The sprawling 600 acre Heaton Park in North Manchester isn’t perhaps where one would expect to find a tramway. However if you go back 115 years to 31st May 1903, you will discover that the municipal tramway operating in the city at the time was extended by way of a siding into the park to allow the citizens of the then heavily industrialised city a chance to escape from their everyday grind to the much-loved and extremely well used green space – to take the air.
It lasted 30 years before the tracks were covered and given over to use by buses and in theory that was to be the end of that. Fast forward to 1980 and the Manchester Transport Museum Society had successfully converted the old tram shelter at the bottom of the park near the Middleton Rd entrance into a tram depot, restored the original tram track which extended to the gates and brought their own tram in which they had been restoring since the 1960s in to provide tram rides.
Over the years the tramway has been extended in phases up to the lake to a new terminus and tram shed, and they have exciting plans to further develop this site and to extend the tramway further into the park in the future subject of course to funding.
This is a tramway system not to be underestimated. By next year they will have 6 trams operational with more waiting in the wings waiting to be restored by the in-house team of engineers, electricians, painters and craftsmen. Looking at their work yesterday on two trams that are currently undergoing work its clear that these guys are 100% serious in their ambition to make this tramway an absolute gem. Their work is stunning, and they do it with an understated pride which really is the mark of the people there. Hard working, sincere and committed to their work which they carry out as volunteers for the benefit of the tramway and the people who ride it.
I am a very recent convert to trams. I will admit openly that it’s a mere 4 years since I travelled on my first tram in Blackpool but I had experienced this tramway a couple of years prior to that with my children at one of the annual Translancs Transport Rallies which take place every September. It was more the stuff on rubber than on rails that I was interested in then. It was my son that garnered my interest in trams – he loves them – and keen for us to do something together, we started to explore the various tramway systems the North West has to offer.
Late in 2017, I saw a Facebook post from the tramway at Heaton Park promoting father’s day tram driving experiences – I must admit it took me all of maybe 10 seconds to get the email out to the tramway to book my place – it was a no brainer, father’s day, a tram drive and a meal out afterwards sounded like my kind of day!
The 30 minute experiences are a superb introduction to driving a tram and are just long enough for you to have several laps of the double track from the old depot to Middleton Road and back. They are undertaken on one of the simpler trams in the fleet generally Hull 96 which as I discovered is a quite forgiving single bogie hand brake car which although a single-decker these days was formerly a double-deck tram and therefore benefits from being fairly swift but very steady on her wheels.
I was so sold on the idea of the tramwayg that after a little persuasion from one or two other lovely staff I decided that I would sign myself and my son up for annual membership which of course supports the tramway financially but also allow a number of handy advantages by way of free access to the tramway for the year and free access to other similar attractions.
On every visit since we have been warmly welcomed by everyone at the tramway and have thoroughly enjoyed being a small part of things. And really with these type of operations that is exactly what you want. On one visit the idea of Full Day Tram Driver Experiences (TDEs) was mentioned and I declared an immediate interest. A few emails later and it was agreed. I was to be the first person to take a full day TDE in the parkway for a number of years. With diaries checked the 13th October 2018 was to be my day.
The plan was to operate one tram in the morning and another more advanced tram in the afternoon, having had the initially TDE on father’s day the confidence of the staff meant that I was able to get my hands on my car of choice, the very lovely Blackpool Brush car 623. But not until I’d spent the first half of the day re-familiarising myself with my first tram Hull 96.
I had vaguely remembered what to do and a couple of laps on the double track and we were good to go. By we I mean myself, my instructor Tony – who I had previously on the last TDE and with whom I had absolute confidence to teach me well, our guard for the day Rob and my son Oliver who acted as trainee Guard.
Familiarisation over, we were authorised full use of the entire tramway which was closed to the pubic as it was now out of season. You can imagine my excitement, an entire tramway system to myself with a great crew on board.
The tramway North of the original double track isn’t the easiest of tramways to negotiate and on the day in question the after effects of Storm Callum which had battered the North West over the previous couple of days were seen to full effect. The track had been given a thorough check, leaves and so on cleared and on the hill sections, sand put down to allow the tram traction.
From the double track there is an immediate hill on a corner around a bend to the left, through a wooded section to a pathway and a compulsory stop known as white gate. From there its more woods to the broad path which runs parallel to the boat house and a busy thoroughfare for pedestrians, cross that it’s a sharp left and down to the new terminus.
There are of course very stringent safety systems in place, the instructor is right next to you in the cab the whole time, he has full access to the power breaker, can stop you at any time and is very much in charge in the event you miss something or a danger presents itself. Similarly the guard in addition to operating the trolley pole and changing the lights etc has full access to the brakes at the rear of the tram and is fully briefed on his special duties for TDE’s.
We set off having negotiated the breaker pole adjacent to the old depot and successfully negotiated the hill, the curve, the woods, the compulsory stop, the paths and came to a stop at the terminus – to everyone’s relief it was a very successful first run.
Hull 96 as the first tram I drove is very special to me and she was a very willing but very strong choice, that manual hand brake sure takes some manual handling to use but the single bogie layout and great power delivery means she’s like a sherpa climbing a mountain, cross her though and she will remind you that she is very much a strong old beast!
We took many more trips that morning getting a feel for the tramway and as we went on man and machine gradually synced in perfect harmony, it was like we had become a double act, I learnt to trust her, I learnt when to work with her through bends and over points and I also learnt when she wanted to give it a bit of a sprint in the limited sections its possible to do so.
Once we had finished our running with 96, it was time to swap trams, so it was moved by the instructor into the depot and we watched as 623 was prepared for our afternoon session. It was immediately apparent that 623 was going to be an entirely different proposition to 96 – the size difference between the two for starters and the fact that 623 was full of rows of seats rather than side benches and the myriad of different kit – it felt very much like a more meaty piece of kit!
We enjoyed our lunch together back down at the depot in the splendour of Stockport tram 5 which is nearing the end of a major rebuilt. The smell of fresh varnish, the glorious brash and the perfectly restored lettering on the bulkheads was a delight.
After lunch it was time to get my hands on 623. Now 623 and I go back a few years. I had first encountered 623 on the tramway a number of years ago and she was my first ever Blackpool Tram – not at Blackpool, but here at Heaton Park!, at the time as I said earlier it was rubber wheeled vehicles I was interested in but a tram ride seemed a quaint idea.
623 paid a visit back to Blackpool last year for the 80th Anniversary of the Brush cars returning to Heaton Park this summer. Over the year she was away in Blackpool we rode her numerous times and in fact we ended up on her last trip on the Saturday before she was hauled by low loader back to Heaton Park on the Monday. A couple of days work in commissioning later and the next Saturday she was back in service with a 12:00 from the old depot with me onboard. It was very surreal to think we had been aboard just a week earlier up and down the Blackpool Prom and up as far as Fleetwood. And here we were riding through the wooded splendour of Heaton Park.
623 and 631 at Bispham 15th July 2018
And so here we were on a mild autumn day surrounded by fallen leaves and damp tarmac at Heaton Park – and I was going to be me in that tangerine cab driving.
We jumped on board and I headed for the cab which was snug to say the least, enough room for one but with two 2010’s size blokes on there, size was at a premium although there was enough room to operate safely, the power breaker was over my left shoulder and the light switches over my instructors head. In front of me the now familiar power controller and next to that the air brake controller with two dials showing the pressure in the system, further right was the hand brake control which wasnt in use.
Two controls, you would think it simple really, one for go and one for stop – how hard could it be? For reasons mentioned above 623 is not the ideal car for first time drivers on TDE’s and you really have to be fairly competent to drive her. Once familiarised with the control it was air brakes off and a coast to the bottom of the double track.
Gently over the points, a quick notch or two of power and gently back on the air brake. First ride out man and machine worked seamlessly. Taking into account the additional length I was instructed to park 623 a little ahead of where I had parked 96. absolutely no pressure of course but several metres from the end of the track are double iron gates at beyond that Middleton road, a busy double width stretch of road leading to Middleton and the M60 motorway. Thankfully I managed to get her spot on precisely where she needed to be – my instructor both relieved and proud!
We did another couple of laps of the lower track to familiarise ourselves with operating the tram with the two of us up front, our guard and his young apprentice learning their new tasks mid-tram. They worked brilliantly together with Oliver learning everything there is to learn about the job apart from of course dealing with customers, he manned the doors, swapped the trolley pole over at each end, responded to my sounding of the horn – at Heaton Park its two presses from the driver two from the guard and two again from the driver. On one occasion I mistakenly only gave one ‘toot’ and Oliver knowing it was an error waited patiently for me to realise and sound the second one – he knew I’d screwed up!
Once familiar we headed off up the tramway onto the more complex upper section as described earlier. 623 is nowhere near as forgiving as 96 on hills, a twin bogie tram, its much easier to slip one end and the other cannot compensate so the track needed to be well cleaned and sanded in hill sections.
Our first sortie to lakeside went like clockwork, it really felt like 623 and I were made for each other, man and machine in perfect harmony and I immediately fell in love with her! My concerns about her size and different braking system were forgotten and we spent the next 2.5 hours happily making our way back and forth up and down the track – I found myself wondering what the people enjoying the park must have been thinking as we glided past whilst they enjoyed their exercise. There was a very big clue however in the form of newly commissioned destination blinds which im proud to say were making their maiden outing on the tramway especially for the TDE’s – they read – ‘Driver under instruction’ and they looked superb!!!
96 and 623 together on 22nd July 2018
As light fell it was apparent that our track was getting more slippy and problematic. The compulsory stop at White Bridge is on a hill. Setting off again in 623 required some very careful team working with myself on the power and my instructor on the air brake, our guard on one occasion getting out and sanding the track for our return leg to avoid us slipping. But despite the elements we made it home safely every time and we didn’t break the tram!! It would have been a disaster if on this maiden full day TDE we broke it – or rather – I broke it. Can you imagine explaining that after 81 years of faithfull service it had expired?
We really did get the very best possible experience on our day. The weather was far from ideal which presented its own unique challenges but also gave us the opportunity to fully test the trams, test ourselves and our instructors. The differences in ‘rail manners’ between the two is very interesting and as much as I love to drive 96 and she will forever be special to me 623 is my girl – it’s going to be incredibly difficult being a passenger on her again after this.
That said with 6 trams in the fleet there is definitely scope for a return trip and I have already said that I am absolutely going to bag a slot for next year and try another couple of trams – maybe if im lucky the pioneer tram open cab 765 and Stockport 5 would be a good combination!
It was a wonderful day and we left with many happy memories fully satisfied with our experience. Heaton Park Tramway is a hidden gem, it quietly gets on with what it does and I left thinking perhaps it’s under selling itself. They have very bold ambitions for the future which – as a business strategist excite me a lot. They have great people, great trams and a strong volunteer base.
These new tram driver experiences work – we have proven that and as a guinea pig I was happy to feedback what I felt throughout the day but the basic formula is sound and I have absolutely no doubt that anyone wanting to try either the just the 30 minute taster, or that and the full day. wil have a brilliant time. The price is a mere £150. For that you get an instructor and a guard and the use of the tram or trams which are best suited to you.
If I were you and you were thinking about it I wouldn’t hang around, contact Heaton Park Tramway using the email address below and the team will be happy to fill you in on the details and available slots.
More images from the day are available as usual on our Facebook group
To contact the tramway email