To varying degrees, most of the trains now in service are superior in speed and comfort to those inherited from the great post-war modernisation.
They are also stronger and safer: there will never be another accident like the Clapham Junction collision of 1988, when 35 people died in crowded slam-door carriages that disintegrated on impact.
But the national picture is a mixed one, with some less alluring designs around too. And so we come to the strange story of the Pacers – the latter-day revenge of the four-wheeled carriage.
The Pacers originated in the need to replace the fleet of diesel multiple units (DMUs), built between the mid 1950s and early 1960s. These had displaced steam haulage on passenger routes that were not electrified and were not thought to justify the use of locomotive-hauled carriages.
By 1963, some 4,000 DMU carriages had been built, from six-car units for Trans-Pennine services to single cars with a cab at each end for less busy lines. The immediate effects were often very positive. In the first 15 weeks of the new service between Leeds and Bradford, for example, an extra 80,000 journeys were made. People liked the airy, well-lit carriages, especially the novelty of a clear view along the tracks ahead or behind, through the glazed partition of the driver’s cab.
A trip made in a good seat in a DMU was like riding at the front of a road coach, with the extra thrill of strangeness as the shining parallel rails were endlessly eaten up by the train, and the voyeuristic closeness to the driver’s back.
So far, so good; but by the mid 1970s these trains were showing their age, and the money to replace all of them with stock of comparable quality was not to be had. Instead, British Rail cast about for something that came pre-designed, and seized upon the single-deck Leyland National bus.
A railway prototype appeared in 1978, made up of components from the standard bus body mounted on a four-wheel chassis. Even the automatic doors were of the foldaway bus type. Four wheels were considered sufficient because it weighed under 20 tonnes.
This was not the first time that BR had fallen for the four-wheeled railbus concept. Twenty-two of the type had been introduced in 1958, in the hope that they might be the salvation of lightly used lines. Each was designed to operate singly, and each had an engine of only modest power beneath the carriage floor. Those on the Scottish Region earned the nickname “four-wheel bicycles” on account of their struggles to stick to the timetable. All were gone within 10 years, along with most of the lines they served.
Second time around, the concept was different in terms of both manufacturing and operation. The production series consisted of two-or-three-car units, for use on more intensively worked lines. The interiors were filled with rows of low-backed, bus-type bench seats. Design and production costs were modest. Fuel costs were low; initial trials achieved 10 miles to the gallon.
In the hope of generating foreign custom, the prototype was sent across the Atlantic for trials by the United States Federal Railroad Administration, together with a second prototype unit. The Americans bought one of these, but decided to stop there. Another prototype was sold to Northern Ireland Railways, with the same result.
BR set about developing a two-car prototype, then a first series of 22-car units, the Class 141. These had railway-type cabs instead of the broad, low-set windscreens of the bus bodies, so they did at least look like someone’s idea of a train when viewed head-on. The 141s entered service on lines around Leeds in 1984, where the first generation of DMUs had enjoyed such success. No comparable surge in usage resulted, which was hardly surprising; the new units proved unreliable as well as uncomfortable.
The mission to the wider world was also resumed. A demonstrator unit spent two years fruitlessly touring the United States. Another made sorties to Belgium and Sweden, with the same outcome. A two-car unit was shipped to Thailand for trials, then to Malaysia. Finally, the unit went to Indonesia, where it seems to have disappeared from the records.
The story might have ended there but for the Islamic Republic of Iran, which bought up most of the redundant units as a job lot a few years later. Until recently, the suburban lines around Tehran were the stamping ground of these fuel-efficient, non-air-conditioned units, a surprising initiative by an oil-rich country with maximum summer temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
One Pacer unit spent some time in Belgium. Another was singled out for stardom at the transport-themed Expo at Vancouver in 1986, where it operated a shuttle service through the site. There the train managed to attract one remarkable passenger, granddaughter (as it happens) of a cloakroom clerk at Grantham station, but notorious for her aversion to railways at home: Margaret Thatcher. It was almost as if British Rail had contrived an ambush. The Prime Minister was visiting the Expo for its “British Day” where she made a speech laying emphasis on the UK’s aspiration to share in the technology of the future. Fine words, in the general sense; but no one can have been much surprised when Vancouver’s Pacer came back without having generated a single order.
The Pacer’s habitat consists of provincial and rural lines, especially in the North, the industrial Midlands and South Wales. It is possible to live in south-east England and travel a great deal by rail without once stepping on board one of these noisy, bucking, rattling, cramped and draughty trains, whose engine note at speed suggests an imminent risk of something bad happening down below. The commuter to Cardiff, Manchester or Leeds may even suspect a metropolitan conspiracy – they await confirmation Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin will abolish Pacers in the new rail franchises serving Yorkshire.
Simon Bradley is the author of The Railways: Nation, Network and People, published by Profile Books, price £25. This is an edited version.