A Defence of The Worst Train in Britain

In Britain, we are lucky to have some excellent examples of the railway art. In particular, the truly magnificent HS1, which allows one to reach Ashford from London in a mere 38 minutes, at up to 140 mph, or, to transport one at up to 186 mph on a rather beautiful Eurostar on one’s holidays to the continent.

Alas, this is not an article about that railway. Today, I want to draw your attention upon the other end of the spectrum, the veritable base model of passenger transport in Britain. I am of course talking about the Pacer (a picture can be found here, you’ll almost certainly recognise these if you live in the North), the bastard child of a British Leyland bus and an old freight wagon, truly the blight of the North. Except that is the short version of the story. You see, few people bother to explain why the Pacers are the way they are, and why they just might be the most important trains on the network.

To explain why this is the case, we need to understand a little about the railway when the Pacers were created. The recession of the early 1980s hit the UK quite hard, and the railways in particular. During this time, British Rail suffered from a huge maintenance backlog, causing it to ask for more subsidy from government, to cover these costs and to subsidise otherwise unviable services on local lines.

Unfortunately, the government they were dealing with was the government of Margaret Thatcher. The inconvenient truth was that they were not prepared to fund British Rail in the face of decreasing passenger numbers, fights with the unions, and increasingly outdated methods and equipment. In fact, the government viewed the railways so poorly that the very concept of the railways was under threat in this period, and a report was commissioned, led by the retired civil servant Sir David Serpell, to look into the state and prospects for Britain’s railways. It was dubbed the Serpell report.

Unsurprisingly, it was not an optimistic report. It consisted of several “options” for Britain’s railways, all proposing different sizes of network, based on different financial criteria. The most severe of these options was Option A, which would have reduced the network from just over 10,000 miles (as it was in 1982) to just 1,630 miles, leaving many places completely off the railway map. It was described as “A commercially viable railway which might be sustained in the long run with no financial support from public funds”. This would have left anywhere south west of Bristol off the railway map completely, along with anywhere north of Glasgow or Edinburgh, and the Midland Main Line linking Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield with London too would have disappeared.

Suffice to say, this report did not go down well. Before it had even been released, parts of the report had been leaked to the press, who dutifully informed the nation. Thus the well had been poisoned before even a drop had been extracted. It did not matter that other, more optimistic options existed in the report – further railway cuts simply could not be made without huge public backlash.

Instead, British Rail would have to make the current network cheaper. Work had been carried out in the 1970s to investigate the possibility of a railbus, that is, a cheap railway vehicle based on a bus, but this had not been ready for production; the first prototype, the Leyland Experimental Vehicle 1, or LEV1, did not originally even have an engine. By the early 1980s, however, sufficient research had been conducted that BR felt they could risk a production run, and this appeared as the class 141 in 1984.

The new train was hardly a hit with passengers. In fact, the only fittings it had that the older diesels didn’t were power operated doors, and the 141 had the same seats as a bus. The ride quality, then, as now, was dreadful, having just 4 wheels compared to the usual 8, and it was rather noisy on curves. Importantly, however, it was a good deal cheaper to run than the older, first generation diesel trains it replaced.

Unfortunately, this was a rather narrow vehicle, so a number of different body styles were tried, not that this makes much difference to the fact that the new trains were all still bus bodies on an old freight wagon, at least in design. Indeed, 3 more kinds of Pacer were foisted upon this green and pleasant land, those being classes 142, 143 and 144.

Anyone who has had experience of any of British Leyland’s cars will not be shocked to learn that later on, all the pacers had to have their original engines and gearboxes replaced with much more reliable Cummins types. Someone also noticed that there weren’t enough seats for some trains, so some of the 144s received an extra coach in the middle, but the biggest change came later when the 141s were all withdrawn as better trains became available. Broadly, however, the formula has remained the same.

Terrifically interesting, you might be saying (with varying degrees of sarcasm), but so far, you’ve not really demonstrated the importance of these miserable things. It is subtle, I will grant you that, but I’m halfway there. You see, if the pacers had not been built, it may have been uneconomic to run most branch lines. Services might not exist in huge swathes of the north of England, Wales, and possibly the south west, if these cheap but not especially cheerful trains had not existed. Furthermore, had the old trains been kept, when they reached the end of their lives in the 1990s, a business case for their replacement would have been difficult to make for fledgling Train Operating Companies, again leaving lines without trains. In addition, it is almost certain that the rise in passenger numbers since then could not have been accommodated without Pacers.

Luckily for the average passenger, the Pacer era is coming to an end. New legislation requires that, by 2020, trains be step free inside, and requires toilets that don’t flush waste directly onto the track. Without modification, Pacers won’t meet either requirement. Passenger requirements too have changed – just a train is not enough now, and features like WiFi, plug sockets and air conditioning are perhaps a step too far from early 80s railway austerity. Northern, the largest operator of Pacers, will start withdrawing theirs at the end of this year, as they are displaced by new trains, and they will all be gone by the end of 2019.

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All that remains is for me to thank you for reading this article, and wish you a pleasant day. Oh, and, if you feel inclined, I would like to encourage you to pass this on to someone who might enjoy it.

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A blog about nuggets of history, technology and sometimes railways. Peculiar.

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