It’s brash. Venue of many a stag and hen weekend. Kiss-me-quick hats, Big Dippers and 10p bingo. Blackpool is celebrated for its in-your-face, let-your-hair-down culture. It is famous too for its trams – the first in the country to have electric ones – and their bracing 11 and a bit mile slog up and down the coast to Fleetwood. Its buses, in my view, used to be fairly anonymous fodder. Something the locals use. But in recent times, Blackpool Transport has seen something of a renaissance in its operation.
So me and my bus-driving, blog-writing enthusiast friend Mark Fitchew rock up on a summer Monday morning to have a mooch around trams old and new – and the posh buses.
Mark is somewhat a Blackpool expert. His Facebook page often sees him posting pics of his latest visit, and he can tell you huge chunks of history about the system. And seconds after boarding our first vehicle – a rather splendid brand new Enviro 200 short single decker – he’s immediately pointing out where buses used to terminate in the 1970s. We’re on route 4 to Cleveleys – a fairly uninspiring dash around a Blackpool estate, dotted with guest houses and “no vacancies” in the front window – this seaside resort remains very popular, although we are in the height of the summer holidays.
The E200 is extremely impressive. The gorgeous leather seats fit nicely with the wood laminate-effect floor and tasteful yellow-based interior. There are next-stop screens and USB sockets and free Wi-Fi. The cove panels entice you with positive messages – no “check your bowel movements if you’re over 60” adverts on here.
A day ticket for buses and the modern tramway costs a decent £5.50. If you want to add unlimited rides on the heritage trams, an all-in-one ticket costs £11. We plump for the £5.50 as we’re only going to do a small bit of heritage in our limited time today. The friendly driver issues us our day ticket, but I’m slightly surprised that Blackpool Transport hasn’t got on board yet with contactless ticketing, given the amount of tourists that are here.
The trip to Cleveleys is uneventful. We hop off where it meets the tramway, and within 2 minutes, a tram to Fleetwood appears. Adorned across the front is the name “Alderman E.E. Wynne”. Edward Wynne was a former Blackpool Councillor, and it appears he was a rather controversial character, advocating complete closure of the system, when the future of the network was in doubt! Despite that, he was Chairman of Blackpool Transport for 6 of his 38 years on the Council.
Alderman Wynne would surely be pleased to day to see the effective modern tramway doing well. The purple and white beasts seem well-used, and within minutes, we’re at the northern terminus in Fleetwood.
Into Fleetwood and Across The Water…
The trams and buses stand next to each other, outside the imposing North Euston Hotel, built as a stopover for Victorians travelling from London to Scotland. The idea was that their rail journey would end here, and they’d catch a boat to Scotland because no rail link existed across the Lake District when it opened in 1841. Within a decade, the iron road to Scotland was complete, and the idea of Fleetwood being a major rail terminus had receded. Fishing remained the big industry here, although this too began to decline in the 1960s. The last ferry to the Isle of Man departed in the 1961, the railway station closing down as part of the Beeching cuts in 1966.
One pleasing maritime-related service was running though. The Fleetwood to Knott End ferry has never been operational on the handful of visits I’ve made to Fleetwood in the past. Today, the “Wyre Rose” is going to whisk us across the water in a few minutes to Knott End for the princely sum of £2.
Time for Bitter…
Across the water, we find the Bourne Arms pub. A pint of bitter is consumed as Mark regales the history of local bus services to this unusual outpost, which actually feels more like somewhere in Devon in appearance than part of the gritty north!
The 2C bus service is Blackpool Transport’s northernmost service, east of the River Wyre. With a basic 30 minute frequency, we observe the departure of one service from the beer garden and then catch the next one, which is a rather elderly, but well turned-out Dennis Trident with East Lancs bodywork. The route is a splendid run through luscious countryside, through Preesall then Cold Row. At one point, we spot two “Black Country flags” fluttering from an upstairs window! We cross the River Wyre again, through pretty Poulton-le-Fylde, serving Victoria Hospital and skirting Stanley Park before arriving back in the town centre.
Our steed is carrying the older Blackpool Transport livery of black & yellow. Maybe it was once “trendy”, but I think it is looking increasingly dated these days. However, many of the newer examples in the fleet carry the altogether more agreeable “Palladium” branding and livery. It is classy, in an understated kind of way. When I first saw it a few years ago in a trade magazine, I wasn’t too bothered. But now I’ve seen it “in the flesh” a few times, it’s really beginning to grow on me. Coupled with the tram’s distinctive purple and white colours, Blackpool Transport for me is getting a real identity again.
We briefly sample the in-town “Customer Centre”, which has lots of visitors and is well-stocked with timetables, but alas no system map.
Heritage Bashing – and Ice Cream!
Now it’s time for some heritage bashing! We catch the 1930s double deck “Balloon” tram 717 down to the Pleasure Beach. “Mini” heritage tram tours cost £3.50 and are a lovely cost-effective way to sample some real transport nostalgia! Walter Luff, Manager of Blackpool’s Trams in the 1930s, commissioned these gorgeous machines, and their classy Art Deco-inspired swoops and lovingly-restored interiors are an absolute treat for any transport fan.
We retire for ice cream at this southern end of the heritage operation, as 717 whirrs away up the promenade – as it has done for the last 80-odd years. Nicely dodging a rainstorm (well, this IS the British seaside in the summertime, after all), we return to the Pleasure Beach terminus to admire the arrival of sister Balloon 715. Whilst the screams of terror emanate from the nearby Big Dipper, us transport nerds purr nicely as 715 glides away for a trip past the Tower and up to Cabin. This is where we hop off and observe a nifty little reverse procedure, as 715 trundles away back towards the heart of the action, and we similarly trundle our way to one of Mark’s favourite fish & chip establishments, where we eat in, chomping on our traditional seaside dinner, before making our way around the corner to catch a 3 service back to Blackpool North for our journey home.
Despite the excellence of another trip on a brand new Enviro 200 single decker, it was disappointing to find no timetable information on the stop (either vandalised or fell apart) and a car parked next to the bus stop.
The short windy trip back to the station reveals the work going on to extend the current modern day tram network up to Blackpool North station. The buses have some temporary stops around the area, and we take the “back way” up to Blackpool North, where the 1974-built station awaits us. It’s the only station I know where doors keep you on the concourse, locked away from platforms until the very last moment. A Twitter discussion, mischievously started by me, fails to establish the reason for this, and problems on the Northern rail network delay us by over 30 minutes, but we’re soon heading back towards Preston and onwards to the West Midlands.
What to make of the Blackpool bus and tram network? It’s very much on the up. If you’d visited this seaside resort 20 years ago, you’d have seen the trams as an attraction, much the same as a donkey ride or stick of rock. Today, the modern rapid transit system not only serves a purpose, it looks good and sends a signal that not only is it “for locals”, it’s for everyone. For concessionary pass holders who don’t want to pay for the tram, the number 1 bus service mirrors the tram, all the way up to Fleetwood.
The buses themselves are becoming top notch. There has undoubtedly been – and continues to be – a transformation here. The “Palladium” brand – initially for high-quality vehicles – is rapidly becoming the norm here, and you can only applaud the decision to invest heavily in new kit. It’s a pity that the local yob fraternity decided to destroy the USB sockets on some upper deck tables, which warranted some unwanted publicity in recent times, but there’s no doubting the positive vibe going on with Blackpool’s buses.
The development of Blackpool’s much-loved heritage tram operation is a joy. Again, in years gone by, there appeared little identity in the tram operation. The balloons were front-line service providers, alongside rebuilt double deckers and some rather ugly-looking examples. Today, for my money, they have the balance just right. The modern fleet is distinctive and does its job well. The heritage service fits nicely in between, delighting tourists and holidaymakers. The day ticket is actually a “24 hour” ticket, which also fits well with holidaymakers.
Although I was only there for a few hours, I found a nice, well run, attractive operation, with high quality vehicles and friendly staff. Blackpool rocks!
- High quality investment in new vehicles
- Excellent modern and historical tram services
- Well-priced day tickets
- No contactless payment
- No system map available from the shop
- No bus information at Blackpool North station