Blackpool Illuminations

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Issue 84 (October 2011) of the rail engineer magazine included a report on the world launch of the new BOMBARDIER FLEXITY 2 tram at Blackpool. That article was based around the new tram ready destined to be used on the network from Starr Gate, at the south end of Blackpool’s Pleasure Beach, north to Fleetwood.

Project investment was split into three contracts: replacing the remaining 8km of track, building a brand new tram depot at Starr Gate and purchasing 16 new trams from Bombardier Transportation.

New depot

It would be an injustice not to report on the new depot facilities built to house and maintain the new fleet. The design concept was specified by Blackpool Council and the detailed design and build was carried out by Volker Fitzpatrick.

The style can be likened to a newly-built shopping complex, with wave-effect all-glass frontages to separate the stabling and maintenance sheds. It certainly bears no resemblance to other light-rail maintenance depots and is a world away from the metal-bashing, greasy-rag atmosphere of the UK resort’s ageing Rigby Road base.

A stone’s throw from Blackpool International Airport, the two main sections of the Starr Gate depot could indeed be mistaken for aircraft hangars. It has changed the resort’s skyline in this area and the new depot is fenced to ensure a tight security compound, including CCTV linked directly to the council’s own system.

A process of commissioning, training and checking over the new equipment took place prior to the launch date. In June, a heritage tram and a modified Balloon car were at the depot traversed all of the roads under power to ensure that clearances were within limits.


On the approach to the depot gates, a tram is detected by a transponder that allows the driver to open them automatically. They then close again as the tram passes through a security beam. The route on entering the depot is via the sanding plant, supplied from a nearby silo, to fill the eight sanding boxes on the new trams which are also fitted with automatic wheelslip detection.

The washing plant is next. A transponder in the track recognises the type of tram approaching, and the washer’s brushes are set up accordingly, whether for a double or single-decker, long or short tram. Lower and higher brushes will ensure the car is cleaned underneath and on the eaves at the top. Two final rinse arches use deionised water. It is envisaged the trams will be washed every day, given Blackpool’s particularly hostile climate of salt, sand, seawater and wind.


Moving inside the building, the stabling area is a vast hall that can accommodate 14 of the 16 new trams, two on each road – it is assumed 2 will be undergoing maintenance at any one time. The entire fleet will therefore be stabled undercover, again an important part of the battle against the elements. Internal cleaning and minor repairs will be carried out within the stabling area. If further work is required the tram will move to the workshop.

The maintenance area of the depot houses all the usual kit associated with maintenance and repair of vehicles, including an eight-ton overhead Goliath crane for moving bogies and two turntables for moving bogies out of the depot after removal to a storage area. There are also two remote-controlled three-tonne overhead monorail hoists for moving roof equipment around the building. This high-tech maintenance side of the depot has six berths, with inspection pits, more than enough for just the new trams but it is envisaged that work will also be done on the heritage fleet.

A set of 12 mobile jacks can lift an entire new tram and, with some minor modifications, can also lift the heritage fleet. At the moment it is a long and laborious task to lift heritage vehicles at Rigby Road.

The lifting jacks are manoeuvred alongside the vehicle and a square bar is ‘plugged in’ to the side of the tram. The jacks all then lift simultaneously, operated from a single control panel, and can work in various combinations, giving maximum flexibility.

A Beck & Pollitzer depot protection system is a key-based system that ensures all movement operations are protected on site, and includes isolation of the overhead line when this is necessary for work on the trams.

The Hegenscheidt underfloor wheel lathe is designed for both the modern and heritage fleet and can turn the wheels on the six axles of a FLEXITY 2 tram in just eight hours. The wheel profiles are already input into the machine’s database so there is no opportunity for error.

There are other facilities including a shore supply when the overhead line is isolated, power points to charge vehicle batteries, automatic front doors and key-operated bollards.

Housed between the stabling and maintenance sheds are the main offices and comfort facilities for the Bombardier staff who will initially commission and carry out maintenance on the trams, and for Blackpool Transport operational staff. The depot building has LED lighting on the outside that gives a spectacular appearance to the depot and will blend in with the start of the illuminations at the south end when on show.

The depot and its immediate area are the only part of the tramway to be fully signalled. Electronic signals give permission to leave the depot and indicate to the driver which way the electrically-operated points are set. A driver wanting to leave the depot has to create a request with the transponder by using his keypad to go either on to the main line or the new headshunt, and the gates are then opened. The area is signalled and protected from any conflicting moves.

New track

Work on the tramway’s track modernisation by contractor BAM Nuttall will be completed ready for the launch of the new system in April 2012.

The Tower to Gynn Square section, one of the trickiest because of the paved track, was completed in the winter and trams are now operating between Pleasure Beach and Little Bispham. Relaying of the street-running track in Fleetwood is finished.

The layout for passengers at Starr Gate has also changedl. Instead of trams dropping off their passengers and picking others up from the same stop, then going round the turning circle, there will be arrival and departure platforms and the tram will simply reverse between them.

The street-running section around the Metropole Hotel has been moved onto its own easement to help reduce traffic congestion problems. New platform-style tram stops along the whole route are at various stages of completion.

Automatic priority

There is some track work still to complete, essentially from the Blackpool boundary heading north and 12 new signal-controlled crossings are being installed at highway junctions north of Little Bispham, providing automatic tram priority. Transponders are set in the track on the approach to junctions, and there are antennae and control boxes fitted to the trams. As the tram approaches the junction, the equipment detects the vehicle and changes the signal in its favour. The first part of the system was completed at Little Bispham and contractors are progressively working north towards Fleetwood.

The entire retained heritage fleet, about 40 sets, has also been fitted with the new control boxes. Every tram now has a unique number, which enables the system to detect which vehicle it is.

More power

Much of the electrical infrastructure has been replaced. The system is being uprated from 550V DC to 600V DC to take into account the more powerful trams and more intensive operation. In Fleetwood the new OLE is nearing completion and planning permission has been granted for a new substation at Fleetwood Ferry. A double substation has been built at the new depot to supplynot only its own power but also the overhead lines between Starr Gate and the Pleasure Beach.

With its new depot, and new trams, Blackpool has moved from the heritage to the modern world. But those illuminated trams will still be there to delight tourists as they have for decades.



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