Blackpool's season goes off the rails after crash

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The Independent Online

Blackpool - which thought this miserably wet summer season could not get any worse - was cursed again yesterday when the feted switching on of its illuminations was overshadowed by its second serious roller-coaster crash in weeks.

Blackpool - which thought this miserably wet summer season could not get any worse - was cursed again yesterday when the feted switching on of its illuminations was overshadowed by its second serious roller-coaster crash in weeks.

Two teenage boys were in hospital, one with a broken leg, and another 12 were injured after the crash on Blackpool Pleasure Beach's biggest draw - the 214ft-high Big One ride. The apparent malfunction of the roller-coaster's automated braking system caused two trains to collide on Thursday night.

Anthony Rodgers, 13, and Anthony Constantine, 15, were trapped by their legs and in agony. Firefighters worked for an hour to free them and two girls trapped by the securing mechanism in the seats in front of them.

The £12m roller-coaster - one of the world's tallest - was lit up as part of the illuminations last night but its tracks stood silent, the dented steel of the boys' car clear from beneath tarpaulins.

The crash has brought to mind 11-year-old Christopher Sherratt, who fell to his death from the park's Space Invaders ride in July.

Last night was to have been the time for Blackpool to look ahead in an effort to reverse falling tourist numbers.

More than 120 years ago,eight arc lamps first bathed the town's promenade in what was then described as "artificial sunshine". This year, the town's illuminations - switched on by the band Westlife for the start of a 66-night run - were bowing to progress and incorporating laser technology for the first time.

Nearly one-eighth of the £2.1m of taxpayers' money invested in the five and a half miles of illuminations by Blackpool council has been spent on a new display from the creators of the Millennium Eve laser show on the Thames.

The result is modest - a tableau of green laser dinosaurs and fish that move across a screen placed beside the sea - but it appears to be the start of things to come. The council is already looking at something more sophisticated in lasers for next year.

Mark Etches, managing director of Leisure Parcs, the firm that owns Blackpool Tower and Pleasure Beach, says that the town - which last month pronounced itself ready to become Britain's Las Vegas with a string of casino hotels - can no longer provide old-fashioned lights just to satisfy Britain's fondness for cranky traditions.

"We are competing with a world in which children see wonderful graphics on their computer screens," he said. "Our lights are wonderful ... but new technology is around and we have to seize it." He foresees musical accompaniment and interactive lights that can be switched on by movement.

Las Vegas, with one and a half miles of illuminations on Freemont Street, cannot hold a candle to Blackpool's 400,000 lamps, 75 miles of cabling and £50,000 annual electricity bill, officials in the town point out.

But tampering with tradition is a big gamble in an already risky business. The illuminations remain Blackpool's piÿce de résistance and will help bring in some £20m over the next 66 days - the resort's busiest period - but most of the eight million people who see them will be repeat visitors, back for more of the same. In a recent local poll, 85 per cent of 230 readers said Blackpool should stick to the kiss-me-quick formula and forget Vegas.

Since the days when the lights went out as the tide came in and water leaked into the cast-iron wiring pipes, the locals have not appreciated interference with their spectacle. For three nights during the 1926 General Strike, when fuel was rationed, the town ignored a ban on the lights and Ministry of Mines officials had to be sent in to talk the town around.

Old illuminations have gone on to star elsewhere: an annual sale of old, unwanted lights has seen them appear at such unlikely events as Gambia's independence celebrations. The roll call of faded luminaries who have switched on the lights - from Tony Blackburn and the Dad's Army cast to Frank Bough - also reflects the fact that they are perhaps not meant to be at the cutting edge.

Richard Ryan, manager of the council's illuminations department, was busy overseeing repairs to a tableau of dancing cygnets this week. "There are many people who say, 'We only like the old-fashioned lights'. We know the visitor profile so we try to be both samey and innovative." The extravaganza is billed as "a taste of culture, Blackpool-style" but luck again failed and it broke down when Miss Blackpool Lights performed the switch-on at Wednesday's dress rehearsal.

The new technology is also a financial headache for a townthat has 5 per cent off-season unemployment and greater seasonal fluctuations in jobs than any other British resort.

Serious lasers cost at least £10m yet the council cannot add much to an already sizeable bill. Private-sector contributions are a modest £300,000. The Big One's temporary closure is likely to cost its owners £20,000 a day. Last night, New Year's Eve's illuminations were being recycled and 11ft-high dancing pigs added. But after a dire summer, and tourist numbers falling by 6 per cent in the past 10 years, the mood is subdued.

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