Pacer trains may 'still have role' in North of England

Pacer train
Image caption Pacer trains which were supposed to be temporary still run on northern local rail lines

They are 30 years old, they were supposed to be temporary, and yet northern rail passengers find themselves rattling along inside them on a regular basis.

They are Pacer trains, introduced on to our railways in the 1980s as a quick fix for the lack of rolling stock. They are basically the body of a bus with train wheels bolted on.

They currently run on routes in Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Teesside, Northumberland and Cumbria.

New hope

It was thought they would have a maximum lifespan of 20 years. But they are still used regularly on the Northern Rail franchise.

Yet passengers were given new hope late last year when the Prime Minister appeared to confirm they would be consigned to history when northern routes are refranchised later this year.

As reported on 7 November last year David Cameron said: "We all want to see Pacers go, and bidders for the Northern franchise will be required to propose plans for the removal of Pacers when they submit their bids in 2015. Those trains are going, there will be a progressive upgrade of trains right across the system."

But since then the disappearance of the Pacers hasn't seemed quite so certain.

There has been talk of them surviving on some routes, perhaps being modified.

So when the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin arrived on a visit to Teesside this week, I was keen to ask him about their future.

Would he guarantee that we were about to see the back of those pesky Pacers? The answer wasn't entirely clear.

He said: "There may be odd routes where they will still have a role but overall the Pacers have had their day, and they need to be replaced.

Image caption A Pacer train pulls in as Patrick McLoughlin (right) tours Eaglescliffe station in Teesside

"In fact they have needed to be replaced for some time, and part of the new franchise deal will be to replace the Pacers.

"It won't happen overnight, and it will take a little time but they have got to be replaced."

'Hot air pledges'

And so it seems the reports of the death of the Pacer may be somewhat exaggerated.

They will fall foul of disability discrimination laws in 2020, but it seems there may even be plans to get round that.

The RMT union believes they will be modified and could still be in service not only into the 2020s, but as late as 2032.

And they also claim that their replacements could be old London Underground trains.

The union's general secretary Mick Cash said: "We now know that the pledges to replace the clapped out Pacers has been exposed as nothing but hot air as the Government strategy for rail across the North unravels before their eyes and that they are also being forced to consider replacing one lash up with another."

The problem for the government is the sheer demand for new rolling stock across the country. Everyone wants something shiny and new, but the public purse, which subsidises the northern rail routes, can seemingly only stretch so far.

For clear answers then we might have to wait until the franchise is awarded in October to see if the new franchisee can commit to any timetable for replacing the old trains.

Northern Powerhouse

The discussion about the Pacers comes at a time when the government is keen to talk about investing in northern infrastructure.

George Osborne can barely make a speech without littering it with references to his desire to create a "Northern Powerhouse".

There is talk of a new faster trans-Pennine rail route, and greater investment in roads.

But while raising the profile of the North's transport needs can only be good news for the region, there is a danger for politicians.

Expectations have been raised - but can they now be met?

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