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.

 
 
 
 

The media scumbag’s route of choice: A personal history of London’s C2 bus

A C2 bus at Parliament Hill. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

London’s C2 bus route, which runs from Parliament Hill, by Hampstead Heath, down to Conduit Street, just off Regent Street, is one of the bus routes recently earmarked for the chop. It has oft been noted that, of all the routes recently pencilled in for cancellation after a consultation late last year, it was the one most likely to survive, for the simple reason that it links liberal suburban north London with BBC Broadcasting House and Soho; it’s thus the route most likely to be used by people who can convince someone to let them report on its imminent demise.

So it would come as no surprise that former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger took to the Camden New Journal when the consultation began, arguing that it would be a disservice to the local community to discontinue a route where you can always get a seat – seemingly missing the point that the fact you can always get a seat is not a great sign of the route’s usefulness.

It wasn’t always that way. When I left university in 2000, and moved from accommodation near college to up to a rented shared house in N6, the C2 was my bus. I commuted to Soho for sixteen years: for more than a decade from flats around the Swain’s Lane roundabout, and for five years from Kentish Town. While my place of work bounced around from Golden Square to Lexington Street to Great Marlborough, it was always the most convenient way to get to, and from, work; especially given the difference between bus and tube prices.

So when it comes to the C2 I’ve seen it, I’ve done it, and bought the bus pass. And by bus pass, I mean those little paper ones that still existed at the beginning of this century. Not just before contactless, but before Oyster cards.

More importantly, it was before London buses operated a single zone. There was an outer zone, and an inner zone, with different prices. To travel from one zone to another cost £1.30, meaning an all cash commute was £2.60, whereas a paper bus pass was £2.00. That made it worth your while to divert to an early opening newsagents on your way to the bus stop (GK, in my case), even if you only got two buses a day.

It’s a measure of how greatly London’s buses have improved over the last twenty years, since first brought under control of the mayoralty, that pretty much everything about this anecdotage, including the prices, seems faintly mad. But there’s more: back when I started getting that bus down to Stop N, literally at the very end of the route, the C2 used single decker buses with a single door. It’s an appalling design for use in a crowded city, which meant most of any journey was, for most passengers, spent fighting your way up and down the middle of the bus to find a seat, and then back again to get off; or – and this was more likely – fighting your way up the bus to get into standing space the driver insisted was there, before fighting your way, etc.

Such buses – and in my former life in the English Midlands I went to school on one of these buses every day – are perfectly functional where bus stops are infrequent and buses rarely standing room only. But running through Camden Town at rush hour, they’re wholly unfit for purpose.

A Citypacer. Image: RXUYDC/Wikimedia Commons.

It could have been worse. I didn’t know this at the time, but a few years before the C2 route had been run using Optare City Pacers. Those are, let us be frank, not really buses at all, but minibuses. That’s something the reveals the C2’s origins, as a hopper route to the west end largely intended for the daytime use of Gospel Oak’s pensioners in the years immediately before bus privatisation. (The C11 has a similar origin, taking the same constituency from Archway to England’s Lane.)

Once responsibility for London Buses was moved to the newly established mayoralty, things improved dramatically. Under Ken Livingstone it went double decker in 2005, and 24 hour in 2007. Under Boris Johnson it was extended from its once, and future, terminus of Conduit Street to Victoria Station, swallowing up the cancelled sections of the 8 bus; this extension was quietly disposed of a few years later, once it was clear no one would notice. (I did.)


In those years I must have taken a C2 the best part of ten thousand times; but for all the years when I wouldn’t have been able to live without the C2, times have reduced its utility, and not just for me. I’m now a 214 sort of guy: these days the top chunk of the C2 route is duplicated exactly by that other bus, which starts up in Highgate Village and, once it gets to Swain’s Lane, follows the same path until the fork of Kentish Town Road and Royal College Street, opposite the long defunct South Kentish Town tube station.

From a few hundred metres below that point, at Camden Gardens, stop C, the 88 starts. That duplicates the rest of the C2’s route, with the exception of the run down Albany Street and onto Great Portland, for much of which the C2 is the only bus.

So the C2, old friend that it is, is pretty redundant in the age of the hopper fare, which allows you to change buses without paying a second fare. That’s even more true now the C2’s otherwise un-serviced stops are being giving over to a re-routed 88, which will pick up the C2’s most northern leg, by not finishing at Camden Gardens anymore and instead going all the way to Parliament Hill Fields. Which will be nice for it.

All this, however, ignores the best reason for getting rid of the C2 (or rather for merging it with the 88, which is what’s actually happening): that first character. The letter. Who wants a bus route with a letter in front of it when even half the night buses don’t have the N anymore? It’s relic of the route’s aforementioned origins as a ‘Camdenhopper’.

That C is twenty five years past its own utility. It’s just untidy. City Metric hates that sort of thing. Get rid.