New trains now, not HS3 in the vague future

It will take more than the promise of a few faster trains in some distant decade to satisfy my friends in the North. They have put up with sub-standard trains for decades and only last month were hit by a series of stealth fare rises inflicted only on the Northern rail franchise which covers most train services in the region.

Rail passengers in the North have been complaining about a particularly cheap and nasty type of train called Pacers which were introduced in the 1980s in response to a temporary shortage of rolling stock. Despite promises they were only a short term measure, more than 30 years later 140 of the 165 sets originally built still rattle along tracks in the north. They are rather like buses on wheels with hard bus-type seats and would no more be tolerated by commuters down south than the open decked cattle trucks run by the Great Western in the 1840s.

Despite long campaigning by passenger groups to see off the Pacers, a consultation document issued in January by the Department for Transport on the future of rail in the north suggested that they may still be around for another couple of decades. Rather than, as previously expected, being scrapped in 2019 because they do not comply with disability legislation, they might be ‘adapted’ to keep them operating into the 2020s and 2030s, when possibly they might connect with shiny multimillion pound new HS2 trainsets to take passengers to smaller Northern towns. The document seemed to suggest, too, that there was a trade off for rail passengers in the north between either having new trains or facing cuts on routes and massive fare rises.

As if that hadn’t angered northern rail passengers enough, they found themselves facing fare rises way above the rate of inflation last month. One of the compensations of travelling on the ancient trains is that they were cheap, especially when travelling into the big town centres for a night on the razz. However, in a little-publicised move, Abellio, the Dutch state owned train operator, under orders from the Department for Transport decided to scrap the provision of cheap return fares in the evening peak. That meant, for example, a peak return from Rochdale to Wigan rose from the previous off-peak fare of £4.20 to £11, a 162 per cent rise. Local bars, restaurants and even theatres are reporting lower patronage and the reduction in passenger numbers may lead to train services being withdrawn.

So here’s a plan to get back in the North’s good books. HS2 is an overpriced railway costing £50bn which is unlikely to bring about the promised regeneration of the North and, in fact, according to some economists may have the opposite effect of boosting investment in an already overheated London. Therefore, how about scrapping or postponing HS2 and using the money to provide new trains and faster services in the North, which might even help the Tories to an odd seat or two in the region at the forthcoming general election, since a vague promise of HS3 will certainly not do that?

  • Simon Roworth

    They won’t scrap HS2 in favour of newer & faster services in the north as there are no votes in it for the Tories. As for Northern Rail, I am a follower of their tweet feed & am amazed how many trains they cancel or curtail on a daily basis due to “train fault”, “non-availability of train crew” or “late running train crew”. Come on Northern Rail, you’re being paid to provide a public service!!!

  • Dave Berry

    Surely we want new trains now AND HS3 in the future !

  • Peter Lovering

    I agree wholeheartedly. The Northern Rail service north of Newcastle is a joke, as it goes only as far as Chathill, and what we need is a proper local service that runs right up to Berwick, with reopened stations, and a timetable that meets the needs of the community. Perhaps there is then the chance to have a more integrated service with buses collecting passengers from the villages and connecting with the trains. This could then be followed by further integration with the proposed Ashington, Blyth and Tyne service.

    Indeed, personally, I would like the local trains in Northumberland from all 3 routes – East Coast, Ashington, Blyth & Tyne, and Carlisle lines integrated into one service and operated as a community railway by the people, for the people. A proper integrated service would pay for itself, especially if a good service was provided to tourists.

    Hanging on to the coat tails of HS2 is not going to be any good for the NE. By the time the line is built, I doubt that the trains will ever venture further than Leeds. It is extremely unlikely that they will venture further north of Newcastle, given the 50mph bends on the ECML and the declared preference for the main route to Scotland to be via the WCML. Moreover, if HS3 is built between Manchester and Leeds, what’s the betting that the easterly leg of the ‘Y’ to Leeds will be scrapped? Especially given the preparedness of Manchester for HS2 and the lack of a proper plan for HS2 to access the centre of Leeds. Half an hour from Manchester to Leeds is no different to a tube or train journey from Kings Cross to a final destination south of the river.

  • greypoplar1

    Well said – that Pacers are “buses on wheels with hard bus-type seats and would no more be tolerated by commuters down south than the open decked cattle trucks run by the Great Western in the 1840s”. One only has to think how unacceptable Pacers would be as the basic train in the London commuter belt, or the Glasgow suburban network, to see how unacceptable it is to inflict them on the North of England.

  • Paul Holt

    CW has missed the target. What is important is not what runs on the rails, but the rails themselves. Everywhere whose rail line has been taken away by Beeching would be delighted with a regular Pacer service.

  • RapidAssistant

    Here’s a good idea – what about wholesale electrification across the entire northern railway network, even as older MkIII-based EMU stock gets phased out in the south it can be put to good use with a bit of mid-life refurbishment even though it is technically the same sort of age as the Pacers they’d be replacing. Nobody is battering an eyelid about the notion of keeping near 40-year old HSTs in service until the middle of the century, after all…..

    Even then, when Glasgow-Edinburgh electrifcation comes online in 2018-ish – won’t that displace a lot of Turbostars and 158s which could be cascaded onto Northern England’s diesel-only lines??

    Seems to me there are lots of alternatives to keeping those wretched Pacers in service.

  • Michael

    If HS3 turns out to be a 40-mile fast link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds, it would join up a Northern Cities Crossrail system connecting Liverpool in the west to York and Hull in the east. Long overdue electrification of more of its east-west lines would cut train times still further and HS3 Stage Two would fast-connect Bradford and Sheffield to the system.

    It might look like this:

    So HS3 and the Crossrail could together do the trans-Pennine economy and the North South Divide a lot of good and allow Whitehall to park HS2 until HS3 was open.

  • andrewbowden

    Pacers need to die, but lets be honest, Pacers wouldn’t work in the South East for one good reason. The line’s are mostly electrified.

  • RS

    UK Rail is already massively overcapitalised. Interest on NR’s debt pile already threatens existing services and pushes up fares. Neither electrification nor HS2 generate a positive cash flow and simply mean more debt and higher fares. TOCs are currently hedging their diesel at less than 50p/l. Government need to get back to basics and spend our precious money wisely on trains, track and signalling to deliver on comfort, capacity and speed and stop competing as to who can burn through the most money on misguided vanity projects.

  • AlexH

    Another issue with the North/South divide is the availability of discounts. Living in Bedfordshire, as I do, I hold a Network card. This means that from Leighton Buzzard I can get a One Day Travelcard for £13. For that I get to travel the 40 miles into London and back and unlimited travel on the tube, local rail services, overground and buses for a day. Not only that, I get to do it on brand new (Southern) or relatively recently introduced (London Midland) trains. When in Hull, it costs me £22.10 for an off peak return to York, a similar distance to the Leighton Buzzard – London journey. That is all my extra £9.10 gets me, an expensive return journey on uncomfortable old trains which should have been consigned to the scrap heap years ago. If I want to travel locally, I must cough up more in bus fares. This is with Northern Rail, a company who do not offer advanced bookings, nor is there a northern equivalent of the network card to give me a discount. I would suggest that a Northern Network card would encourage greater off peak train usage in the north, but before that can happen new longer and more comfortable trains have to be an absolute priority. Two carriage Pacers or other variations of ancient DMUs are totally unacceptable and an insult to those who live in the north. If such services were all that was on offer in the better paid south there would be outrage. The fact that the north tolerates such treatment is almost unbelievable and is more than likely down to the fact that they have never experienced just how good and cheap off peak travel in the south can be. You don’t miss what you haven’t had. The people of the north are being taken advantage of, and this clearly illustrates the contempt central government has for the northern half of the country in prioritising the south in nearly all major upgrades and improvements.
    On a separate issue I totally disagree that HS2 is a waste of money. Removing trains off the East and West coast mainlines will give places like, Hull, Middlesborough, Lincoln, Liverpool and other northern destinations greater access to direct mainline services, that are currently taken up serving Manchester and Leeds with regular services.

  • Malcolm from GWR Days

    From afar (the USA East coast) I am puzzled by the reference to the train operator being “under orders from the Department of Transpot “. I thought the basic, fundamental principle of rail privatization was that the train operators were to be free of the dead hand of government except for issues of safety and other important factors. The British rail system seems now to have the worst of both worlds, it is expected to be profitable to investors but also is governed by these arbitrary diktats from interfering bureaucrats who have their own priorities. Did the government decide to sock it to the Lacastrians? Can someone explain what I have missed?

  • I’d like to see Pacers drafted in to the non-electrified Twyford-Henley and Maidenhead-Marlow branches just to watch the blue-rinse heads explode. Those lines are a waste of 90mph Turbos anyway.

  • David Faircloth

    Let’s not forget that the original Lord Adonis inspired plan for electrification in the north weest envisaged using cascaded class 319 emus; however, they were to be refurbished and fitted with air-con (if I remember correctly), and when you see what has been achieved with the a class 321 (full treatment) and a 317 (no aircon), both on Anglia, the potential certainly exists for having “new” electric trains in the north.

    If you compare what can be done with a Mk lll based emu to the new Siemens Thameslink train, there isn’t a great deal of difference; the latter has more power, wide inter-car gangways, inside frame bogies and a sexy front end, but it still has – surprisingly, as it has been eliminated on class 378s – “solid” door pockets. 319s (and “sisters”) will probably require re-tractioning in the not-to-distant future, so they could have more power (if needed), and I’m sure a sexy front end could be added if one is required; but I guess wide gangways would be very difficult, and there’s nothing wrong with the series 3 bogies on which the Mk lll based designs run. So – if there’s the will and the funds – a good train could be produced for northern England that would serve it well for many years to come. And – as happened with London Underground trains after refurbishment – many passengers would think they were new.

    I must admit I was surprised when I travelled between York and Harrogate (and back) during the summer; class 142 Pacers each way, and both still had their original bus seats. I hadn’t realised there were still some running about that hadn’t been re-seated – I’ve used Northern’s Pacers between Sheffield and Meadowhall quite often over the years, but all have always been re-seated, and I find them to be “acceptable” (far better, for example, than the Cravens first generation DMUs which I guess some of them replaced). It’s been reported that some ‘Turbostars’ being released by electrification in Scotland will be going to Southern, so if sufficient class 150s/156s/158s aren’t released by northern electrification schemes (and Cardiff Valleys?) to eliminate Pacers on non-electrified services, what will replace them?

    There should, of course, be some class 185s released, but unless gaps in the northern electrification schemes (like Northallerton – Middlesbrough and Selby – Hull) are filled – or through services to these destinations removed from the timetable – the number will be small; they have 1/3 – 2/3 doors and are therefore suitable for northern commuter services but they are heavy (can’t run to Sprinter speeds where they exist, such as between York and Scarborough) and with their big Cummins engines are perhaps overpowered for the services they would be expected to operate. Perhaps this could be used to add a non-powered trailer; but are four 23m long coaches requried on something like Harrogate – York?

    There are, of course, problems with the supply of new diesel engines which meet the requirements of European Cat lllB/American Tier 4 emission stndards; are then any available suitable for DMUs? Perhaps a new DMU using re-used Pacer engines might be possible, but what sort of life would it have? We have to remember that ROSCOs need to take account of residual values.

    So there might not be any reasonable alternatives to keeping Pacers until sufficient DMUs are displaced by electrifiation schemes to replace them.


  • decisivemoment

    Very simply, privatization involved putting the dead hand of government directly on the railways, because the dead hand of British government, which basically meant the senior civil service in the Treasury Department, didn’t trust them.

    Under government ownership, British Rail was an autonomous company, free, especially after the 1962 abolition of the British Transport Commission, to make its own operational and service and marketing decisions, and while successive British Rail chairmen (e.g. Peter Parker, Bob Reid) tangled with the government over subsidies, the Department of Transport had little day-to-day say on business decisions except where a really major capital project was involved (e.g. East Coast mainline electrification in 1985).

    Breaking the industry up into some 100 companies, operating under limited-term franchises directly from, you guessed it, the now-very-slightly-renamed Department for Transport, has completely politicized the process, weakened management, strengthened unions, and really strengthened banks and financial services companies that got into some of the key parts of the industry such as rolling stock ownership and charge through the nose to train operating companies that by law, aren’t allowed to own their equipment, all in the alleged name of competition. Capacity has gone up slightly, cleanliness and presentation are somewhat improved, but overcrowding has soared, subsidies have in real terms more than doubled, and so have fares. It’s really a remarkable failure. And the most damning part of it is, none of the key players in the industry wanted it other than Treasury bureaucrats. Margaret Thatcher called it “a privatization too far”; British Rail management wanted to be privatized as a single company; prime minister John Major, who ultimately approved it, suggested four or five vertically integrated companies. But the senior bureaucracy at the Treasury, nursing a 30-year-old grudge against British Rail over cost overruns on an earlier modernization plan (cost overruns which had precipitated the BTC’s abolition), spent 1991 and 1992 getting their way on the franchise idea, and Conservative MPs, meekly conditioned to accept that privatization was better no matter what, passed it into law.

  • Malcolm from GWR Days

    As Aice said, “Curiouser and curiouser”. My view was that in its final days British Rail had become entrepreneurial and efficient as a vertically integrated entity with control over infrastructure and opreations. Privatization seems to have eliminated all the advantages of that structure: now there is endless effort to drafting contracts, finger pointing and blame allocation when anyhing goes wrong (as it will in the running of a vast organization) and, on top of all that, a stream of revenue continuosly siphoned off to a private shareholder sector with government safeguarded returns with no financial risk so that subsidies to perform a highly essential public service have not been reduced bit, in fact, doubled. In the terms familiar to where I now live, “It ain’t no way to run a railroad”. Other countries do not seem to have been afflicted by this obsession with some strange principle, whatever it may be (pique over a previous disappointment hardly seems a principle and far less a reason to saddle an entire country with a disfunctional service). Witness the organizations of Deutsche Bahn (now partly a shareholder!! In this crazy structure,i believe) and SNCF. All very strange if the main, even the sole, pressure for this change were the mandarins of the Treasury, an entity renowned for pinching its pennies, Now ready or perhaps eager to fork over even more! Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.

  • Michael
  • greypoplar1

    Both writers above are correct. In its final days British Rail had become entrepreneurial and efficient as a vertically integrated entity with control over infrastructure and operations. Ironically this was achieved under the Thatcher Government, and by Sir Robert Reid (Bob Reid 1), largely by the time he left office in 1990. Unfortunately none of the political parties will propose restoring a modern C21st version of this, even though the Swiss and Germans have shown the benefits of retaining what is essentially still vertical integration in those countries. It has to come from the people – who are (as is widely accepted) fed up with the poor performance and out-of-touch character of the British political parties.