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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.