Monday, 21 November 2016

The Joy of Pacers: Our Trains in the North

I am sitting in Costa on Newcastle Central Station, looking out at the noble curve of John Dobson's great train shed. It is lost in the darkness but all who know this station will agree that it's a glorious achievement of nineteenth century industrial architecture.  

But it is a filthy night. The tail end of Storm Angus has alighted over North East England. A fierce rain borne on a north east wind is driving across the exposed platform in the distance. Even on the concourse a light drizzle drifts down from a not-quite-weatherproof canopy. There is a bitter cold that I can feel on the glass that contains this capsule of a cafe. The brightly lit interiors of Virgin East Coast trains passing through suggest warmth and comfort, or maybe that's just the effect of their brilliant red livery. 

I love railway stations, but there's something forlorn about them at this time of night. I've been to Leeds to see my children and grandchildren. We've had an enjoyable day. But the return train journey has not been the most pleasant of experiences. Everything at Leeds seems to be running late. It may have been owing to the poor weather. Well, there's no point in railing against the elements. Stuff happens. I am going to miss my Newcastle connection, I realise with a sigh. And that means a nearly two hour wait for the next train up the Tyne Valley to home. It's the last train of the day. No room for mistakes then.

But as so often, my late running TransPennine Express is made up of a three-car diesel multiple unit. It's rush hour. Hoards of commuters travel this east-west route that connects Liverpool and Manchester with Leeds, York and Newcastle. So it's standing room only. I'm told this is normal. The cheerful Scouse voice of TPE apologises for the delay, but warns that because we are following a stopping train, we can expect to be even later into York. I think wistfully of the Carlisle train at Newcastle that I won't get to catch. Then our conductor says pleasantly with a touch of regret, "Fingers crossed, after York there shouldn't be any more problems." On the whole they are nice people, train conductors. They are doing their best and hate it when things go wrong.

I like that "fingers crossed" because it feels honest. It seems to sum up how, once you get off the main lines, the North of England's railways seem to be run. It is ridiculous that services connecting the major cities of the North are served by such tiny trains. Investment in new rolling stock to increase capacity is an urgent priority, to say nothing about the need for the lines themselves to be upgraded to take high(er) speed trains. We are promised that TPE has already committed to launching longer trains and that is welcome. But how long, O Lord, how long? Will we ever see our northern east-west rails electrified? Or will HS2 see off any further investment in the North?

As another example, take the Tyne Valley line that I live on. (I mean this almost literally as our home is within sight of the level crossing a full 50 yards from the station - a bit further if you are crossing the line to the up platform.) The Newcastle and Carlisle is the oldest east-west route in England, running for its entire length parallel to Hadrian's Wall a few miles to the north. It's an important artery that not only connects the East Coast Main Line with the West, but gives tourist access to the Wall, the Northumberland National Park and the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The operator is Northern Railways, a new Arriva franchise. 

On this line run two species of train, both two-car diesel units: Sprinters and Pacers. These, too, rapidly fill up with commuters, schoolchildren, tourists and shoppers by the score getting on and off at the stop for the Metro Centre. It's good to see how well this line is used. Like cinemas, trains have surprised us in the past few decades. When it was once confidently predicted that both risked becoming obsolete, they have seen a remarkable and welcome revival of fortunes.

Let me say something about Sprinters and Pacers. Sprinters are respectable trains, pleasant enough to travel on even if they are showing their age (up to 30 years old). Pacers are quite another matter. If you live in London or the south of England, you may never have heard of them, though you may have seen a recent Panorama programme that mercilessly exposed these ageing four-wheelers that lurch and squeal their way across our northern rails. They are unaffectionately known as "Nodding Donkeys" by longsuffering passengers. They are not real trains at all, but buses fitted with flanged wheels, made in their hundreds on the cheap in British Rail days in the 1980s. BR tried very hard to export them. Only the Iranians were interested, and theirs, once used on local services around Tehran until 2005, now lie rusting and abandoned in the middle of some desert - a very proper place for Pacers. (The wrecked hulk of Shelley's Ozymandias comes to mind: "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!") I can confidently say that southern commuters would not tolerate these trains for an instant. The Panorama presenter believed that if anything symbolised the North-south divide, it was the unloved Pacers we are forced to ride up here. That's a telling comment. They are a disgrace to a modern railway.

When George Osborne was in office, he spoke with some warmth about creating a "Northern Powerhouse". Central to the development of the North was, he rightly said, vastly improving its infrastructure and transport links, especially its railways. That aspiration remains on the table, notionally at least, of government thinking. Our leaders in politics, industry and commerce in the North have been banging this drum for all the years I have lived and worked in this part of England. There's not been much progress. But until there is the will to get something done, we shall be living with indifferent rail services for many years to come. The train operating companies are only free to invest in new rolling stock on the Government's say-so. Keeping our fingers crossed will be a good policy. And saying our prayers.

We should all remember where the railways were born. Here in the pioneering land of the Stephensons where the industrial revolution would make the North East the most productive and prosperous region in the kingdom, we shall be celebrating the bicentenary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 2025. What state will our northern rails will be in by then? Will the Northern Powerhouse have begun to be a reality?

I must soon cross the tracks to platform 7 where my Pacer will, fingers crossed, convey me up the Tyne Valley and home. Note on surviving Pacer travel: never, ever, sit above the wheels. Not only will it be a rough ride, but you will experience fierce freezing updraughts and downdraughts from poorly fitting doors. Aim for the middle of the bus and lose yourself in nice music through the earphones (if you can hear it above the ambient roar). And think longingly of your nice warm bed. We need eschatology and hope to keep us going at times.

PS Things looked up on platform 7. To my surprise, the last train up the Tyne Valley wasn't a Pacer but a Sprinter, bedecked with imagery that suggested it had strayed from its usual tracks on the Settle and Carlisle line. So the railway had the last laugh after all.


  1. love this, i have exactly the same thoughts on the same pacers from Hartlepool to either Newcastle or Middlesbrough. Fortunately Hartlepool now has grand central so its the 'old' 125's direct to London..

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! From Newcastle, I lived on the Wall for a couple of summers and had the joy of the Newcastle to Carlisle line (off at Haltwhistle) on many occasions. I still travel that line when I'm home to meet friends in Hexham. Definitely experienced the Pacer!

  3. The pacers have to go by the end of 2019 as a result of accessibility regulations. Northern says that they should start to disappear from the middle of next year, as cascaded units start to appear. However with electrification around the country in trouble, it's hard to believe that the promised cascaded stock will appear on schedule. None of our trains, a mixture of 156 and 158 units, will be particularly modern, but we're promised that they'll be completely refurbished and that the mechanicals won't be forgotten. Northern is committed to spending a lot of money at stations. Sadly the track and signalling is outside the scope of the franchise and improvements such as increases in line speed don't look to likely.

    If you're not doing anything on Thursday afternoon or evening, you could do worse than come along to the Community Rail Partnership stakeholder event. Staff from Northern will be present and plans for the future will get an airing. Details at