Do you know what a Pacer is? If the answer is no – and chances are the answer will be no if you live anywhere other than the North of England, the West Country, Scotland or Wales – then lucky you. For those who are blissfully unaware, the Pacer outwardly resembles a short-distance train linking commuter villages and small towns with the cities, but, to paraphrase what Disney animator Ward Kimball said of Jiminy Cricket when working on Pinocchio, “the only thing that makes it a train is because we call it one”. Essentially, a Pacer is constructed by crudely bolting a bus body onto the chassis of a freight wagon, and loosely slinging the diesel engine underneath, in the exact spot calculated to amplify the noise as much as possible.
The result, unsurprisingly, is a symptom of an almost complete lack of investment in the provincial railways since the days of Stephenson and Brunel. They are identifiable from the outside by the folding bus-style doors they sport, and the crushed countenances of the commuters, broken in spirit, who can be observed alighting from them. Already, I can hear the Londoners and Home Counties denizens gathering in flabbergasted unison to put forth a single, plaintive question: how could such a primitive box on wheels be allowed onto the railways of a prosperous and developed Old World nation?
As ever, the answer to this and countless other questions can be summed up in a single word: money. Or more specifically, lack thereof; Pacers were introduced in the mid-1980s as a stopgap to address a dire shortage of rolling stock. They were meant to be an emergency solution, a temporary measure to cover British Rail’s backs until a bit more dosh trundled down the tracks – yet now, thirty years later and post-privatisation, these abominable “nodding donkeys” (to use one of the more printable nicknames) are still rattling screechily up and down major commuter routes the country over – even those as long as the sixty miles separating Newcastle and Carlisle. Over 200 are still in use in the North of England alone, comprising about a third of Northern Rail’s entire fleet.
But there is a glimmer of hope, a faint but tangible sign that the Pacer is at last being bundled inexorably, if reluctantly, towards the scrapheap. New disability access laws, much stricter than those currently on the books, are due to enter into force in 2020, which Pacers are doomed to fall spectacularly foul of. As the cost of refurbishing them to a standard compliant with the new laws is likely to far outweigh their value as scrap metal, it seems that they will finally be banished from the country’s railways, and not a moment too soon.
I will be in a particularly celebratory mood when the last Pacer is consigned to history, because as someone who lives in Yorkshire, only two hours’ train journey from Durham, it is as good as guaranteed that should I desire to spend a mid-term weekend at home, a Pacer will convey me halfway to or from my destination. I can therefore speak from entirely personal experience in denouncing them as the most maddeningly uncomfortable mode of transport I have ever been subject to. Le Train Bleu, the famous luxury train of the Twenties and Thirties that shuttled the great and the good from Calais to the Cote d’Azur, it most certainly is not. The rock-hard bus seats are packed in so closely in front of each other that anyone taller than 4’6″ struggles to decide whether it is worse to sit sideways, and so constantly have to apologise for obstructing the aisle, or to sit facing forwards, with their knees pressing into their temples. Mind you, that’s if you’re fortunate enough to find a seat; at rush hour, which I invariably find myself in the thick of when returning to Durham on Monday morning, after my weekend of R & R, one has to board the train at its terminus in order to stand a remote chance of not having to fight for somewhere to sit – especially when, as is sometimes the case, the train constitutes just one coach.
Sitting, standing, or squatting on one’s rucksack – whichever position you adopt, you will still be shaken to the core by the appallingly bumpy ride. Unlike normal trains, Pacers lack bogies (the substructure of axles, bearings and wheels forming the bulk of the chassis), which must be the only situation in the world in which a dearth of bogies is considered a problem. The consequent vibrations, most noticeable when moving off from a standstill, are reminiscent of a car in the hands of an incompetent learner, moments before a stall; those unfamiliar with such juddering will involuntarily suspend their incredulity and wonder, possibly aloud, whether it is in fact possible to stall a train engine.
At no point does the bouncing desist to a tolerable level. I suppose an unforeseen advantage of the crowdedness of a rush-hour Pacer is that nobody can be thrown against anything hard enough to cause injury, but that is like a Tudor nobleman fallen foul of Henry VIII being given the choice of sword or axe for his execution; the end result is just as horrible. You can either find yourself on a quiet Pacer, and be thrown around the coach until every one of your organs has been shaken loose of its moorings, or you can find yourself on a busy one, and be gassed by the stench of body odour and commuters’ oily McSludge breakfasts. When last I travelled on a Pacer, I was a shattered and distracted woman by the time I could alight and haul myself through the station concourse to catch my connecting train to Durham (an infinitely more civilised inter-city long-hauler, since you ask), and could think only of the joy that will ensue next year, when I’m allowed to bring my car to Durham. So consumed was I by this prospect that, in the five minutes or so that I spent hanging around outside the lecture theatre that day, waiting for the eminent professor, I composed a little poem bemoaning the woeful state of Britain’s railways, and I will leave you with that very poem:
Oh, how I wish I had my car
Journeys in it never seem so far
As they do when I travel by train
Whose minister in charge I would quite like to cane.
Travelling in Britain by rail is hell
‘Cos of bouncing, greasy smells and overcrowding as well,
And the fares, for they are insufferably dear
I could travel for less – that much is clear.
But I can’t have my car because I’m a first-year
So I’m stuck using trains, bringing forth a tear.