Stephen Joseph: The Pacer train embodies our transport woes

Here are some extracts from Stephen’s article of 25th October, which most presciently anticipates the political announcements of ten days later. The full Yorkshire Post story is here.

THERE’S a consensus that a key part of improving the economy in the North of England must be better public transport, within and between the cities. The test of this will come with the new franchises for rail services in the North. The brief for bidders is due in December and the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement has also promised investment. Together, these announcements are increasingly being treated as a test of whether the Government is serious about its ambitions to create a “Northern Powerhouse”.

At the heart of this, as a symbol of what’s wrong with transport in the North, is the “Pacer” train. Built by British Rail in the 1980s as a short-term bargain basement train to keep local lines open, they are still the mainstay of many lines in the North, including some heavily used commuter services.

While other train owning companies are planning to scrap their Pacers by 2019, Porterbrook, which leases the majority to Northern Rail, has developed plans to refurbish them and keep them in service. A nationwide shortage of rolling stock will mean whoever is running the Northern Rail franchise will scarcely be in a position to look elsewhere. … Key to resolving all this is the question of electrification. Why would a rolling stock company spend money on new diesel trains to replace the Pacers when electrification could mean they are redundant in 25 years? The outcome could easily be that Pacers keep running for another 10-15 years or more.

If this were happening on South East commuter services, there would be an outcry. But it isn’t. Instead, there are many positive developments in London’s commuter area that Northern cities can only eye jealousy. There are multi-billion pound investments in Crossrail and Thameslink services.

So replacing the Pacers has become a test – a symbol of how serious the Government is about upgrading the North’s infrastructure. … But this approach faces resistance, especially from officials in London who haven’t experienced the severe overcrowding the North faces. There’s also a view that the North has a “high subsidy railway” and that the only way to deal with this is to cut costs and increase fares – hence the new evening fares restrictions that came in Northern cities last month.

So, the Pacers are now part of a much wider battle. Does the North get the transport network that it deserves, and which London and the South East are getting? Or do short-term, short-sighted London based economists win the day and keep the North suffering a second class railway? The next few months will show who is winning.”