CC’s Best of 2023 – Tramway Classic: 1934 English Electric Balloon Tram – Resilience, With Electrical Power

Blackpool, that most distinctive of English seaside resorts, has many special features and attractions. Not just the weather of Lancashire and the distinctive tower, modelled on the Eiffel Tower but about a third of its size, and the striking 1930s ballroom at its base, but also the oldest operating tramway in the UK, dating back to 1885.

There are many other working tramways in the UK, but all are newer and operating exclusively with more modern rolling stock. Regular services, as part of the town’s public transport network, are now operated with 2012 generation Bombardier articulated trams but there is a volunteer operated service run with preserved and restored 1934 vehicles.

The Heritage services are operated using the English Electric Balloon trams, once the staple of the Blackpool network. A limited service is run along the town’s seafront and promenade and on northwards to the sadly declining fishing town of Fleetwood, a journey of about 40 minutes fitting around the regular schedule. The town’s tram network is now smaller than at its peak, with the routes away from the seafront and into the town itself now removed and replaced by ordinary bus services.

These trams, always known as the Balloon cars for the shape of the ends at roof level, were built by the English Electric Company in nearby Preston. English Electric was a conglomerate that built everything electrical from electric motors to power generating equipment, electric rail traction and steam turbines, and anything in between. Later the company moved into aircraft, guided weapons and computer hardware as well, and was merged with the British General Electric Co (GEC) in 1968. Much of it is still around, now under very different ownership. As a measure of its scope and range, English Electric included the names Stephenson, Marconi and Napier amongst its constituent businesses.

The balloon cars were first introduced in December 1934 and a fleet of 27 was ultimately assembled in 1935. The first 13 were built with open tops, but were modified during WWII. Power came from two 76KW motors, running on a 600V DC supply through the central pantograph. Running gear is two four-wheel bogies (or trucks), and the length 42 feet – considerably longer, and therefore supporting a more commodious vehicle, than a contemporary bus with seats for 84 passengers.

There are centrally mounted doors and a staircase immediately adjacent to each, and a capacity of 84 or 94 depending on the interior configuration. Like any good tram, the seat backs fold forwards and backwards so you can always face the direction of travel or make a group of four seats. The interior has that wonderful and evocative atmosphere of original and structural woodwork, leather and moquette fabric.

We rode on tram 717, named Walter Luff after the network controller who commissioned the vehicles in 1933. Access was steep, but not difficult, but also not to modern access standards, and the stairs (of course we went upstairs) were narrow and steep by modern standards also. There seemed to be no provision to have one flight designated as up and one down, as might seem obvious, but maybe this happened naturally in service, depending to which way the tram was traveling, and which staircase was closer to the entry door.

Seats were comfortable, but also noticeably narrower than a modern bus – the tram is around 80 inches wide compared with around 98 inches for a modern double deck bus or coach. There’s lots of glass, though, and on our trip the sun was well out for a great view across the beach and Morecambe Bay.

The trip runs from the iconic Blackpool Tower (literally, a sort of mini Eiffel Tower placed on top of an elaborately decorated 1930s ballroom, complete with a Wurlitzer) along the seafront, past the holiday hotels and through the town’s suburbs into Fleetwood, nominally the next town up the coast.

Fleetwood, as previously noted, is a very clearly past its peak as a fishing port, but still has some fishing based activity and holiday businesses. The trams still run the full length of the town’s main street, not separated from the other traffic – indeed, this is the only place in England where this still happens.

The heritage trip pauses for long enough for us to get some excellent fish and chips, and consider the North Euston Hotel, built in 1840. This is named after Euston Station, the mainline station in London linking the capital to the north west of England, and the original expectation was that the hotel would be staging post on the trip to Scotland and northern Ireland using ferries rather than trains over the more rugged country of northern England and southern Scotland. History hasn’t been very kind though – the rail lines were built, Fleetwood was not on the route and the building spent many years as government offices and as a barracks.

Back into Blackpool, with the sun still shining gloriously. When we arrived at the tower, the tram was soon joined by one of the boat cars – single deck open top vehicles which were also built by English Electric in 1934 and used for pleasure tours rather than regular services, and due to lack of use gradually reduced in number. Perhaps surprisingly, three of the original fleet are now in the US – one in the Western Railway Museum, Suisun City, California, one in the National Capital Trolley Museum in Maryland and one in service with the San Francisco Municipal Railway.

Good to know it’s being used, but are the fish and chips as good?