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.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.