|Pacer train, rotting in Iran, but still used in Northern England|
But it’s not funny. It is actually an outrage.
These buses on rails, the diesel Pacer trains we are expected to commute into Manchester on, at least along the unelectrified lines (Tameside, Hope Valley, Sheffield, Liverpool, Lancashire, Bolton), are over 30 years old.
This morning, like every morning, I travelled on one into Manchester and it was dangerously overcrowded and clammy. And late. Words were exchanged between rail staff and passengers about standing room. The trains leak when it rains, they are cold in winter and too hot in summer as the heating is still on, even when it was 30 degrees outside. I pointed this out to the driver once we had arrived and he corrected me. It wasn’t on, it’s just that the train’s heat generates such power it appears to heat the system inside the carriage.
Another driver has told me that the trains don’t have fuel gauges, so it’s impossible to do anything but guess when they are low on diesel. They aren’t even really trains, they are buses, built onto a chassis, but they were only ever a temporary measure. Disgracefully, they are still in service more than a decade after they should have been scrapped.
Some units were donated to the Islamic Republic of Iran, presumably safely within the sanctions imposed on that regime, but have since been withdrawn from service (pic, above).
Here’s what the Office of the Rail Regulator says about the Pacer trains, in the 2012 annual report: “Rolling stock failures, such as the loss of a final drive, or bearing failures, could result in multi-fatality incidents. We flagged these concerns in the annual report for 2010-11 in relation to Pacer trains. We still have concerns about the planned continued use of these trains because their age means they can be more susceptible to failures and they often require more maintenance and monitoring.”
In short, these trains could kill you. And even the regulator is worried. But do you know what the main priority of Northern Rail appears to be at the moment? Intimidating passengers with heavy handed ticket inspection procedures, which they admit are complex and arbitrary.
I have an annual season pass, which some days I can have it checked six times by guards or by bouncers from G4S. Other days, not at all. I notice that on some days passengers can buy a ticket on the train (not today, too crowded), other days you can be issued with a failure to purchase notice when attempting to buy a ticket at Piccadilly station.
As an experience, Manchester Piccadilly station at peak times is getting better, but is still barely managed chaos. Communication is erratic, trains are overcrowded and platform changes always handled badly, though these are less frequent than they used to be. However, some annoying habits continue, one in particular is to leave passengers shivering on the platform while the driver revs up the diesel engine, opening the doors at the last possible moment. A lung full of diesel fumes doesn't warm you up, strangely.
Should you need help getting on a train, or if the platform is crowded and it is not clear which train is which, you generally get a shrug of the shoulders from one of the men on the station in a Northern Rail or Trans Pennine uniform. They aren’t paid to help, or care, just to bust fare dodgers.
What this company has done, under its new owners Arriva, and under the previous regime, is get our backs up. They are regarded as a joke by the commuters and travellers I know. The only solace people have is in a pathetic guerilla war on Twitter by referring their failings alongside a hashtag #northernfail.
New trains could be delivered to Arriva by the end of next year. And I understand they are being built by a company called CAF in Spain. In fact, it was a condition of the award of the franchise that they need to be in service by 2020. But welcome as that commitment is to new trains - and they look great - this has effectively prolonged the use of Pacers until then, rather than exploring the option of refurbished cast-offs from other networks in the south. Or Iran.