns away from the impressive console to chat to inspector Steve.

OK, so it’s still a tram, it goes forwards or backwards along the seafront, as we’ve yet to win Government approval and grants to make inroads further afield.

Steve would love to see it extend from Starr Gate to Warton and even Preston. “Just think of the traffic that goes along there.”

Electrical team leader Rob Jones is part of the team, including Tony Marsden, fitter, and Sarah Wood, electrician, which has relocated from Rigby Road depot to the super tram depot. Facilities there make for faster maintenance turn-rounds, and the task of removing the bogies (the chassis on wheels) now takes half an hour – where it previously would have taken a couple of days.

Sarah still has a sneaking regard for the old trams but admits the new ones are “more responsive” and easier to maintain. “There are fewer things to go wrong.” Even the move has represented, as Rob puts it, an “80 year-jump in technology.”

In the new-look depot, a quaint Cardiff City engineering car strikes a surreal note. But it has a crucial role, as new heritage fleet chief Bryan Lindop confirms. It has carborundum grinding gear which clears any rust from the rails, so the electrical contact can be easily made without sparks flying.

Much of the labour and legwork has gone out of the job, including for the heritage fleet which will operate from the Pleasure Beach to Little Bispham eventually. There’s no more elaborate manual point changing, the techno system triggers all that, rather than a gentleman’s agreement between drivers. The same system activates the new look traffic lights, so trams no longer queue, in parallel with cars, at crossing points but have priority. The drivers love that!

For Chris, who’s never driven a heritage tram, it’s “an absolute joy to be here. And as a Blackpool lad myself I couldn’t be happier. This is just what Blackpool needs.”

Inspector Steve agrees. He has a great regard for the older trams, the heritage fleet, and his favourite, as a driver, is the open topped double decker Princess Alice, but he admits: “These have just blown me away. There couldn’t be a better place on a sunny day. Open topped tram or a Bombardier – so long as you’re here, on the seafront. This is where it’s all happening.” It’s a great vantage point to appreciate the seafront regeneration too. You can’t take it all in by car, or on foot, or even by hire bike, but by tram you can see it all, the headlands, the new water slides, picnic points, and the Comedy Carpet.

It is, it has to be conceded, horribly close for comfort, or was until the neighbouring slabs were removed. Would a safety barrier have sufficed? No, say drivers, who have had their fill of sightseers backing on to the tracks.

And these are silent, stealthy trams. There’s no shortage of hazards. New signs point out the tramway is not a walkway. It’s not a cycleway, a joggers’ way, nor a disability scooter way either, but I snap pictures of cyclists, joggers and disability scooters all claiming right of way.

Joggers are at greatest risk as many wear headphones and jog ahead of the trams, not facing them – so can’t hear or see the trams stealing up behind. Alarm bells may shift them temporarily – but they’re back on track the moment we pass.

“With so much space to walk on, or run on, or cycle along, why choose the tram track?” says a baffled Neil Allen, 32, one of the most experienced tram drivers. “If this gets no other message across make it that one. There’s a real need for people to start thinking tram again.”

He’s a big fan of the Bombardiers: “These are beautiful trams to drive. The acceleration is great, the braking first rate. And because the boarding is so much easier it’s going to be a much faster service – and far more accessible to people of all ages and abilities. I think it’s a real privilege to be part of this. It’s history in the making.”

The smoothness of the much-enhanced ride makes the top whack of 30km per hour seem faster than it is along the Blackpool stretch – but on the open stretches to the north, heading for Fleetwood, drivers can open out and zip along at up to 50km an hour.

We’re along for the ride, a test drive essentially for drivers coming to terms with the differences and embracing the challenges of driving these and what remains of the much loved heritage and classic fleet.

Most are converts. It’s hard not to be. And locals and visitors are keen to acquire their own ticket to ride – many trying to flag the trams down or at least wave the drivers on.

As inspector Steve concludes: “You come to Blackpool you think of the Tower, the Pleasure Beach and trams. We hope to change the running order. You come to Blackpool, you think of the trams first. We can now match the best elsewhere but we also have the best of both worlds – the old and new. ”