- This feature was published in RAIL 857.
It would be difficult for any traveller not to notice the austere nature of the Pacer fleet, when compared with anything else operating on the rail network today.
Over the years they’ve become well-known for their bus-style appearance (both outside and inside), bouncy ride (hence their ‘nodding donkeys’ nickname) and their pronounced wheel noise on curves.
And yet, despite these obvious shortcomings, with even the youngest members of the fleet now over 30 years old, the Class 142s, ‘143s’ and ‘144s’ have achieved a longevity well beyond their intended design life. Their length of service is now on a par with many of the first-generation diesel muiltiple units (DMUs).
When the country was gripped by recession in the early 1980s, there were serious pressures on British Rail. In 1981, passenger business fell so short of what was forecast that the British Railways Board went back to the government to ask for an extra £110 million of grant funding (on top of the £644m already agreed for the year).
The following year, Transport Secretary David Howell appointed Sir David Serpell to report on the railway’s finances. Options presented by Serpell included reducing the network by 84%, a move which would have left just main lines and a great many areas of the UK with no train service at all.
Although the report itself was subsequently left to gather dust, the spending and efficiency of British Rail remained under close scrutiny.
Anthony Coulls, the National Railway Museum’s Senior Curator of Rail Transport and Technology, says that this also influenced choices for new trains: “The proposals were to cut railway lines and obviously people didn’t really want that. I think it’s fair to say that for a number of rural routes, certainly in the south west of England, the Pacer was almost the saviour because it reduced costs so much. Low running costs, low maintenance costs. The fact that Pacers have been going for over 30 years is testimony to that, although they are much maligned by many.”
“They were a cheap stop-gap,” agrees Brian Barnsley, Senior Operations Manager and Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Community Rail Partnerships (ACoRP).
“But also around that time, certainly the government - and probably British Rail, too - felt that the days were numbered for lines like the Penistone Line, Ormskirk and East Lancashire. There was almost certainly going to be another Beeching-type axe at some point.”
The Pacers’ origins and low-cost simplicity can be traced to a series of experimental railbuses which were trialled by British Rail’s Research Division in the late 1970s and early 1980s - technology which it was hoped would even lead to orders overseas.
The first, LEV1 (Leyland Experimental Vehicle), was built in 1978 from standard Leyland National bus body parts placed on a railway underframe. Initially unpowered, it was fitted with a Leyland diesel engine and mechanical transmission the following year and, after testing at Derby, was put into revenue-earning service to evaluate passenger reaction.
Two larger versions (referred to as LEV2, for export to the United States and R3, for British Rail) were to follow, before RB002 (again for export) and RB004, which bore a much stronger resemblance to the Pacers.
The research was used to develop the Class 140 two-car Pacer prototype, which was built in 1980 and again spent a time in passenger service before being used for training.
“There was extensive testing,” adds Coulls. “It wasn’t just somebody saying ‘let’s put a bus on railway wheels’, it was trying to find out what might work, what would work.
“Obviously some of it did, some of it didn’t. But nonetheless, these things are continuing to do the business on the railways well into this decade, and obviously they’ll see this decade out and that’ll be the end of it.”
With bodies built by British Leyland and bogies and fitting out being done at BREL’s Litchurch Lane Works in Derby, the 20 Class 141s were the first production batch of units, entering service in 1984. Delivery of the ‘142s’ (also British Leyland/BREL) and ‘143s’ (Walter Alexander bodies and Barclay underframes) started the following year.
The Alexander/BREL-built ‘144s’ were introduced in 1986, with the centre cars to make ten units into three-car formations following later. The ‘142s’ were much greater in number, with 96 sets being built, as opposed to just 25 ‘143s’ and 23 ‘144s’. The three later classes were also slightly wider, with space for 2+3 bus-style seating, rather than the 2+2 configuration of the ‘141’s.
In their early days, all of the production Pacer types suffered technical problems which had an impact on their reliability - issues with their mechanical transmission were among the most significant.
By 1987, this affected a high proportion of Class 142s and ‘143s’. In July of that year, it meant 26 of the 57 ‘142s’ based at Newton Heath depot in Manchester were out of service.
The entire 25-strong fleet of Class 143s, which were then allocated to Heaton in Newcastle, were also affected and their poor availability throughout 1987 and 1988 meant that their diagrams had to be worked instead by first-generation DMUs (many in poor condition) or locomotive-hauled stock. At around the same time, gearbox and wheelset problems were also experienced with the Class 144s.
Eventually, all three classes were re-equipped, not only with Voith hydraulic transmission but also with more powerful Cummins power units (230hp per vehicle), in place of the original Leyland (205hp) and Self-Changing Gearbox configuration.
The ‘141s’ were modified between 1988 and 1989 by Hunslet Barclay. The work included electrical changes and fitting of the same couplings used on the other Pacers and Sprinters (to allow them to work in multiple), along with a more efficient braking system. But apart from 141113, they retained their original Leyland engines and SCG transmission.
Although there were various reallocations (including the movement north of ‘142s’ that had proved unsatisfactory on the tight curves of some Cornish branches, and the migration south of the ‘143s’), the Pacers settled into a pattern of largely trouble-free working, and they became the mainstay of many local and regional services in the North, Wales and the South West, where the three later classes remain to this day.
Barnsley says they were ideally placed for the increase in passengers and change in attitude to railways which has unfolded over the last 20 years: “I don’t think anyone really envisaged the resurgence in the local railway line that we’ve seen, and fortunately the Pacer was there to take up the slack - and let’s face it, without them, without the negative thinking resulting in these things being built, then you probably wouldn’t have seen a resurgence in local railways.
“Some of the biggest growth lines actually have been on the back of Pacers. Not all, I hasten to add, but without the pre-privatisation fleet across the board, community rail would have really been struggling. There’s never been a business case actually good enough to buy new rolling stock. Without them we’d have been up the creek without a paddle, without a doubt.”
The Class 141s were the early casualties of fleet reorganisations, with all 20 being withdrawn from service between 1996 and 1998 as other stock became available.
Now, too, the reign of the later units on the railway network is drawing to a close. Of the three train operating companies who run Pacers, Northern has by far the largest number - 102 in total, made up of 79 ‘142s’ and 23 ‘144s’. As a condition of its franchise, it must remove all of them from service by the end of 2019. Withdrawals are due to begin by the end of 2018.
The remainder of the Pacers will also be withdrawn by the end of next year, with operators taking the decision to replace them rather than carry out modifications to make them compliant with the Europe-wide standard for accessibility (Persons of Reduced Mobility Technical Specification for Interoperability), which has a deadline of January 1 2020.
They are divided between the current Arriva Trains Wales franchise which transfers to KeolisAmey Wales in October (a total of 30 units, with an equal split of ‘142s’ and ‘143s’), and Great Western Railway (GWR), with eight Class 143s. Apart from one Class 144 (144012, currently leased to Northern) which was modified by owner Porterbrook, none of the Pacers comply with the new requirements. It had looked likely that the units would continue to operate in South Wales beyond the deadline, until details for the Wales & Borders franchise were announced last month.
GWR’s ‘143s’ work routes in Devon, and are all based at Exeter Depot. Depot manager Andy Tyne says: “They’re old now. If you had a car with two million miles on the clock it would have its problems, but we keep on top of the maintenance.
“They’re pretty simple to fix. We see them very regularly. They have all their maintenance at Exeter. They don’t go anywhere else other than for occasional heavy maintenance at Bristol for tyre turning and things like that.
“We’ve tried to keep on top of things so we did a lot of work on the doors. Doors used to cause us a lot of problems because basically they were worn out, so we did a full strip down probably about five or six years ago now, replacing all the brushes and bearings. We didn’t really change anything, but just put it back to as it was at build. That improved the door reliability.
“We’ve kept up-to-date with all the other little bits and bobs that have come into the other fleets for driver safety and passenger safety. They had an internal refresh some years ago now. They’re currently going through what we call a C6 exam. That basically is everything up top, so they’ll take a look at components but they’ll also look at paintwork, interior, seats, backs of seats, windows and all that stuff.”
Although his railway career started around 20 years after theirs, Tyne echoes the view that the Pacers have been vital for local lines: “I think they deserve some respect for what they’ve done because probably some people would have a lot worse train service if we didn’t have them. They’re valuable seats on the network which we wouldn’t have had.
“They’ve been a bit of a success story for my depot - we’ve improved them and kept them going and they’re generally very reliable. I joined the railway in 2005 straight out of the Navy, and they’re one of the first trains I saw when I came to Exeter. It’s quite nice to see them still here and still working 13 years later. Even back then they were talking about how their days were numbered.
“Not everyone likes them, I know, but there are people who are quite attached to them. I know my guys would probably never admit it, but there is quite a lot of pride at the depot about how they perform and the fact that they come back here every night and we look after them.”
It’s unlikely that the ‘142s’, ‘143s’ and ‘144s’ will become entirely extinct once they retire from network use. After the Class 141s were withdrawn, 12 were sold to Islamic Republic of Iran Railways and a further two were exported to the Netherlands. Four others were bought by railway groups in this country, of which two are still in existence and operational - 141108 at the Colne Valley Railway and 141113, which is owned by Llangollen Railcars and operates on the Midland Railway - Butterley.
Former chairman of Llangollen Railcars Evan Green-Hughes thinks it’s likely that several examples of the three later classes will find work on heritage lines.
“There is a massive shortage of reasonably priced DMUs that are in reasonably good condition, which the Pacers will be able to fill. There are a lot of small lines which can’t afford to buy DMUs or have DMUs that have become in quite poor condition over the years, who will benefit from buying something like a Pacer and running it.”
He points to the comparative costs: “An example is a Class 101. There’s a national shortage of wheelsets for Class 101s. You’re talking £20,000 an axle to do them, specialist bearings, a lot of work. Beyond the scope of smaller lines. They would have to send them away or send the vehicle away, so if you can go out and buy a Pacer for a few thousand pounds, you’re just going to be back on the rails straight away.”
The group purchased 141113 in 2001. It had been stored at Doncaster works following withdrawal in May 1998. After full restoration, it began its service career in preservation in 2007.
Says Green-Hughes: “It came about because one became available and it was an historically important thing at the time, much as the early Derby Lightweight design was historically important in the same geographical area.
“What it was, was a desire to preserve an example of the class while it was possible to do so while it was in reasonably good condition, even though it was so early.”
He adds that its design has made it particularly useful on the line which is now its home: “It’s very well-suited for the Midland Railway, whereas if it was over at Llangollen it perhaps wouldn’t be as well-suited because it’s a shorter ride - there’s more of a mix, so you’re getting a lot of families, pushchairs and so -on. Possibly slightly less enthusiast trade, although the Pacer has now acquired its own fan club.”
While still in British Rail ownership, 141113 was the only class member to have its Leyland engines and Self-Changing Gears mechanical transmission replaced with Cummins engines and a Voith hydraulic system - the same as that fitted a little later to the other Pacer types, making a big improvement to reliability.
Green-Hughes feels its secondment to the Weardale Railway between 2010 and 2012 for community rail services demonstrated its usefulness: “Because ‘13’ is fitted with Cummins engines and Voith boxes, it immediately did the bulk of the work - and it was exceptionally reliable. I think it worked on one occasion 53 days without stopping, working 120 mile a day diagrams and it was having to be serviced overnight, which is a very unpreservation-like way of carrying on.
“But it was good because it showed that inherently, the design was suitable for the original purpose which was low speed branch line work. And despite what people say, it could be made quite reliable. So from our point of view it was a very interesting experiment.
“The ‘142s’, ‘143s’ and ‘144s’ are mechanically very similar to this particular ‘141’, but the engine is less powerful. The production version is a slightly downrated engine so there shouldn’t be any significant issues, once people get their heads around how they work, I think they will just become a reliable DMU set, much as the first generation ones have. I think there will be a lot of trouble in the early days as people get their heads around them, as we had a lot of trouble getting our heads round them, but apart from that I can’t see any reason why they wouldn’t just slot into service.”
Even so, he thinks those groups that will be the first to take them on will have plenty to learn: “The initial problem with the ‘141’ was establishing a safe system of working it and maintaining it, because at that point there wasn’t anything like that in preservation. And to some extent that will be an issue facing those who are going onto buying those now.
“It’s not different skills, but it’s different experience and knowledge that they’ll need to acquire. When we were doing it, it was to some extent from scratch.
“Obviously learning from colleagues from the main line and so on was helpful, but we had to establish things like maintenance regimes suitable for heritage railways, which didn’t exist at that point. But obviously the Railcar Association already had established schemes for first generation, and we just worked schemes up based on the second generation information that was available that was suitable for heritage use.”
Although he believes they’re most likely to find favour with lines with smaller budgets and those which appeal more to diesel enthusiasts, Green-Hughes says it would be wrong to consider Pacers as some kind of modern misfit in the preservation world: “There’s a lot been made about preservation of Pacers as if it’s a new phenomenon, but it isn’t. It’s just an evolution of what’s always been there.
“The heritage railways that we have today are not accurate representations of the 1950s and the 1960s. It’s a presentation of something, so there is no reason why, as time goes on, more modern rolling stock won’t be presented as part of the package. The emphasis on the 1960s is a fairly recent thing. If you go back 15 years we were preserving the 1950s and before that we were doing the 1940s.”
The NRM has already earmarked 142001 (currently operated by Northern and owned by Angel Trains) for preservation. And Coulls is in no doubt that the Pacer deserves a place in the national collection.
“In terms of their significance, we rank the Pacer with the Sprinters, in a similar way that we look back now to the 1950s and 1960s with the Met Camms and the Derby Lightweights. Those were pioneering units and the Sprinter and the Pacers are the first of the second-generation diesel multiple units. So certainly in terms of warranting a place in history, the Pacer is there.
“The national collection isn’t just about the first and the oldest and the fastest and the best. It’s about the everyday, and in terms of reflecting the everyday passenger experience for millions of people, the Pacer does that.”