Here are seven new uses for Britain’s defunct pacer trains

Busting for the loo, lads. Image: Chris Sharp.

Editor’s note: This article originally failed to note that all the pictures were of model trains, because the editor is an idiot. Anyway, we’ve now corrected it. Enjoy.

Everybody hates a Pacer, the tiny 30-year old trains that swarm around the railways of the North and Wales – and these hated carriages are not long for this world. Politicians have made promises to remove them from the network, and the Persons of Reduced Mobility Technical Specification for Interoperability (PRM-TSI) regulations have scheduled the axe to fall on 1 January 2020.

With the addition of disabled toilets, the Pacers could live on beyond this cutoff date – but nobody wants to spend the money installing an expensive toilet on a shit train. The Pacers are the rolling dead.

But wait! News from across the border has reached the Pacer’s Yorkshire stronghold. The authorities in Wales have reportedly come up with a cunning plan to save the Pacers currently serving the Valleys. The plan is so cunning, it might actually work. The plan – and I do want to emphasis quite how cunning it is – is… wait for it…

…to lock the toilet door

Further editor’s note: Originally we said that the plan was that of Arriva Trains Wales, which has now been in touch to deny it. Always happy to correct our mistakes, we are.

By taking the toilet permanently out of use, it becomes just as unusable to those with able-bodieds as to those without, thus meeting all regulations. This is probably not what equality campaigners were aiming for.

Told you it was cunning.

Arriva reasons that you can hold it in for the short journeys that its Pacers do. And it has a point: there are plenty of bus services that take over an hour, and have no toilets are provided. The only real issue I have with this plan is timing. How come the rail industry only just come up with it? This penny dropped for me about five years ago.

Anyway: if the loo-less Pacers are getting a new lease of life, what uses could the rail network put them to? I offer a few thoughts.

2 + 2 =

We actually have two types of two-car trains in the north: Pacers and Sprinters. The Sprinters are basically okay, and as they’re being modified to PRM-TSI standards, they will live on, which is handy.

So my first proposed use of the newly loo-less Pacer is as a rush hour buster. In the morning and evening peaks, why not couple a Pacer up to a Sprinter, turn a two-car train into a four-car one, and allow passengers to get a seat? That way, the train will still be accessible, so long as you get on the right coach, which is already clearly marked.

A pacer added to the rear of a sprinter calling at Amblethorpe on the authors model railway.

Unfortunately, pacers don’t have end gangways. This means passengers cannot walk through from the Pacer to the Sprinter to uses its loo. You could keep the toilet open in this scenario, only as long as the Pacer never flies solo.

Pacer (left) without end gangway, sprinter (right) with end gangway at Colwick on the authors model railway.

Looless to Pontecarlo

Alternatively, we could borrow an idea from the Welsh: lock the loos and keep ‘em running.

To be fair, there are some eye-wateringly long Pacer journeys. Kirkby to Blackburn and Nunthorpe to Hexham both take way over 2 hours for the Pacer to complete (I’ve done the latter, so you don’t have to). These would not be sensible services to make loo-less.

But shorter trips such as Leeds to Knottingly, which takes just 35 minutes end to end, could be suitable. This would be a cheap way of giving Castleford and Pontefract four train per hour. But the trains would have to be exclusive to a route: there can be no expectation that there will be a toilet on the train.


New parcels vans

Back in the days of nationalization, British Rail (BR) used to have a parcels business, which carried newspapers and Royal Mail post around the country. To do this, BR was in the habit of converting old passenger trains into parcels trains.

This service could be reinvented using the Pacers. They could trip from distribution centres to city centre stations at night, with electric vehicles then taking the goods onwards to central shops and businesses. During the day, they could couple on to passenger trains, tagging along for the ride to Barrow or Hull.

Hard to see this happening on the privatised railway, but it’s an idea.

FMU: Freight Multiple Unit

Rumour is that the Pacer was invented when someone at BR research looked at their very impressive new high speed freight wagon and thought: “If I removed the top, add an engine and a bus body I’ll have a really cheap passenger train.”

Why not reverse engineer this idea 40 years later? Keep the engine and the driving cabs, but chop out the passenger compartment to leave a big gap above the chassis. This would leave room for a 40ft shipping container. A two car unit could only carry two containers, but there may be enough power to add a wagon in-between to increase the capacity to three.

This isn’t an efficient way of transporting containers, admittedly – but if the FMU could be added to a passenger train, then you don’t need an extra driver or an extra path on the railway line, making it more efficient. The route that springs to mind as one where this could make a difference is from Inverness to the Far North: Tescos could kept its containers on the rails all the way to Thurso.

Cycle Coach

Most trains have room for a bicycle. Some have space for two, three, even four.

But this low capacity is starting to become a problem as more people take their bikes with them on the train. One car of a Pacer could be converted into a bike coach, like they have in Denmark.

As with the other ideas here, this would only work if the trains could be run in multiple with a Sprinter. This would be equally useful on commuter routes and on our scenic railways, where people want to access the great outdoors by train and bike.


Observation Cars

Speaking of the scenic railways, the one thing about a Pacer that is very good are its windows, which provide an uninterrupted view of the landscape. This it not a sought-after feature as you commute in from Bolton to Salford, but it’s marvellous in the Yorkshire Dales or the Cumbrian Coast.

So why not give Pacers an internal refurbishment, leaving plenty of room for bikes and rucksacks, and add them on Sprinter running on the beautiful railways of the North, Wales and Scotland?

1 + 2 + 1 =

Taking several of these ideas and bringing them together, we have what follows.

A Sprinter, to provide the accessible toilet and a comfortable suspension for the discerning passenger. A Pacer coach, with space for small parcels, plenty of bike racks and a door dedicated for bike loading and off-loading. The other Pacer coach dedicated to providing the best views, preferably with tables so groups can travel together. 

The imaginative way of doing this is to split up the Pacer and put each coach on either end on a Sprinter. This gets round the problem of the gangway doors, and means the guard will be able to walk the full length of the train. The commuter version of this train would have the Pacer coaches fitted out with longitudinal seating and grab rails, as found on London Overground trains.

A sprinter sandwiched between the two halves of a pacer waits to depart from Amblethorpe on the authors model railway..

The North is promised shiny new trains, which may – but, probably, won’t – create enough extra capacity enough to put an end to over-crowding. But Pacers, as much as they’re hated, could still provide a solution to a few of the country’s railway problems, just so long as we think beyond just locking up the loos.

All images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

It’s time to rethink how the British railway network works

Nothing doing: commuters await a long-delayed train. Image: Getty.

The recent meltdowns on Northern and Thameslink not only left many passengers besides themselves with frustration about not being able to get to work on time, if at all. It also led to a firestorm of criticism and condemnation from politicians and media alike.

With the immediate shock of that first Monday morning of the meltdown passed, there’s a now a bigger debate about whether the way that rail services are provided for cities needs some far reaching reform. But before coming to that, the first thing to say – and as we set out in our Rail Cities UK report, launched today – is that the fundamentals for urban rail remain very strong.

Here’s why. All cities want to become denser, more dynamic places which attract the best people to the growth sectors of the economy (including the ‘flat white economy’ of media, communications and information). In order to achieve this, as well as to improve air quality, cities are also reducing space for motorised traffic in favour of space for people.

It’s very difficult to see how this can be achieved without expanding rail networks and their capacity. What’s more, if housing need is to be met without creating more sprawl and traffic congestion, then again its rail that will be key – because it opens up former rail-connected brownfield industrial sites, it extends commuting range, plus housing can be built above or around new or existing rail stations and interchanges.

In some ways there’s nothing new here. From Metroland to Docklands, successful cities have always grown with their rail networks. And to be fair, there is significant investment going into urban rail at present. Northern will get a lot better (the pacers are doomed) and both Merseyside and Tyne & Wear are getting a whole new fleet of trains for their urban rail networks.

However, much (but not all) of this investment is incremental, or replacing rolling stock on its last legs. It stops short of the wider vision for the rail cities that we need.


What would that look like in practice? There comes a point when the biggest cities need more cross-city routes, because running trains in and out of edge-of-centre termini can’t cope with the numbers. That explains the push for Crossrail 2 in London, but also the need for more cross-city capacity in cities like Birmingham (on the Snow Hill route) as well as in Manchester (on the Oxford Road to Manchester Piccadilly corridor, as well as a potential new underground route).

Tram-train technology can also help – allowing the lucky commuter that benefits to get on board at their local station and get off right outside their city centre office on main street in the city centre, rather than piling out at a Victorian railway terminal on the edge of that city centre.

Tram-trains aren’t the only tech fix available. Battery packs can extend the range of existing electric trains deeper into the “look ma, no wires” hinterlands, as well as allow trams to glide through city centres without the expensive clutter of overhead wires.

More mundane but equally useful work to increase capacity through signalling, station, track and junction work offers the opportunity to move to turn-up-and-go frequency networks with greater capacity and more reliability – networks that start to emulate the best of what comparable German rail cities already enjoy. Interlocking networks of long distance, regional express, regional, S-bahn, U-bahn, trams and buses, all under common ticketing.

But in talking about Germany and common ticketing I am now getting back to where I started around the debate on whether some fundamental change is needed on how urban rail networks are provided. Obviously there is a bigger national discussion going on about whether the current structure is just too layered, with too many costly interfaces and too fractured a chain of command. And in addition another, on whether the railway should be publicly or privately owned and operated.

But it’s been heartening to see the growing recognition that – regardless of how these debates are resolved – more devolution for urban and regional services should be part of any solution. That’s not only because fully devolved services have been out-performing comparators both operationally and in passenger satisfaction; it’s because local control rather than remote control from Whitehall will mean that the dots can be joined between rail and housing, between rail and the wider re-fashioning of city centres, and between rail and local communities (for example through repurposing stations as wider hubs for local community use, enterprises and housing). It will also allow for rail and the rest of local urban public transport networks to be part of one system, rather than be just on nodding terms as is all too often the case at present.

The crisis on Northern and Thameslink has been a miserable experience for rail users, affected cities and the rail industry. If any good has come out of it, it is that it shows how important rail is to cities, and opens up a space for some bigger thinking about what kind of rail cities we will need for the future – and how best we can make that happen.

Jonathan Bray is the Director of the Urban Transport Group which represents the transport authorities for the largest city regions. You can read the group’s full report here.