Stephen Joseph: The Pacer train embodies our transport woes

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THERE’S a consensus that a key part of improving the economy in the North of England must be better public transport, within and between the cities.

The latest work, by Centre for Cities, merely adds to the growing pile of evidence and reports that show how speeding up trains between cities and upgrading rail and public transport within them is an essential element in making the North’s economy grow.

The test of this will come with the new franchises for rail services in the North. The brief for bidders is due in December and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has also promised investment. Together, these announcements are increasingly being treated as a test of whether the Government is serious about its ambitions to create a “Northern Powerhouse”.

At the heart of this, as a symbol of what’s wrong with transport in the North, is the “Pacer” train. Built by British Rail in the 1980s as a short-term bargain basement train to keep local lines open, they are still the mainstay of many lines in the North, including some heavily used commuter services.

While passsenger numbers and expectations (and ticket prices) have changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, far too many journeys are still being made on poor quality rolling stock, making Pacers the embodiment of complaints about the North’s rail services.

Despite some upgrades, Pacers have a badly outdated design. To save money, they are based on the design of a Leyland bus, rather than a train. This means their wheels “squeal” when going round tighter bends, and they have poor suspension, leading to the nickname “nodding donkeys”.

They are also uncomfortable. Significant numbers have old-fashioned bench seating and their peculiar inward-opening doors have steps, making access difficult, especially for those with reduced mobility.

Indeed, most commentators assumed the Pacers’ death knell had been sounded when they fell foul of the 2005 Disability Discrimination Act, meaning they will be illegal by 2020 without major refurbishment.

While other train owning companies are planning to scrap their Pacers by 2019, Porterbrook, which leases the majority to Northern Rail, has developed plans to refurbish them and keep them in service. A nationwide shortage of rolling stock will mean whoever is running the Northern Rail franchise will scarcely be in a position to look elsewhere.

Key to resolving all this is the question of electrification. Major rail electrification programmes are underway and with the Electrification Task Force announcing its interim findings in December, more are expected to be forthcoming. Why would a rolling stock company spend money on new diesel trains to replace the Pacers when electrification could mean they are redundant in 25 years? The outcome could easily be that Pacers keep running for another 10-15 years or more.

This is simply not an adequate solution and Pacers are not appropriate for a modern railway. Passengers hate them, the Office of the Rail Regulator has raised concerns about their reliability and safety, and they are running on high capacity commuter lines they were never intended for.

If this were happening on South East commuter services, there would be an outcry. But it isn’t. Instead, there are many positive developments in London’s commuter area that Northern cities can only eye jealousy. There are multi-billion pound investments in Crossrail and Thameslink services.

Even big and highly beneficial schemes like Manchester’s Northern Hub and electrification projects can look rather paltry in comparison.

So replacing the Pacers has become a test – a symbol of how serious the Government is about upgrading the North’s infrastructure. As has been said, they can’t be replaced overnight, because there aren’t other trains ready to take their place. But the new franchises can set out a direction – towards more electrification with more electric trains replacing the pacers and other diesels. With this can come faster journey times, better stations and also smart ticketing like London’s Oystercard.

But this approach faces resistance, especially from officials in London who haven’t experienced the severe overcrowding the North faces. There’s also a view that the North has a “high subsidy railway” and that the only way to deal with this is to cut costs and increase fares – hence the new evening fares restrictions that came in Northern cities last month.

Against this, local authorities in the north are arguing that only through investment can the subsidy come down, and that having this investment will produce wider economic benefits across the North.

So, the Pacers are now part of a much wider battle. Does the North get the transport network that it deserves, and which London and the South East are getting? Or do short-term, short-sighted London based economists win the day and keep the North suffering a second class railway? The next few months will show who is winning.

• Stephen Joseph is chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport.