An irreverent history of the much maligned lightweight DMU
Few trains epitomise Greater Manchester’s rocky relationship with the rails other than the Class 142 Pacer unit. Making their debut in the summer of 1985 at Newton Heath depot, the Pacer units did not have the best of starts. They were unreliable enough to have been replaced by the older DMUs, which they were meant to replace. In some instances, diesel locomotives (once surplus to requirements thanks to the loss of newspaper traffic) with a rake of carriages replaced them.
What dogged the Pacer units from the start were the gearboxes. This changed when they were re-engined in 1991 with Cummins engines. With most of the (in present parlance) Heritage DMUs scrapped, the Class 142s became more ubiquitous, as units from Cornwall were cascaded to Greater Manchester. Nearing their 25th birthday, they still form part of Greater Manchester’s local services.
As early as 1976, Leyland began working with British Rail Engineering on a lightweight DMU body based on the Leyland National single decker bus. The prototype, LEV1, was a single car virtually unchanged from the bus itself, including the windscreen and indicator layout. Another one came in the form of the Class 140. This eschewed the Leyland National’s windscreen and indicator in favour of a standard unsealed driver’s cab with connecting gangways (which would be later seen in the Leyland bodied Class 153/155 units). Passenger doors were placed one third the way of each carriage.
By 1983, the first production version of Leyland’s lightweight DMU came in the form of the Class 141. Purchased by West Yorkshire PTE. This had a similar layout to the Class 140, albeit with sealed ends retaining the Leyland National’s indicator layout and its overhead heating pod.
Unlike conventional trains which use bogies, the Class 140 series of DMUs have axles with a long wheelbase. This is based on practice from wagon design. In passenger transport, there is one precedent in the form of the Wickham railbus which ran on rural lines prior to Beeching’s cuts.
Enter Greater Manchester
As documented in Stanley Hall’s book ‘Rail Centres: Manchester’, GMPTE was eyeing BREL’s Class 210 unit as a replacement for the Heritage DMUs. The idea was a go-anywhere DEMU which would run on the 25kV AC system in Stockport, and as a diesel unit on the Oldham – Rochdale loop line. Rational? It was in that it would have solved logistical problems in transferring each unit between Longsight and Newton Heath depots.
Unfortunately at the time, we didn’t have a rational pro-rail Government. We had a Tory Government whose handful of members would favour tarmacing railway lines and converting them to busways. Instead, what we later received were the Class 142 Pacer units. Result: one unhappy Passenger Transport Executive.
Not being able to look a gift train in the mouth, GMPTE’s Class 142s made their debut in 1985, with a superb version of the Greater Manchester Transport bus livery. Painted all orange throughout the top part of the unit, a brown skirt was added to the bottom. On the nearside of the front doors was a logo carrying both the GMT M-blem (orange background) and the British Rail double arrows (brown background). This was designed by Dukinfield’s very own Ken Mortimer, whose other credits include a fine selection of watercolour paintings with pre-1969 buses. If only their initial performance was as slick as their livery!
A guided tour through the Class 142 Pacer unit
(1985): The Class 142 consolidated on the prototypes and had a wider body than its predecessors. The front and rear entrances were placed nearer to the driver’s cab. On entering the carriage to your left or right, the first thing you would notice is the luggage hold and longitudinal seats. This formed part of a vestibule which would be used for the carriage of parcels, separating the main seating area by means of two lockable doors. Half way through the two car unit is the toilet at one end, and an additional bank of seats at the opposite.
Half way through each carriage is the famed Leyland National heating pod. It is also the point in the carriage where seats change direction. With a 2+3 bus seating layout the first half of the carriage sees a bank of seats behind the cab, opposite a bank facing the cab. The predominant colour throughout the unit is orange, which is used on the panelling and as part of the stripes of the mainly brown seat moquette. The Greater Manchester PTE sets had blue as part of the seating moquette instead of orange, with a version of GMT’s orange white and brown on the exterior.
In line with bus practice, a perpendicular bar separates the doors half way through.
(2009): 24 years on, my job as giving you a guided tour has been made more complicated by the number of units around Greater Manchester cascaded from other PTEs. In Manchester Piccadilly alone, it is not uncommon to see Pacer units refurbished to Merseytravel, NEXUS, First North Western and Northern Rail specifications on a typical day.
Both the Northern Rail and First North Western refurbished Pacers perpetuate the bus style seating of British Rail and Regional Railway eras. With safety regulations and the loss of rail based parcels traffic, the vestibules have since been abolished. In their place is a bicycle rack with a facing longitudinal seat (First North Western, Merseytravel and Northern Rail examples). The Pacers refurbished to NEXUS specification offers a standing area at one end of the 2 car set with further seats in its opposite carriage taking the place.
In contrast to the BR inspired layout, the NEXUS examples utilise 2+2 dual purpose bus seats with one side facing the cab and the other side facing the centre. The Merseytravel PTE examples retain the 2+3 seating layout, with most seats facing the cab’s direction. Instead of bus style seating, the Merseytravel versions opt for individual seats, similar to those seen on Metrolink trams.
Thankfully on all units, the perpendicular bar has been abolished!
Class 142 Genealogy
As stated herein, the Class 142 was derived from the experimental prototypes and the Class 141 units. Another cousin is Leyland’s re-bodied Mk1 carriage. This too used the same body shell as the Leyland National and was evaluated by British Rail in 1983, on the Manchester Piccadilly to Brighton service. With press critics claiming that British Rail were bringing back Third Class travel, only one was made. The carriage remains in use on a preserved railway in Kent as a stationary buffet car.
Though a rather tenuous link, the prototype Class 151 DMU’s roots lie within the Leyland National’s bodywork, even down to the heating pod at the centre of each carriage. Like the Pacers, this had bus type seating.
More directly related to the re-bodied Mk1 carriage prototype than the Pacer, are the Class 155 and Class 153 DMUs. These were Leyland’s response to Metro Cammell’s Class 156 Super Sprinter units. Only a handful of Class 155s survive in their most complete form (West Yorkshire PTE and Northern Rail its sole operators). This was due its more successful alter ego, the Class 153, which became a single car replacement for the Pressed Steel bodied Class 121 ‘bubble cars’.
Taking the basic principles of the Class 142 unit came Alexander’s version, the Class 143 and Class 144 DMUs. With virtually the same seating layout as its parent, the cab differed by being flatter than its predecessor. The Class 144 also spawned a 3 car variant.
My first experience of Pacer units came in the autumn of 1985, when I was 6 years old. I was travelling to Manchester Victoria with my late Grandma from Oldham Werneth station. I found the orange colour scheme and patterned moquette a welcome change from the dullness of the Class 104 units which they replaced. Little did I know how much mischief these trains were going to cause with GMPTE in later years!
By 1997, I started using the train a lot more for travel into the centre of Manchester and beyond. Inevitably this meant a lot of Pacer units into Bolton or Wigan Wallgate. I then became aware of the squeaks on tight curves (Miles Platting, we are looking at you here!) and the bouncy ride over pointwork and standard non-Continuously Welded Rail.
As a regular rather than occasional train user, I now abhor the Pacer units with a fashion. My reasons are: poor seating layout; (lack of) capacity on busy routes; entering a door the length of a swimming baths locker when I need a slash; and, ride quality. I have become a train snob, accepting anything as salubrious as (or more salubrious as) a Class 156 Super Sprinter as a ‘proper train’ for business travel. Journeying for pleasure rather than profit, I am more or less not mithered (and probably accept for reasons of pathos value a Pacer unit on the most outlandish of routes).
Best experience aboard a Pacer unit: returning home from a 2 – 2 draw with Gainsborough Trinity, boarding at Gainsborough Lea Road and seeing how strangely beautiful High Burton Power Station looked in the dusk (the things I do to watch The Mighty Stalybridge Celtic!).
Worst experience aboard a Pacer unit: Southport Air Show 2006: overcrowding at its worst due to a flood of passengers catching an earlier train to Wigan due to inclement weather. It was also one of the dreaded Merseytravel Pacers with crap legroom!
Why Nodding Donkeys?
The nodding donkey is a device used for drilling oil inland. Due to the wide axle positioning, it mimics the said device over standard 20′ length rails and more so on points. Both cars would bounce up and down (watch the Pacer unit sway by looking through the gangway connection), to the annoyance of coffee lovers and drivers. In Cornwall, they were nicknamed ‘Skippers’ before their move to Greater Manchester.
Where else can I see Pacer units?
As well as Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and the North East of England are still good Pacer Hotspots. They are also de rigeur on local services operated by First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales’ local services in South Wales. The Class 143 and Class 144 units can be seen in West Yorkshire, predominantly on the Leeds – Morecambe, Leeds – Harrogate – York, and Sheffield – Lincoln Central services.
Where next for the Pacer?
As things stand, I would assume that Greater Manchester would maintain its place in railway psychogeography as the Nodding Donkey Sanctuary of the North for another 5 years maximum. Its hotspots will remain the Atherton line to Wigan Wallgate and Southport, and stopping services from Marple to Sheffield Midland. However, I stress only 5 years because of the Disability Discrimination Act favouring low floor easy access vehicles (which the Pacers obviously aren’t).
If they were to remain in service beyond 2014, corridors would have to be widened, reducing seats, the toilet door would have to be widened, and (hopefully) some whizz-kid would add a kneeling mechanism (if only). My money’s on CF Booth in 2014.
S.V., 20 October 2009
Postscript (07 March 2016): They should be gone by 2019, as per Arriva’s franchise terms for the Northern rail franchise. In its place will be a mix of new and cascaded rolling stock.