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.

 
 
 
 

British television once sounded like Britain. But then, the ITV mergers happened

The Granada Studios, Quay Street, Manchester. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, several ITV franchises celebrated half a century of continuous operation. There was a Yorkshire Television themed cake, and a flag bearing the company’s logo was flown over ITV’s Yorkshire base for a time. It was all very jolly – but while a few people beyond Britain’s small community of television historians and old telly nerds engaged with the idea, any excitement was brief.

The main reason for is not, as you might assume, that, in the era of streaming and so forth, ITV is no longer a dominant presence in many people’s cultural lives: even the quickest of glances at the relevant figures would tell you otherwise. No, it’s because the mere existence of ITV’s franchises is now passing out of common memory. They are the trademarks, literally rather than figuratively, of a version of ITV that today exists only nominally.

For most of its history, ITV operated on a federal model. ITV wasn’t a company, it was a concept: ‘Independent Television’, that is, television which was not the BBC.

It was also a network, rather than a channel – a network of multiple regional channels, each of which served a specific area of the UK. Each had their own name and onscreen identity; and each made programmes within their own region. They were ITV – but they were also Yorkshire, Granada, Grampian, Thames, and so on.

So when I was a child growing up the in Midlands in the ‘80s, no one at school ever said “ITV”: they said “Central”, because that’s what the channel called itself on air, or “Channel Three” because that’s where it was on the dial. To visit friends who lived in other regions was to go abroad – to visit strange lands where the third channel was called Anglia, and its logo was a bafflingly long film sequence of a model knight rotating on a record turntable, where all the newsreaders were different and where they didn’t show old horror films on Friday nights.

The ITV regions as of 1982, plus Ireland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, there were programmes that were shown across the whole network. Any station, no matter in what part of the country, would be foolish not to transmit Coronation Street during the period where it could persuade nearly half the population to tune in. But even The Street wasn’t networked from the beginning: it started in six of the then eight ITV regions, and rolled out to the other two after a few months when it became clear the series was here to stay.

This was a common occurrence: The Avengers, one of the few ITV series to genuinely break America, began in an even more limited number of regions in the same year, with other areas scrambling to catch up when the programme became a hit.

The idea behind ITV’s structure was that the regions would compete with each other to put programmes on the network, opting in and out of others’ productions as worked best for them. ITV was, after all, an invention of a 1950s Conservative government that was developing a taste for the idea of ‘healthy competition’ even as it accepted the moral and practical case for a mixed economy. The system worked well for decades: in 1971, for example, the success of London Weekend Television’s Upstairs, Downstairs, creatively and commercially, and domestically and internationally, prompted other regions to invest in high end period dramas so as to not look like a poor relation.


Even away from prestige productions there was, inexplicable as it now seems, a genuine sense of local pride when a hit programme came from your region. That Bullseye was made on Broad Street in Birmingham was something that people knew. That 17.6m people watched the 1984 Xmas special, making it one of the ten most watched programmes of the year, made Bully a sort of local hero. In more concrete terms, Bullseye and other Birmingham based programmes provided jobs, and kept that part of the country visible from all others. This was true of all areas, and from all areas.

ITV franchises would often make programmes that were distinctive to, or set in, their region. Another of Central’s late eighties hits was Boon. It might have starred the cockney-sounding Michael Elphick, but it was filmed and set in Birmingham, just as Central’s predecessor ATV’s Public Eye had been at the end of the sixties. In Tales of the Unexpected, one of the poorest and smallest ITV regions, the aforementioned Anglia, made a bona fide international hit, largely filmed in transmission area, too. HTV produced a string of children’s series set in its south west catchment area, including some, such as The Georgian House, that examined the way the area had profited from the slave trade.

There was another element of ‘competition’ in the structure of ITV as originally conceived: the franchises were not for life. Every few years, a franchise round would come along, forcing the incumbent stations to bid to continue its own existence against other local offerings.

The process was no simple auction. Ministers were empowered to reject higher financial bids if they felt a lower bid offered other things that mattered: local employment or investment, programming plans that reflected the identity of the region they were bidding to serve, or simply higher quality programmes.

Yorkshire Television itself owes its existence to just such a franchise round: the one that followed a 1967 decision by regulator IBA that Granada, until then the holder of a pan-northern England licence, was insufficiently local to Yorkshire. For a decade, commissioning and production had been concentrated in Manchester, with little representation of, or benefit for, the other side of the Pennines. IBA’s decision was intended to correct this.

Yorkshire existed in practical terms for almost exactly 40 years. Its achievements included Rising Damp, the only truly great sitcom ever made for ITV.

But in 1997 it was, ironically, bought out by Granada, the company who had had to move aside in order for it to be created. What had changed? The law.

In 1990, another Conservative government, one even keener on competition and rather less convinced of the moral and practical case for a mixed economy, had changed the rules concerning ITV regions. There was still a ‘quality threshold’ of a sort – but there was less discretion for those awarding the franchises. Crucially, the rules had been liberalised, and the various ITV franchises that existed as of 1992 started buying out, merging with and swallowing one another until, in 2004, the last two merged to form ITV plc: a single company and a single channel.

The Yorkshire Television birthday cake. Image: ITV.

Yorkshire Television – or rather ITV Yorkshire as it was renamed in 2006 – is listed at Companies House as a dormant company, although it is still the nominal holder of the ITV licence for much of Northern England. Its distinctive onscreen identity, including the logo, visible on the cake above, disappeared early this century, replaced by generic ITV branding, sometimes with the word Yorkshire hidden underneath it, but often without it. Having once been created because Manchester was too far away, Yorkshire TV is now largely indistinguishable from that offered in London. (It is more by accident of history than anything else that ITV retains any non-London focus at all; one of the last two regions standing was Granada.)

The onscreen identities of the all the other franchises disappeared at roughly the same time. What remained of local production and commissioning followed. Regional variations now only really exist for news and advertising. TV is proud that is can offer advertisers a variety of levels of engagement, from micro regional to national: it just doesn’t bother doing so with programming or workforce any more.

Except for viewers in Scotland. Curiously, STV is an ITV franchise which, for reasons too complicated to go into here, doesn’t suffer from the restrictions/opportunities imposed by upon its English brethren in 1990. It also – like UTV in Northern Ireland, another complex, special case – Its own onscreen identity. Nationalism, as it so often does, is trumping regionalism – although it was not all that long ago that Scotland had multiple ITV regions, in recognising its own lack homogeneity and distinct regions, while respecting its status as a country.


As is often observed by anyone who has thought about it for more than four seconds, the UK is an almost hilariously over-centralised country, with its political, financial, administrative, artistic and political centres all in the same place. Regionalised television helped form a bulwark against the consequences of that centralisation. Regional commissioning and production guaranteed that the UK of ITV looked and sounded like the whole of the UK. The regions could talk about themselves, to themselves and others, via the medium of national television.

The idea of a federal UK crops up with increasing frequency these days; it is almost inconceivable that considerable constitutional tinkering will not be required after the good ship UK hits the iceberg that is Brexit, and that’s assuming that Northern Ireland and Scotland remain within that country at all. If the UK is to become a federation, and many think it will have to, then why shouldn’t its most popular and influential medium?

A new Broadcasting Act is needed. One that breaks up ITV plc and offers its constituent licences out to tender again; one that offers them only on the guarantee that certain conditions, to do with regional employment and production, regional commissioning and investment, are met.

Our current national conversation is undeniably toxic. Maybe increasing the variety of accents in that conversation will help.

Thanks to Dr David Rolinson at the University of Stirling and britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk.