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In the post-war years, a new tram system was being born. Although tramways were being dismantled all over the United Kingdom, tram enthusiast Claude Lane, who owned a factory which made battery-electric milk floats, adapted his manufacturing techniques to build a scaled-down double-deck tram, to run on a 15-inch gauge track.
Lane’s miniature tram ran off batteries, and the minimum-gauge was easily portable. So, Lane was able to amortise some of the costs of building his miniature tram by exhibiting it at rallies, fairs and the like.
The tram proved so successful that Lane decided to set up a more permanent tramway and, in 1953, set up a short (2/3 of a mile) tramway at Eastbourne. This, like a full-sized tramway, was powered by mains electricity from an overhead cable, rather than pulling a battery in a trailer, as the ‘prototype’ tram did.
The new line was built to the two-foot gauge, which was used by many mining, quarrying and industrial railways – some of which survive as tourist attractions today. With the new gauge, adults could now ride the trams in relative comfort!
The cars were built at Lane’s factory in Barnet, and later, in the tramway’s own works at Eastbourne. The designs were based upon those of ‘full-sized’ tram-cars from all over the country, and many of them are still in service.
During the 1960s, planned development at Eastbourne began to threaten the operation of the line. Lane felt that its future would be better assured if it could be operated on its own freehold site. And, at that time, the infamous ‘Beeching Axe’ was making many redundant British Railways lines available.
In Devon, a particularly attractive stretch of former line was on offer. It ran along the banks of the estuary of the River Axe into the seaside resort of Seaton. Since the estuary is particularly rich in bird-life, this would be a further incentive for people to ride on the trams – indeed, they frequently run ‘bird-watchers’ specials’, but outside their normal operating hours, so the tram can stop if anything interesting is seen.
The new line would run about two miles, between Seaton and Colyton. It was thought that a broader gauge would be desirable, to allow for even greater passenger comfort, and it was decided that 2ft. 9in (believed to be unique) was the widest which would permit the 2 ft. gauge cars to be converted without the trucks protruding beyond the bodies. An additional bonus was that ‘real’ tram-cars, built for 3ft. 6in, and even standard gauge tracks could be obtained and converted.
But first, the existing cars, now numbering about half a dozen, needed to be brought from Eastbourne by road; a formidable task carried out almost entirely by Claude Lane and his assistant, Allan Gardner.
The service at Eastbourne had closed in late 1969, but enough track had been laid at Seaton by the end of August 1970 to run a limited service – towing a battery trailer, as the overhead mains cable had yet to be installed. The line reached the intermediate station at Colyford the following Spring, and, shortly afterwards, Claude Lane suffered a fatal heart attack.
By now, the little tramway had a hard core of enthusiasts, and work continued under the direction of the new General Manager, Allan Gardner. Colyton, the terminus, was reached in 1980, after re-laying a level crossing and building flood defences.
The line is single track, but trams can operate with a frequency of only ten minutes apart. There are six passing loops along the route, where trams can wait until the opposing car has passed, the way being controlled by possession of a staff, supplemented by verbal messages from passing drivers.
There are many types of car in service, and the best ones suited to the weather conditions are brought out. There are single-deck, completely enclosed cars … many of these are cut-down full-scale trams; there are open-topped double-deckers, with the lower deck either open at the sides or fully enclosed and there’s one open single-decker, based on a popular design used at Blackpool. This, in my opinion, is the best one for photography. Sit on the right-hand side on the way back to Seaton to get the best pictures of oncoming trams in the passing loops.
One of the awards gained by the tramway was the English Tourism Council’s ‘Small Visitor Attraction of the Year’ for the South-Western Region. It’s not surprising – the ‘small visitors’ I took with me loved it!
The Seaton Tramway is about 20 miles east of Exeter … nearest railway station is Axminster (5 miles) Frequent buses from there.
Seaton Tramway, Harbour Road, Seaton, Devon EX12 2NQ. Tel: 01297 620375. www.tram.co.uk