What happens when you take an underachieving bus and try to turn it into a cheap train for an underfunded rail system? You get the horror that is the British Rail Pacer series of trains, probably the worst way to travel across Britain since the stagecoach.
Liverpool Lime Street
Readers of CC will know that I have a soft spot for some of Britain’s unloved railway classics, such as the flawed APT, the tired HST and the outdated EM1 electrics. But the only soft spot I have for the Pacer is a deep peat bog. Here’s the story, prompted by Jim Brophy’s recent post of a ’how not to drive a Leyland National’ video.
In the 1950s, British Railways discovered the diesel multiple unit (DMU) – basically, a set of two, three or four passenger coaches with a diesel engine under some or all of the vehicles and a driving cab at each end of the unit, and capable of operating in multiple with another set. Produced by the hundreds to a huge range of designs by several builders (and therefore with many incompatible types – none of the universal compatibility that American diesel locomotive manufacturers managed), they replaced ancient steam locomotives pulling knackered old coaches on secondary and branch lines across the country, simultaneously cutting costs and stimulating passengers and thus saving many routes from the Beeching Axe of the 1960s. But by the mid 1970s, these DMUs were in turn ready to retire (and riddled with asbestos), and BR needed a replacement.
As this was the Britain in the 1970s, money was in short supply and any large scale replacement had to be cheap. The class 150 ‘Sprinter’ series of two car units replaced some of the old DMUs with a modern version of the same concept, with better acceleration (hence the name) and an interior more like a contemporary mainline coach, but the funds for total replacement of the ‘First Generation’ DMUs by Sprinters was not there.
So Leyland came to the rescue, with a version of the Leyland National bus. Yes, really.
To be fair, the National was an interesting bus – a big step forward from the traditional Atlantean chassis and body concept. Designed in partnership with the state owgned National Bus Company (hence the name), it was single deck rear engined monocoque, rather than the traditional separate chassis supplied with a choice of bodystyles from a variety of builders. This was intended to produce a lighter, stronger and simpler bus; its modular style allowed for easy replacement of damaged panels. So far, so good.
But it was a typical British Leyland project – over ambitious use of new technology in a new factory with an inexperienced workforce, with predictable quality issues from the start. The chosen site for the factory was Workington in Cumbria, in the far north west of England – an attempt at economic stimulus in an area that had historically struggled – like Rootes at Linwood, Leyland would have preferred to have been allowed to expand nearer home.
The National aimed to capitalise on new regulations allowing for driver only single deckers, and an anticipated upsurge in demand for them in urban areas, but this didn’t materialise and soon double deckers could be single crewed anyway. Styling was by Michelotti, no less, building on his links with Leyland through Triumph, and it certainly looked contemporary. The engine was the Leyland 510, an 8.3 litre six cylinder diesel (in a problematic horizontal installation); it proved to be heavy on fuel and an enthusiastic polluter if not properly maintained – which was difficult.
The first production version of the National came in 1972. But, Leyland being Leyland, sales were disappointing, despite the captive market of the NBC. Instead of the hoped for 2,000 per year, only 7,000 were built over its 13 years from 1972 to 1985.
The revised Mark 2 of 1979 offered a wider choice of power units, and a new face with a car like grille as the radiator moved to the front. The last ones left regular service in 2007.
It isn’t clear which genius turned the National into the Pacer. I imagine that’s because no one wants to have it on their record. Initially, in 1978, it was a single vehicle, so a railcar rather than a multiple unit, known as the LEV1 (Leyland Experimental Vehicle), and looking like what it was – a Leyland National body on a railway underframe. It literally was a Leyland National bolted to a 4 wheel, 2 axle freight wagon chassis, with the Leyland TL11 engine and a mechanical gearbox slung underneath. Four wheeled passenger vehicles had been built nowhere else in the world for perhaps 50 years; you would think this would deter reasonable people, but it didn’t.
By 1979, a class 140 prototype two car unit had appeared.
Series production, of the class 141 and 142 followed in 1984 and 1985. The 141s were inflicted on Yorkshire, serving networks around Leeds and Bradford, and were such a success they had to be rebuilt by Hunslet Barclay in 1988. The interior was pure bus, with no attempt to pretend it wasn’t a bus on rails.
Here’s the proof – Leyland National above, Pacer below. Spot the difference. The Pacer even has a step inside the folding doors (which are standard bus doors!), just like a bus but unlike any proper British train.
To be fair the interiors have improved over the years, with better seats. But they are still horribly noisy and cramped, and ride like something with no suspension – superficial changes can’t hide the basic flaws underneath!
The 142s had a wider version of the National body, allowing 3+2 seating. They were sent to Devon and Cornwall, to work the rural branches that remain from the old Great Western Railway. These are quiet in winter, but busy in summer, so obviously a small and inflexible fleet of trains without corridor connections and which can’t work with anything else is ideal. Summer crowds on the Newquay branch in particular had cause to hate these things. Not even painting them in GWR chocolate and cream and calling them ‘Skippers’ could hide their crudeness. Or make them reliable.
These branch lines also highlighted one of the Pacer’s biggest weaknesses – the long fixed wheelbase of the 2 axle chassis, and its difficulty in coping with sharp curves, which produced horrendous squealing noises as the thing dragged itself round. A Pacer on sharp curves in the Devon valleys has to be heard to be believed. Never mind passengers, local residents complained about the racket! Nobody had bothered to specify sanding equipment for the wheels, which would have abated the sound, and it was decided it was easier to send the 142s up North, where they would be out of sight (if not sound), rather than retrofit it.
Over the years, Pacers have been used all across the north and south west of England and Wales, but for some reason never near London and the south east, where passengers have had to make do with proper trains replaced at regular intervals. Pacers have carried commuters into the great cities of Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, York and Newcastle upon Tyne for years. The thought of regularly enduring a standing room only Pacer in the rush hour is not a comfortable one, but thousands have to.
In addition to commuting routes, Pacers have been deemed sufficient for such cross country routes as Sheffield to Manchester; Newcastle to Carlisle; Leeds to Carlisle; Middlesbrough to Whitby; and around the Cumbrian coast – all journeys well over 2 hours long. In what is basically a bus, without the air suspension of the original National. Or, indeed, much suspension at all. Smooth as an HST at twice the speed (or more – Pacers don’t do fast) it isn’t. And little sound insulation either, as asbestos was now banned, and nobody bothered to find an alternative.
So bus seats, squealing wheels, no suspension. This video above shows the interior environment to perfection. People have to pay for this experience, still.
One nightmare has always been the Pacer’s structural strength. Happily, there have been few accidents of note (they don’t go fast enough, probably), but this happened in 1999 – a (fortunately) empty stationary Pacer was crushed by an electric express which had slowed to 50mph – the Pacer’s body was fully separated from the chassis. Could have been a lot worse, and you wonder how long Pacers would have lasted had this one had passengers aboard!
Incredibly, the Pacer has an international history. In 1986, 142049 was sent to Expo 86 in Vancouver; here Canadian Pacific carry it across the Rockies. It was used at the Expo as a shuttle link to the city. It is said that then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher actually rode on it there; no wonder she hated trains so much. And in 2002, 12 redundant 141 units were sold to Iran and served there for a few years before being unceremoniously dumped – well before their classmates in the UK, ironically enough.
We mustn’t blame Leyland alone, however. Determined to show it could do rubbish too, the normally sensible Hunslet Barclay company produced the 143 and 144 classes of Pacer, using the same freight wagon chassis and bodies based on a Walter Alexander bus body. Some of these mutated into three car units, in a feeble attempt to be a real train. They at least avoided the Leyland diesel, being fitted with Cummins power units from the start. These engines were also retrofitted to the Leyland designs from the late-1980s.
Clockwise from top right – Great Western; Tyne and Wear PTE; Greater Manchester PTE; First North Western; Arriva Wales; West Yorkshire PTE
One thing you can’t accuse Pacers of is all looking the same. There have been myriad liveries over the years, from the various British Rail divisions in the 1980s and 1990s, then the public transport authorities of the North – West and South Yorkshire; Greater Manchester; Merseyside; and Tyne and Wear – and of south Wales. And now a wide range of privatised operators. Livery changes are so frequent you could be forgiven for thinking organisations were reluctant to be seen as owning them for some reason.
There is finally some hope for the future, however. European regulations, the snappily titled ‘Persons with Reduced Mobility – Technical Specification for Interoperability’, come into force on 1 January 2020. The interfering Brussels bureaucrats (as we are relentlessly told we must call the European Union, but that’s another story) have decreed (for which read, the 28 governments of the EU’s independent sovereign states have agreed) that by that date all trains operating in the EU must be fully accessible to wheelchair users, with accessible toilets (and ones that don’t dump their contents straight onto the track) and proper passenger information systems – all things the Pacers lack. So they have to go by the end of next year, and good riddance. Now fewer than 500 sleeps to go!
Good enough for Leeds, apparently
Despite this, the mandarins of the UK Government’s Department for Transport (DfT), who control rolling stock specification and procurement for the privatised railway very tightly (as they basically fund it, through franchise agreements) seriously proposed that the 40 year old Pacers could and should be adapted to meet the new requirements and serve another twenty years. You don’t get a prize for guessing said mandarins work in London, and not up North, where people have had to endure these wretched things for too long already.
Not good enough for London, apparently
Meanwhile, new Siemens electric multiple units built for services to London Waterloo station from the south western suburbs and introduced in 2017 are now being withdrawn (and stored, with no future use identified) to be replaced by brand new Hitachi units funded through a government franchise, just as the £15bn Crossrail, a brand new mainline standard rail tunnel across London from east to west opens, with brand new rolling stock, and the north-south Thameslink is developed into a 24 train per hour system, with brand new stations and brand new automatically controlled train. And Crossrail 2, a bargain at £30bn, crossing London from north to south, is moving fast towards construction. And rail fares are cheaper, in pence per mile, in London than across the Pennines.
And what will replace the Pacers, when the great day dawns in January 2020? New, state of the art electric units, capable of 100mph smoothly, quietly, comfortably and safely, like they get down south? Not really. There may be some for the longer journeys across the North (but heavy and therefore slow diesel-electric bi-modes, as the government now judges the North doesn’t need electrification, and has reneged on a commitment to trans-Pennine wires), but the DfT’s favoured idea at the moment seems to be the Class 230, which is a redundant London Underground electric unit dating from 1976 fitted with the diesel engine from a Ford Transit. Yes, seriously. Northern commuters are expected to welcome 40 year old cast offs from the Underground, while Londoners get brand new trains on virtually every commuter route, and those 3 year old Siemens units sit and rust on an airfield somewhere. Why not reengineer them instead of a cast off Tube train? But the government assures us that rail investment is fairly spread across the country, so that’s alright then, and we mustn’t grumble.
Early testing of the 230 has not been problem free. Seems nobody realised that the train environment is harsher than a Ford Transit’s, and fuel lines need to be upgraded accordingly.
Some say that the Pacer, by being a cheap DMU replacement, saved some routes from a second wave of closure; this is only a valid reason for not hating them if you accept that the fifth richest country in the world can’t afford to fund decent public transport for significant population centres – which it clearly can, but the centre chooses not to cough up. But, incredibly, as many as 34 (or almost one third the seating capacity of a two car Pacer unit) out of 60 million Brits appear to care enough to want to preserve a Pacer. I guess we could spare one from the scrapyard, as a warning from history. But not two, please. We can’t risk a breeding pair of the things!