The old-fashioned trams that rattle along the seafront at Blackpool are almost as synonymous with the north-western seaside resort as the famous tower that has dominated the skyline since it opened 117 years ago.
The tramway has an even longer history. It celebrated its 125th year of continuous operation in 2010 and is the oldest of its kind in the UK. But from early next year, many of the bone-rattling electric trams, most of which predate the second world war, will be replaced with sleek, low-floor versions that will hum along the city’s wind-swept promenade.
The arrival of these 21st century machines, driver’s cabs equipped with digital touch-screens rather than levers and dials, will mark the culmination of a £350m regeneration programme.
For years, Blackpool had struggled to redefine itself as it looked to recover its glory days and expand its appeal beyond a loyal base of weekend visitors from Scotland and England.
It was hampered by the success of low-fare airlines, which brought foreign holidays within the reach of more UK households. It suffered further isolation as direct train links and flights from London disappeared.
Its status as a destination of choice for stag and hen parties has not helped its image among families but the Pleasure Beach is still the UK’s most visited attraction.
Despite the city’s position close to the top of the league table of retail black spots, with the second highest shop vacancy rate in the country, the mood about town is still one of relative optimism.
The tourism industry employs about 20,000 people and brings in more than £1bn to the local economy each year. The town expects about 13m visitors this year, matching last year’s ten-year high.
Simon Blackburn, the leader of the town council since May, when Labour swept back into power after four years of Conservative control, says the arrival of the first of the 16 new trams – a fleet of prewar vehicles will continue to operate alongside them, largely for the benefit of tourists – will mean a great deal to the town and is a sign of its desire to reinvent itself.
“We are seeing the end of a something that has been ten years or so in the making. We are at a point where more than £300m has been invested in public infrastructure and ground projects.”
For Blackpool’s population of 142,000 that has meant a complete redevelopment of the sea defences along the promenade in the past few years. The old, drab, moss-covered seawall has been replaced by a landscaped “stepped” bank that leaves the sightlines between the beach and promenade open.
Last week, the Blackpool Tower was reopened after a £5m restoration programme. The famous landmark is now under council ownership – after it was bought from its previous owner last year for £40m along with the Winter Gardens complex, a former favourite of the party conference circuit. The Winter Gardens complex is also being renovated.
Private investment has followed, led by Merlin Entertainments, which has entered into partnership with the council and will run the tower for the next 15 years under a profit-sharing agreement.
Visitor numbers may still fall some way short of the 17m that used to regularly flock to Blackpool before the 1990s but Mr Blackburn believes the council’s strategy is having some success.
“We are now starting to appeal to a wider base, either people who haven’t been before or who used to come in the 1970s and 1980s. Blackpool is increasingly becoming a family friendly resort.”
One council official admits the tacky side of the town will always remain.
The contrast between many of the seafront hotels and B&Bs, which don’t appear to have had a makeover in decades and the sleek, new trams is striking. But the new vehicles, built by Canada’s Bombardier at its factories in Germany and Austria, demonstrate Blackpool’s ambitions.
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