A DEPRESSING JOURNEY ON BRITAIN’S WORST TRAINS
This is a story of desperation – desperate times, desperate prospects, desperate measures. And a short term solution that gave many British rail passengers a fleet of desperately awful trains for a desperately long time.
The main actors in this story are British Rail (BR), British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) and Leyland Vehicles (later Leyland Bus) – all three state-owned at the start of the 1980s. Then we have the Passenger Transport Executives, the UK Government (specifically the Department of Transport) and the post-1996 operators of the privatised railways.
Our tale begins in Derby, the heart of Britain’s railway engineering and the research headquarters of British Rail. Since nationalisation in 1948, British Railways had built most of its own carriages and multiple units at several factories around the country. (A multiple unit is a rake, or consist, of permanently-connected coaches, some or all of which are powered.)
In the 1950s, BR’s modernisation programme included building large fleets of diesel-powered multiple units (DMUs) to replace short steam-hauled trains, and provide more modern and comfortable journeys. DMUs were used on all kinds of services from quiet branch lines through to dense commuter operations into provincial cities and London.
By the mid-1970s these were getting tired and unreliable, so a number of them were refurbished. But wide-spread refurbishment to extend their lives was cut short when it was realised that most of these DMUs contained significant quantities of asbestos, and that would be very expensive to remove.
Before we go on, we need to be clear about who was who at British Rail in the 1970s and 1980s.
The CMEE (Chief Mechanical and Electrical Engineers) Division was in charge of specifying what new rolling stock BR should have, creating new concepts and designing rolling stock. Thus in the 1970s CMEE was responsible for the highly successful Inter-City 125 diesel train, improved electric locomotives, the Mk3 long-distance carriage, and electric multiple units (EMUs) for use around the capital and in Scotland.
The Research Division was responsible for exploring how new technology could be applied to the railways, and in that decade was working on such exciting ventures as the Advanced Passenger Train (APT).
Then there was British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL or BRE) which also developed new products, built much of the rolling stock and managed the repair and maintenance workshops.
The strong focus in the 1970s on developing new inter-city and regional trains, and EMUs, meant that British Rail and BREL had rather taken their eyes off the DMU ball. The only thing BREL had created was an unexciting pair of prototype diesel-electric multiple units (DEMUs) based on a recent electric class (the 317), with a diesel alternator set inside the body, sending power to electric motors on the bogies.
This layout was partly due to an antipathy within CMEE towards underfloor-mounted horizontal diesel engines and transmissions, which were regarded as complex and unreliable. The so-called Class 210 turned out to be a heavy and inefficient option to replace the underfloor-engined DMUs, and lost a share of the potential seating area to power equipment.
Urgent action was required.
As it happens, the Research Division had been doing a lot of work on developing a High Speed Freight Vehicle. Traditional four wheel freight wagons were rather prone to derailing at anything above quite modest speeds and so accommodating goods trains of such wagons was becoming a headache as passenger train speeds increased.
The product of this work was the HSFV underframe with an advanced suspension, capable – in theory – of staying on the track at 150 mph! Indeed at one point the design concept for the APT had envisaged two axle coaches using this system, before a design with bogies prevailed.
However, by the time the design was perfected in the mid-1970s, the demand for four wheel wagons was collapsing, as freight trains became made up of long wagons with two bogies – whether that be to haul cars, containers, minerals, oil or whatever. And these freight trains could match all but the fastest passenger train speeds.
Perhaps the HSFV underframe technology could enable BREL to produce a four wheeled passenger vehicle – an up to date version of a machine seen on railways around the world for decades? A bus-style body fitted to a powered underframe – the railbus.
At this point, the idea of deploying such vehicles on British rails was not where the Research Division’s or BREL’s thoughts lay. It was felt that this modern railbus concept would be a strong export opportunity – providing an attractive and cost-effective railbus for lines around the world which could only be economic with such equipment, and reducing BREL’s almost total dependence on one customer.
Inspired by the bus on underframe logic, the BREL engineers started looking round for a suitable body. They soon alighted on the Leyland National with its strong, durable and flexible body structure.
In 1970 Leyland had introduced its Leyland National single deck bus, an advanced design with integral construction, built like a car in a highly automated new factory outside Workington on the Cumbrian coast.
The huge capital investment meant that to be a commercial success the National had to sell in volumes of around 2,000 a year, with about half of production expected to be exported. It soon became clear that this target was not going to be achieved, with UK operators more and more preferring double-deckers for urban services, and many overseas markets finding the National too technically complex for their needs.
In order to try and drum up new business, Leyland conceived a number of unusual variants of the National, such as the Business Commuter with on-board office facilities for the busy executive, mobile banks, airside transfer buses with doors on both sides, and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, the Lifeliner. This incarnation (the brainchild of Mike Cornish, Leyland’s Special Vehicle Group Manager – someone whose technical imagination knew few bounds) was a mobile rapid response unit intended to go straight to the scene of major disasters and provide urgent on-board medical care.
Despite these efforts and strenuous marketing the sales of the National peaked at 1,124 in 1976 and then hit a steady and increasingly steep decline.
It looked like a perfect match. BREL was keen to reduce its dependence on the UK market; Leyland was even keener to get more sales of its National product (in whatever form) and squeeze some extra value out of all that tooling.
A company called Associated Rail Technology was set up as the home of the joint venture to develop and sell the railbus. But technical and working cultures in the rail and bus industries were quite different so the partnership evolved agonisingly slowly – it took almost ten years to get from initial discussions to series production.
The first prototype was called the Leyland Experimental Vehicle (a curious choice since Leyland had built hundreds of experimental vehicles over the decades), otherwise known by Leyland as R1.
Completed in December 1977, this was an unpowered unit intended to explore the basic technical concept. In particular, the body was not hard-bolted or welded to the underframe. Instead it was secured on four resilient mounts to reduce rail vibration levels in the passenger compartment.
It had a Leyland National Mark 1 front at each end of the car, with a curved windscreen entirely unsuitable for rail use. A Leyland 510 engine and Self-Changing Gears (SCG) transmission were installed the following year for further testing although only one end was given a driving compartment.
Then something unexpected happened. John Sullivan, the head of the US Department of Transportation, paid a visit to Derby in 1980 to see the APT, the technology of which BR wanted to sell to the Americans. Embarrassingly perhaps he spotted the R1 and was much more interested in what he saw as its potential to revive struggling branch lines. At his behest R1 was shipped across the Atlantic for trials as a potential saviour of rural lines under the aegis of the Federal Railroad Agency.
The publicity created by this trip backed BR into trying R1 out at home and it ran for a couple of months between Ipswich and Lowestoft after its stint in the United States. Eventually the unit wound up in the care of the National Railway Museum.
Somehow, this episode started a line of thinking that perhaps there might just be a role for lightweight diesel railbuses on the British Rail of the 1980s, and this led to a second prototype that was definitely constructed with domestic railways in mind.
The railbus was far from a new idea. They were around well before BR was created, and it purchased twenty-two such units in the mid-1950s for use on the quietest branch lines, most of which fell victim to the Beeching cuts in 1962. All were retired by 1968. Those that were not scrapped have proved perfect little workhorses for several heritage railways.
In spite of Beeching, in 1980 BR still had quite a few quiet branches to serve. But more significantly, passenger levels and fare receipts were declining fast in the face of rising car ownership. Perhaps a part of the future would be a much greater emphasis on cost-effective, if not super-comfortable, rolling stock.
The R2 (or Class 140) was much more of a mainstream BR affair, being designed by CMEE. It featured a driving cab which the rail unions had approved on some other new trains, and thus removed a potential obstacle to getting the class into production. The body and underframe were constructed as a single unit with no resilient body mounts. This gave a distinctly harsher ride than R1’s two-stage suspension.
There was much less Leyland National in R2 – basically the body sides and roof, and they were modified. Grafting a standard BR front end on to a Leyland National body was a very difficult exercise. The bus body was 2.5 metres wide, whereas the standard cab was 2.8 metres wide and had to be narrowed to fit. No effort was spared in making this prototype look as unappealing as possible, but its most significant aspect was that it consisted of two cars coupled together (and it was the first version to have an on-board toilet).
The possibility of creating a higher capacity mini-DMU had entered the arena. Its intended operating territory was more rural than urban – it ran in central Wales, West Lancashire, Scotland and elsewhere during 1981. It is now at the Keith and Dufftown Railway in Moray, Scotland.
The trials of R1 in the United States went well enough for an order to be placed for a larger variant, named R3-01 (or LEV-2), which was developed by the Research Division.
Stretching the railbus was easy because the National body structure was designed as a series of modules or bays (either 1421mm or 1218mm long) riveted together. Any permutation of bays (long or short, window or doorway, or window and wheelarch) was possible. Whereas R1 had eight bays, the R3 incarnation had ten.
As well as improved driver protection over R1, R3-01 also included wire ropes connecting the body to the underframe to stop the two separating in an accident – backing up the bolted resilient mountings. This particular vehicle was actually constructed by Wickham in late 1980, using a trimmed body shell supplied by Leyland.
Wickham had form in this area, having built six of the 1950s railbus fleet. The reason why Wickham was employed may well have been the Americans’ aversion to importing anything that was built (or at least assembled) by a state-owned industry.
R3-01 was demonstrated in a number of places, notably Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Ultimately the demonstrations came to nothing and it was retired to the Connecticut Trolley Museum.
It had two sisters. R3-02 was constructed as a bodyshell, with no underframe or running units, for structural tests, including compressive strength and buffing loads.
R3-03 was built by BREL in 1981 for trials in the UK after being displayed at the UITP Conference in Dublin. It worked on several lines, such as the Severn Beach branch near Bristol, but was not considered a great success. It was then sold to Northern Ireland Railways, which required it to be re-gauged for the province’s wider track. It saw limited service before winding up at another heritage railway in Downpatrick (are we seeing a pattern here?).
You might have noticed that the new railbus concept was getting mixed up in British Rail internal politics.
The Research Division was behind R1 and R3, whereas the CMEE had developed R2. It is well-known that relationships between these two divisions were strained. The Research Division people considered the CMEE group to be far too conservative whereas the CMEE lot thought the Research Division crowd had their heads in the clouds, especially because a significant number of them had come in from industries like aerospace.
But they had to work together, and also work with BREL, and by some miraculous means in 1981 the characteristics of R2 and R3 were combined into the R4 design, a low-cost tandem unit capable of running anywhere on the Great Britain rail system.
It had a higher Leyland National content than the R2 (which made it lighter and less expensive), and incorporated a front end that was a hybrid of bus and train. Above the cant rail (the line above the windows and windscreen) it had a Leyland National roof profile and destination display. Below there was a raked three piece windscreen and a scuttle (the area below the windscreen) styled to harmonise with the lines of the body side.
Power was supplied by a Leyland TL11H diesel engine under each car driving through a Self-Changing Gears four speed automatic transmission to one of the axles.
Another significant event occurred in 1981 when Leyland Vehicles was split into distinct entities, one of which was Leyland Bus. It now had to deal with other parts of the Leyland commercial vehicle operation (such as in buying engines) as an external company rather than on an inter-divisional basis. This added cost and complexity to its business, which increased the pressure to develop new markets.
At this point we need to introduce another group of players into the saga, the Passenger Transport Executives. Seven of these bodies had been set up under the 1968 Transport Act to oversee bus and rail services in the major metropolitan areas outside London (five in 1968 and two in 1974).
In one respect they reflected the understanding that there were – in effect – two types of passenger railway in Great Britain. The ‘commercial railway’ was the part of the system expected to turn at least an operating profit – notably the Inter-City network. The ‘social railway’ was what was necessary to support the economy and communities, especially commuter routes into big towns and cities where trains were jammed at rush hours but pretty empty the rest of the time.
The PTE operations were very much in the second category. The idea was that the PTEs would determine their respective local transport policies and have money from the UK Treasury (Section 20 grants) to support services and invest in improvements. As such, if they wanted new trains for their patch they would have to negotiate with British Rail (whether BREL or someone else built the trains) over what they would get.
Whilst several of them already had extensive local electric trains fleets (Strathclyde and Merseyside for example) the others were heavily dependent on those asbestos-ridden DMUs that needed replacing in a hurry – notably West Yorkshire.
The PTEs had to deal with the Provincial sector, the branch of BR with the job of running the social railway – whether that be commuter routes or uneconomic rural connections. It was created in 1982 and for John Welsby, its first chief, the DMUs were very high on his to-do list. He took a trip to Derby and was (in his own words) “appalled”. There was no coherent programme to produce a cost-effective DMU replacement, only the unsuitable Class 210 DEMU, and there was no serious effort to address the rising weight of trains.
The PTEs had rejected the Class 210 out of hand when shown it. Neither did Metro-Cammell, the only other significant British train supplier, have anything to offer. The only solution anywhere near production standard was the R4 design.
Trains based on this design would be far from perfect. Accommodation would be basic, they would be quite noisy inside, and the absence of bogies presented the risk of excessive track and tyre wear on chords (fancy rail term for curves, and yes, trains do have tyres but they are made of metal).
On the other hand they would be cheap and the lead time on getting them built would be months not years. And anyway, they would surely have a relatively short operating life by rail standards, and be replaced by something more substantial in due course.
Down at Westminster, the UK government, led by Margaret Thatcher, had a deep dislike of all nationalised industries. It is said that the Prime Minister never rode on any British Rail train during her years in 10 Downing Street, and anything to curtail the enormous losses BR was making was of interest. Thus the notion of buying cheap trains had a good deal of appeal and got the support of the Department of Transport.
The Class 140 prototype had been shown to the Directors General of the PTEs, and the new head of West Yorkshire, Bill Cottham, thought it showed potential. This PTE stepped forward as the first customer, using some of its Section 20 grant to buy a fleet of twenty R4 two-car trains – designated Class 141. The price was just £8 million – £400,000 per two-car unit.
As with subsequent batches, these trains were assembled at BREL in Derby, with fully trimmed and painted bodies being delivered from Leyland’s Workington factory by road or rail. The carriage layout was unusual. In one of the cars there was a section behind the driver’s cab that could be locked off to enable mailbags and parcels to be carried. Both cars had centre doors on each side.
Presented in a distinctive PTE ‘MetroTrain’ livery but operated by BR, the Class 141s went into service in 1984 on the Leeds to Harrogate line and enabled a new half-hourly service to be established. Along with other improvements they could be seen perhaps as part of a super-busway. When traffic levels had built up sufficiently they were superseded by more conventional trains.
Initial reliability was very poor and only after a thorough refurbishment by Hunslet-Barclay (a long-established Scottish builder of rolling stock) in 1988/9 did they settle down. They lasted in service until 1999 when twelve sets were exported to, of all places, Iran where they provided commuter services until they were replaced by more substantial trains in 2005. Inevitably, two sets are preserved in the UK.
Leyland and BREL continued to believe the low-cost railbus would be attractive to railways around the world. Leyland clearly had a strong history of exporting buses, but although BREL had ‘Trainmakers to the world’ cast into the threshold plates on some of its trains, its actual export experience was limited to Ireland and Taiwan. Even so, the operation of the Class 141 trains ‘would undoubtedly trigger sales overseas’ according to BREL.
Three more demonstrators were built supported by sales literature for ‘BRE-Leyland lightweight diesel railcars’. The railcars were billed as ‘ideally suited to meet a wide range of passenger service needs. They can be used for feeder services to Metros and high density services in developing towns and cities; rural and tourist services; routes where rail density does not merit re-equipping with conventional rail equipment’. Nothing in there about actually operating high density commuter services!
One of the demonstrators – codenamed RB002 – was a single car unit built in 1984. It toured Canada for two years, followed by a stint visiting some of Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands (accounts vary as to which).
Then there was RB004, which was built as another US demonstrator, featuring half-width doors at each end and a central driving cab (so the driver could collect fares) and wide doors in the middle. It was also the only member of the entire family to feature air-conditioning.
It spent two years from 1984 visiting Rhode Island, Long Island, Washington DC (for an exhibition alongside my Leyland Olympian demonstrator – another story), New Orleans, Cleveland and Philadelphia before returning to York carriage works to be used as an office. It has now retired to the Waverley Route Heritage Association at Whitrope, a few miles south of Hawick, Scotland.
The last of the three was a version of the Class 141 built to metre gauge. This was shipped to Malaysia for a three months trial and thence on to Thailand then back to Malaysia before apparently ending its days in Indonesia. It was unique as a duplex unit in that only one of the cars was powered.
None of this extensive and expensive effort (five specially built demonstrators plus R1) yielded a single sale – for the world at large the BRE-Leyland railcar, whether in one, two or even three car format, was not the answer, in spite of its low price and easy availability.
By this point BR had finally got into action developing proper DMU replacements but the Pacer bandwagon was rolling and the PTEs were under pressure to acquire more of the lightweight trains. On 16th January 1984, David Mitchell MP, the rail minister, announced in Parliament that the government had approved the British Rail board’s proposal to build 150 new lightweight diesel multiple units
Pressed on whether the work would go to BREL, the minister replied that value for money would decide who built the trains, not who had developed them.
From an operational point of view all the units up to now had one big snag. The width of the body was the maximum allowable width of a bus in the UK, 2.5 metres, as opposed to the typical width of a British railway coach which is 2.8 metres or so. The narrowness meant a big gap between any platform and the step on to the train, and also two-plus-three seating would be rather cramped.
So for the next build, in response to the 150 trains approval – designated Class 142 by BR and R5 by Leyland Bus – the body had to be expanded. This was achieved by creating a different profile of coving and roof structure which connected the standard sidewalls with the standard corrugated roof panels. The body was further reinforced to meet crashworthiness requirements.
This came at some cost to Leyland because they no longer had the railbus body market to themselves. Since 1982 British Rail had been required to go to competitive tender for any new rolling stock.
The growing interest (if not outright enthusiasm) for lightweight DMUs had prompted Walter Alexander – a large Scottish bus bodybuilder – to offer its own model, in partnership with Hunslet-Barclay. This was designed from the rails up as a 2.8 metre wide machine, and was so keenly priced that Leyland could not charge a premium for the extra costs of the wider body – having to settle for charging as much for the Class 142 bodies as it did for the Class 141s.
But things were getting ugly in the UK bus market and Leyland needed all the volume it could get (as did Alexanders, who built 25 two-car Class 143s with Hunslet-Barclay then 23 two-car Class 144s with BREL – ten of which were fitted with a powered centre trailer car in 1988).
Leyland Bus was far from happy that it had not got all the railbus business, given its considerable input and investment in their development over six years. There was a strong feeling that Alexanders and Hunslet-Barclay had been able to secure a multi-million pound order with little effort to show that BR was not acting anti-competitively. And they could buy the Leyland engines from Leyland Trucks at the same price that Leyland Bus had to pay after the 1981 break-up of Leyland Vehicles.
Conversely, introduction of the Class 143 trains was delayed because the NUR union refused to operate them on the grounds that not building them at BREL was putting jobs at risk. BR had to get a High Court ruling before the unions reluctantly gave in.
The dire state of the UK bus market is worth briefly explaining. For over twenty years British customers had been able to claim a Bus Grant from the government to encourage renewal of the nation’s bus fleet and upgrade specifications. Naturally this boosted sales considerably.
The percentage of the overall bus price that could be subsidised tailed off over several years and the last Bus Grant was paid out in March 1984. Overall Leyland Bus production (including exports) dropped from 3,140 to 2,094 between 1981 and 1984.
Then the Thatcher government announced that all bus services outside London would be deregulated in 1986. Anyone could start up a bus service and existing operators would have no protection. In this uncertain environment bus sales plummeted further, going down to 1,402 in 1985 and just 993 in 1986.
And whereas for many years the British market took over a thousand single-deckers per year from all manufacturers, by 1985 that figure had dropped to fewer than a hundred.
In January 1984 British Rail placed an order for 50 Class 142 sets worth £17 million or £340,000 per set. This compared with an estimated cost of £1 million for a three-car Class 210, making the Class 142 almost half the price on a car by car basis. The 142s were certainly better than the 141s, with a revised suspension that suppressed a tendency to pitch, BSI couplers (that allowed 142s to be hitched to other classes), and various other improvements. But they were still essentially bus bodies on pretty basic rail underframes.
If the PTEs wanted new diesel trains they had little choice but to opt for the Class 142, even though that meant a smaller dent in their Section 20 grants than ‘proper’ trains. Reluctantly Greater Manchester stepped forward and received the first fourteen sets (painted in GMPTE orange and brown) in June 1985 which were based at Newton Heath depot in Manchester. These were given the snazzy marketing label of ‘Pacers’.
The next thirteen did actually go to a more bucolic setting – running out of Plymouth’s Laira depot to branch line destinations in Devon and Cornwall and carrying a chocolate and cream colour scheme redolent of the livery of the old Great Western Railway. They were called ‘Skippers’.
Alas the particularly twisty track did indeed lead to excessive track and tyre wear, and unacceptable screeching and squealing, so they were transferred up north to either Newton Heath or Neville Hill in Leeds and became Pacers, like all the subsequent deliveries of Classes 142, 143 and 144.
The balance of the order also went to Newton Heath in Provincial sector’s corporate two-tone blue livery. A further order for 46 Class 142s followed in October 1985 with delivery a year later. The first twenty joined the gang at Newton Heath and the remainder headed for Neville Hill.
Thus by the late 1980s about two thirds of the Pacer fleet was working round Manchester and the remainder was working around Leeds. However both centres sent out long tentacles of services such as to East Lancashire in the case of Greater Manchester and North Yorkshire in the case of Leeds.
One of these Class 142 Pacer sets made an unsuccessful sales demonstration trip to Belgium, while another was shipped over to Vancouver, Canada, where it provided a shuttle service for Expo 86. Margaret Thatcher, who went to promote British technology and exports, was enticed on to it – probably the only time she got on a train during her premiership. Quite a contrast to the Concorde that she flew in on.
So what about the train staff? ASLEF and the NUR (now the RMT), the main rail unions, were never against the railbus concept in principle. The first generation DMUs were far from ideal places to work as they grew older. However they insisted that the R4 and R5 units had fully protected driving compartments of the same standard as normal trains. A lot of the energy in the development phase went into satisfying the union’s demands and creating end structures that could withstand a 250 ton static load.
But the working environment was poor. Sources within the industry reported that operation of the Class 142s led to a disproportionate amount of sickness among train crews. A confidential study commissioned by British Rail in the early 1990s showed that drivers suffered muscular-skeletal problems because of the badly laid out driving position, poor seating and the amplification of ride pitching because the driving cab was so far in front of the wheels.
These problems were exacerbated by the high levels of body vibration. This led to some minor improvements, like adjustable (but not damped) drivers’ seats. Drivers with certain known back conditions were not rostered to command Class 142s. But this could lead to chaos at peak hours if say a failed Class 150 had to be substituted with a Class 142 and the rostered driver for the service could not take it, leading to a service cancellation.
Conductors also found the Class 142s a poor workplace. A substantial number suffered upper arm and shoulder disorders owing to the poor layout of door controls, which had to be operated several times at each station.
Little of the design energy behind the Class 142s went into considering the passengers. By the time all of them had entered service their bus progenitor had reached the end of its road – the last Leyland National bus was delivered in late 1985.
The interior of the trains echoed the design of the original 1970 product – quite spartan, with a solid floor (no carpet), a high window line so you felt like you were sitting in a bath, hard bench seats with no headrests, dingy lighting, and bus type folding doors which let in icy drafts that blew through the saloon.
True there was plenty of glass – the bus windows were closer together than on conventional trains which had wide mullions. Unfortunately all that window area was single-glazed, making for a chilly environment in a northern winter.
Then there was the ride – described by some as ‘lively’, particularly when the train hit a rhythmic bounce over jointed track, leading to their popular nickname of ‘nodding donkeys’.
And don’t even start on the heating (or frequent lack thereof) – which involved warm air being ducted down from a roof pod through outlets above the windows. Not only did the PTEs have cold feet about the Pacers, so did the passengers!
Initially perhaps passengers were grateful to get away from the worn out DMUs, but the shine soon wore off and the Pacers gained a reputation for being substandard. As passenger numbers increased on many northern routes through the 1990s, overcrowding became a serious concern.
The first generation DMUs typically had about the same number of seats per coach as the Pacers, but each car was nearly two metres longer leaving more standing space. As a result standees on Pacers tended to congregate in the door areas, especially in bay two behind the driving cab, leading to congestion at stations. This was exacerbated if the cancellation of a service for want of a Pacer led to two trains’ worth of passengers squeezing on to the next one.
That feeling of passenger dissatisfaction was compounded when new fleets of much better British Rail DMUs started to arrive very soon after the Pacers in the mid-1980s, a series of classes that ran from 150 right through to 159 – 15x as a shorthand. The 150s (known as Sprinters) were quite plain, but the 155s, 156s, 158s and 159s (collectively known as Super Sprinters) were really nice trains – the last two types being on a par with contemporary Inter-City stock.
Any line that relied on Pacers felt like a poor relation. Even Leyland Bus was building better trains. It won a contract to build the thirty five two car Class 155 sets, still utilising some Leyland National technology, but this time creating a final assembly facility at Workington and bringing the rail components in from BREL and elsewhere. The first entered service in October 1987.
A follow on order added another seven to the total. Ultimately however this was an expensive foray into a new market for Leyland Bus. The company was bought by Volvo Bussar in 1988 and with no likelihood of further UK orders or any overseas sales prospects the new owners soon quit the rail business altogether.
Excessive tyre and track wear was not the only limitation over where the Class 142s could run. They were kept away from any routes with substantial gradients like the line from Stockport to Buxton in the Peak District. This was because if a Class 142 suffered an engine failure with a full passenger load, the remaining engine would not have sufficient oomph to get the train back to either end of the line and out of the way.
The extended overhang on each car also meant the Pacers could not run through the sharply curved Eaves Tunnel, also in the Peak District. Thus the Pacers were restricted to lines that were ideally pretty flat and pretty straight.
As with the Class 141s, the operational performance of the Class 142s was initially dire. The litany of problems included engines, gearboxes, brakes, doors and driving controls. Things came to a head in 1989 when the two PTEs withheld their Section 20 payments to British Rail in protest at the Pacers’ dreadful availability – as low as 50% on occasions – and the knock on cancellation of services.
BR’s Technical Centre at Derby assessed the problems and they recommended a programme that involved beefing up the door systems and replacing the troublesome Leyland running units with more dependable Cummins L10 engines and Voith hydraulic transmissions.
Thereafter the 142s were more reliable, but consistently less reliable than the Sprinters or indeed any other type of modern DMU once these had overcome their own teething troubles. On the other hand they were certainly cheaper to run and maintain than the first generation DMUs, and latterly have looked good against the problems arising with new stock like the CAF Class 195 trains for Northern, or the same operator’s Brush Class 769 electric/diesel DMUs.
Thankfully no Class 142 was ever involved in a fatal accident, but their behaviour in a number of incidents raised concerns about their crashworthiness.
In 1991 an empty Pacer ran out of control down the steep gradient into Liverpool Lime Street station. The driver and guard were able to retreat down the train and it careered into the buffers causing very extensive damage to the leading car.
A more serious incident occurred in June 1999 when another empty Pacer overran a red signal outside Winsford, Cheshire, and found itself standing in the path of a Virgin express. The driver of the express managed to slow his train to 50 mph before it smashed into the rear of the Pacer. Again there was a tremendous amount of damage to the Pacer. The wire straps holding the body to the underframe parted and bays one to three were completely crushed, but there was very little harm to the front end of the Class 87 locomotive that struck it (even though it lifted off its bogies).
In both cases there was severe damage to the passenger area of the Pacer and in the Winsford case the Railway Inspectorate who investigated the accident noted “it was fortunate there were no passengers on board”. Indeed, for if the train was full there might have been a good number of people standing in bay two.
In other cases, engines caught fire, components fell off, and in a 20 mph collision at Huddersfield station in 1989, the body and underframe of a Class 141 also separated.
A particular point of weakness was the doors. Even though the body sidewalls had been strengthened to resist side impacts, the flimsy largely-glazed bus-type doors had been retained, which would offer little protection – again for an area where passengers tended to congregate.
In spite of the Rail Inspectorate demanding a study of Pacer safety after Winsford, nothing was produced that came into the public domain, and when challenged by a Freedom of Information request in 2011 the Department for Transport could only point to accident reports.
In fact a report shared only within the rail industry recommended that all Pacers should be fitted with headrests to afford some protection against whiplash in low velocity collisions. Far from all the units were so fitted, with large numbers of Pacers retaining their low-backed bus seats until withdrawal.
As the Class 150s and their cousins arrived some of the Pacers were displaced from their initial beats around Manchester and Leeds, and spread out to the further corners of northern England. The routes they plied got longer; a 90 minute ride on a Pacer from Carlisle to Newcastle on a cold and wet February night had to be a truly miserable experience.
Pacers had regularly been hitched together to form four car trains, but now hybrid trains appeared with maybe a 150 unit connected to a 142.
Entering the 1990s a whole new game began – privatisation. In spite of her animosity to British Rail Margaret Thatcher shied away from breaking it up and privatising it. Her successor as Prime Minister, John Major, decided to go ahead. From a rolling stock point of view the equipment would be operated and maintained day to day by Train Operating Companies (TOCs). They would not buy the trains but lease them from Rolling Stock Leasing Companies (ROSCOs), who would own them. Two of the three ROSCOs, Angel Trains and Porterbrook, took on the Pacers.
The rail network was divided up into a number of packages (networks within the network) and firms were invited to bid for franchises to run each one. The winner would be the TOC for a specified period. The government would subsidise certain operations but the TOCs would still have to operate very efficiently if they were to extract a decent profit.
The north of England local and regional network was split in three – basically west of the Pennines, east of the Pennines and trans-Pennines. First North Western won the first, and Northern Spirit won the second – each taking a share of the Pacers.
Both TOCs were new to the rail industry and thought they could carry bus operating experience into the sector. It rapidly became clear that bids for the franchises had been set too low, and efficiency drives turned into cuts. Services were run with two-car units when a four-car unit would be expected (short-forming) and standards of cleaning were pared right back. The Pacers were pretty basic under the best of circumstances; this made them intolerable.
The next fifteen years were difficult ones for local railways in the north of England. In spite of traffic growth as the economy grew, franchisees struggled to run decent services. Eventually the whole region came under a single local train franchisee, Northern Trains, with Trans-Pennine running most longer distance services.
Big plans were announced to electrify tracks, renovate and build stations, replace ageing stock and expand capacity. But the government had to approve new train purchases and the Department for Transport made an extraordinary case to say that the Pacers were so cost effective it would be a bad move to replace them. That was fine because the DfT bods in London didn’t have to ride on them.
Fortunately Patrick McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport, made the removal of the Pacers a condition of the 2014 process to award the next Northern franchise (which would run from 2016 to 2023). He recognised that public sentiment against the Pacers was gathering strength.
No longer could it be said that there were some pretty ropey trains on other parts of the system, notably the large fleets of slam-door electric commuter trains in the South East. They had all gone, and now the Pacers were unquestionably the worst trains on the whole network. They were one obvious example of the North-South divide that was seeing London and the country south of the Severn to the Wash line streak ahead economically.
But the new franchise, run by Arriva under a ‘Northern’ brand, got off to a difficult start. The electrification programme was running late and parts of it were shelved, increasing the pressure on the diesel fleet and ensuring that Pacer retirement would be delayed as long as possible.
To make matters worse, maintenance standards were slipping. Pacers were running in daily service with missing seat cushions, loose panels and piles of litter strewn across the floor. On an even less savoury note, the Pacers were fitted with lavatories without retention tanks, so that waste was discharged straight on to the track – a continuing unpleasant hazard for track crews.
Getting rid of the Pacers quickly became a loosely orchestrated campaign, with rail campaigners, local media, councils and Members of Parliament becoming increasingly vocal.
Some of the Pacers were brightened up a bit. When a small number of Class 142s went to Arriva Trains Wales for service in the Welsh valleys they got a somewhat improved interior. Porterbrook went as far as doing a full redesign job on a Class 144 Pacer in 2015 to ‘prove’ they could carry on for many years hence.
However, one change was coming that would definitely precipitate the Pacers’ demise. The Disability Discrimination Act was passed in 1995 and called for all forms of public transport to be accessible. The rail industry managed to wriggle around this for many years but eventually it was determined that all rail services had to be fully accessible by December 2019.
The Pacers – with their step at each doorway – could only be made accessible at considerable expense. In spite of assertions by some rail pundits that – even so – they had a good fifteen years life left in them, in December 2014, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (of all people) announced that every Pacer would be retired by the deadline.
But that was not the end of the story. The slow arrival of new rolling stock in the North and the inability to run new electric services because the wiring was incomplete meant that Pacers were kept in front line service rather than being gradually retired. Passengers in and around Leeds and Manchester continued to have to put up with dirty, overcrowded, uncomfortable and noisy trains that were now thirty years old.
Finally in 2019 their numbers began to dwindle, except that due to those rolling stock and service problems Northern secured a derogation that permitted Pacers to run into early 2020. However they would have to operate coupled on to Sprinters to make a four-car train. That stay of execution was further extended because of Covid-19, in order to assist social distancing on board trains.
But at last, on 27th November 2020, the last Pacer quietly ran in service – from Kirkby to Manchester Victoria. Much as I loathe the Pacers it was a bit of a damp squib of an end. Covid-19 meant that the keen crowds that would normally have marked such a event (and crammed the final train) had to keep away.
Don’t worry if you’ll miss them – heritage railways are queuing up to get hold of them. And Class 142-001 is now in the proud care of the National Railway Museum.
So what are my overall reflections on the BRE-Leyland Pacer saga?
First, I do not think there are any grounds for arguing that these were good trains in any sense. They were at best the equivalent of the utility buses built in the Second World War in response to a surge in passengers, when there weren’t the industrial means or materials to build ones that were technically up to date. The Pacers were envisaged as a stop-gap solution when British regional railways were in desperate straits, and were therefore anticipated to have a fairly short life at the front line.
And of course, they were put to use in a role they were never designed for and it is remarkable they held together for so long. And as for that ‘stop-gap’ no-one really worked out how long they were meant to last (twenty years tops?) and when privatisation came along any logical fleet renewal plans got lost in the noise.
Leyland Bus was desperate for business and railbuses looked a promising way to exploit its big and under-utilised investment in fixed tooling to build the Leyland National bus. In effect the Class 141 and 142 orders were equivalent to about 250 buses. But buses are designed for an operating life of fifteen years or so and the Pacers managed to last more than twice as long. The trouble was they became increasingly outdated as passengers’ expectations rose through exposure to newer trains.
BREL was in a slightly better position but certainly wanted to reduce its dependence on the increasingly uncertain UK market for trains.
The BRE-Leyland railbus was a clever piece of lateral thinking that ultimately ran ahead of itself. An attractive solution for lightly used services with reasonably straight track, but a desperate measure when applied to intensive commuter services.
The PTEs could perhaps have stood more firmly against the Pacers. It has been argued that they were put under great pressure to take them, but Strathclyde PTE and ScotRail very firmly rejected the idea that anything like the Pacers would operate in Scotland. The DfT even tried to promote them as replacements for the ‘Hastings diesels’ in the South East, but that was stoutly resisted by David Kirby, the sector director at the time.
John Welsby, the first boss of the BR Provincial sector, was an economist. Prime facie the Pacer was very attractive from the points of view of purchase price and promised operating cost – so he leaned on the English PTEs to take it. But to be fair to him, British Rail (be that CMEE, the Research Division or BREL) were guilty of not putting any serious energy into developing a new generation of DMUs when it became clear that the 1950s fleet was not an economic proposition for widespread refurbishment.
It didn’t help that BR in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an organisation plagued by over-centralisation and a widespread fiefdom mentality. Some have said that it was only when the Pacers appeared, and people realised how inadequate they were, that CMEE and BREL knuckled down and developed the 15x – which occurred remarkably quickly.
The UK government must take some criticism. Not so much in the early 1980s when the squeeze on British Rail was justified, but certainly post-privatisation when there was evidently a deliberate policy of retaining the Pacers under Labour, Conservative and coalition administrations. Only when it became effectively illegal to continue to operate them did vague promises turn into a commitment to be rid of them.
And that begs the biggest question. What kind of a country expects the citizens of its less favoured regions to put up with what was meant to be a stop-gap commuter train for 35 years? Even Iran didn’t do that.
It has often been claimed that the Pacers saved a number of branch lines that would otherwise have been closed. In fact, the Pacers proved quite unsuitable for rural branch lines in various parts of Britain where they were tried. The bizarre situation arose where Class 142s were taken from such lines to northern metropolitan routes and replaced with Class 15x units that ought to have been running commuter services.
Perhaps one or two services in built up areas might have gone, like the Huddersfield – Barnsley – Sheffield route, but that seems unlikely given the public and political furore that followed efforts to shut the Settle to Carlisle line.
It’s a convenient myth for Pacer enthusiasts, of whom there are quite a number. On social media they would write (and film) excitedly about how they crossed the country to get the chance to ride on one – what a treat! Not so much of a treat for the thousands of commuters who had to endure them every day for decades.
Some say that the Class 142s and the Pacers generally were creatures of their time – a time when the railways were under a great deal of pressure from a hostile government, a government which had commissioned the Serpell report which contemplated a reduction in the rail network that would have outdone Beeching.
But I don’t buy that analysis. I think ultimately the Pacer saga is symptomatic of a deeper malaise within Britain that certainly existed in the 1970s and 1980s and sadly remains so today. It was explored at length by James Hamilton-Paterson in his 2018 book ‘What we have lost – the dismantling of Great Britain’.
It is that in areas where it really matters, like industry and transport, British institutions have failed to make the kinds of long term plans that nurture real progress, and instead have found themselves making abrupt short term compromises that lead to long term problems (and often sectoral decline). Think of the Trident airliner, the Austin Allegro car and how Britain managed to throw away its early leads in civilian nuclear power and computing.
My own involvement with the Pacers began when I was at Leyland Bus in the early 1980s. I got myself the job of Market Development Manager – North America when the firm decided to explore new export markets. My main focus was buses and bus components but I was also involved with some of the efforts to promote the BRE-Leyland railbus.
The sales and marketing work was led by BREL (who knew a good deal more about all things rail than I did) but I did attend a number of meetings with potential customers. The Pacer orders were greeted with delight at Leyland Bus, for they held the prospect of keeping the Workington factory open in the face of steeply falling demand for buses.
The admiration I had for the technical ingenuity of these machines soon evaporated when I started to have to use them regularly to get to work in and around Manchester. In every respect they were completely unacceptable. I felt embarrassed seeing foreign visitors riding on them from Manchester Airport and wondering what sort of country they felt they had arrived in that would have such things.
But the Pacers did get me a little fun. In 2015 I appeared in a segment about them in a BBC2 documentary about the sorry state of Britain’s railways. You can watch it here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucA5xIgjZBc . It has been surprisingly popular, with almost 300,000 views. I’d love to know why.
For interest, the table below compares the BRE-Leyland two-car units run on British Rail with the Class 143 and Class 150/1, and also with the most-built 1950s DMU – Class 101.
This account draws most of its factual content from the sources listed below and also Freedom of Information requests. Traintesting.com has lots of information about the prototypes. I am very grateful to a number of people who have helped in correcting my mistakes and misunderstandings in this story, and adding much valuable detail, in particular Jim, Evan, Basil, Doug, Gia, Bob (you know who you are!) and the great crew at the Waverley Route Heritage Association. Any remaining errors are certainly mine and I should welcome corrections.
Anon. (1982). BR’s railbus set to roll. Technology, 11 October, p 24.
Anon. (1985). Managing Director Ian McKinnon with the Class 142 Railbus. Leyland Bus Bulletin, July.
Anon. (1985). Leyland shares in railbus orders. Leyland Bus Bulletin, December.
Anon. (2019). Pacers: the unlikely local heroes. Rail Magazine, 12 August. railmagazine.com/news/rail-features/pacers-the-unlikely-local-heroes
Booth, G. (1979). National service. Modern Transport, winter issue. Shepperton, UK: Ian Allan.Boyd-Hope, G. (2018)
Boyd-Hope, G. (2018). Nodding along – the Pacer story. Railway Magazine, October, November, December.
Bradley, S, (2015). The railways – nation, network and people. London: Profile Books.
BRE-Leyland (c. 1986). BRE-Leyland lightweight diesel railcars. Sales brochure, BLR 1003.
British Leyland Truck & Bus Division (August 1970). Leyland National. Sales brochure, 0200.
Clinnick, R. (May 2013). Angel Trains to withdraw all its Class 142 Pacers by 2020. Rail, p10.
David, G. (2017). Railway Renaissance. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.
Fogg, A. (1970). A single-deck bus for future urban transport. Proc. Instn Mech Engrs 1969-70. Vol 184 Pt 3S. Paper given at the Rapid Transit Vehicles for City Services conference, London, April 1971.
Gwynne, B. (2020). Pacer: the bastard son of the APT. therailwayhub.co.uk/11675/pacer-the-bastard-son-of-the-apt.
Hamilton-Paterson, J. (2019). What we have lost – the dismantling of Great Britain. London: Head of Zeus.
Hansard: HC Deb (1983-84), 52 col. 12.
Health and Safety Executive Railway Inspectorate (1999). Report into the train accident at Winsford South Junction on 23 June 1999.
HM Railway Inspectorate (1993). Railway accident at Huddersfield – a report on a collision that occurred on 6 November 1989.
Informed Sources (April 2015). McLoughlin signs Pacer death warrant. Modern Railways, p31.
Jack, D. (1994). Beyond reality. Leyland Bus – the twilight years. Venture Publishing.
Jackson, T. (2014). British Rail, the nation’s railway. Stroud, UK: The History Press.
Keegan, W, (1985). Mrs Thatcher’s economic experiment. London: Penguin.
Kerr, F. (2018). The Pacer family – end of an era. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword.
Leyland 90th Anniversary Committee (1986). Official history 1896-1986.
Mackin, R. (2018). The Pacer. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing.
Mike’s Model Railways (2003). Appendix three – loco hauled passenger stock. Igg.org.uk/rail/00-app3-4/ap3-coach.htm
Morris, S. (1980). Ten years of a Greater Manchester PTE. Modern Transport, winter issue. Shepperton, UK: Ian Allan.
Murphy, M. (1982). The BRE-Leyland railbus – body structure development. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, C194/82. Paper given at Railbus systems conference, 24 November 1982.
Rail Accident Investigation Branch. Various accident reports.
Speakman, C. (May 1985). Public transport in West Yorkshire – ten years of achievement. West Yorkshire PTE.
Walmsley, I. (2013). Will we have Pacers in 2030? Modern Railways, May, p78.
Woodcock, E. (2014). Response to the Transpennine Express franchise and Northern Rail franchise stakeholder consultation.
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