Nodding Donkeys: Greater Manchester’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Class 142 Pacer Unit

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 They were unreliable enough to have been replaced by the older DMUs, which they were meant to replace.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.

The beginnings

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.

Personal experience

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.

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23 thoughts on “Nodding Donkeys: Greater Manchester’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Class 142 Pacer Unit

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  1. There isn’t much metal left in them to sell as scrap. A lot of filler and tape is what holds the bodies together. If one of these geriatric, third world, life expired units were in a serious crash (even like the recent 185 derailment hitting a pile of ice in Summit tunnel), there would be passenger and staff deaths/serious injury. The continued use of these units is an utter disgrace on Britain’s railways.

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    1. Hi Bus Pilot,

      I too wouldn’t be mourning the demise of the Pacers – if they ever get withdrawn in my lifetime. The question remains as to whether enough funds are available. Or rather if the ConDems are going to condemn the North of England to another 20 years of squealing on Miles Platting junction!

      Do you remember the Winsford Crash in 1999 involving the empty Pacer unit? (Pacer Accidents link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_142#accidents). The lightweight bodywork would have caused an accident to Clapham type proportions if fully loaded.

      They were also described by Southport Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh as “exacerbating the overcrowding situation due to the lack of seating and space on board them”. As I can testify myself on a packed Huddersfield – Manchester Victoria train, I agree with him wholeheartedly.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

    1. Hi Buspilot,

      Yes, these people may have money to burn, but if we preserved at least one unit, it’ll serve as an object lesson for future generations on ‘How Not to Build a New Train for High Density Routes Outside London’. Unfortunately, like Thatcherism, the Bubonic Plague and the Highland Clearances, they are as much a part of our history, and a footnote in UK railway history. Personally, I would like to see one of the Class 142s fully restored with the GMPTE orange and brown livery.

      As they say, “whatever floats your boat”. I hope they succeed, even though I do hate the units with a passion when used on the wrong kind of route (i.e Sheffield – Bridlington via Hull or Chester – Manchester Piccadilly via Altrincham).

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  2. Latest problem::
    Investigation into an incident at Durham station, 10 April 2011

    The RAIB is carrying out an investigation into an incident which occurred at Durham station on the East Coast Main Line on Sunday 10 April 2011.

    At about 12:30 hrs, a final drive cardan shaft dropped onto the track from an empty passenger train travelling from Neville Hill depot (Leeds) to Heaton depot (Newcastle). During the incident, which occurred while the train was travelling at approximately 75mph (120 km/h), a member of the public sustained a minor injury from a piece of ballast thrown up onto the platform.

    The train involved was formed of two 2-car Class 142 units. The shaft detached at the front end of the third vehicle and was not held up by its retention devices. It damaged the underside of the third and fourth vehicles, piercing the fuel tank on the fourth vehicle and releasing the contents onto the railway.

    Since October 2010 there have been a number of incidents of cardan shafts failing on similar types of train. In one other case, the broken shaft was not retained and fell from the train.

    The RAIB investigation will examine the sequence of events leading up to the incidents, the design, maintenance and overhaul of the cardan shaft and final drive, the design of the cardan shaft restraining straps and other factors which may have affected the incidents.

    Affected parties within the rail industry have been informed of the investigation and are assisting the RAIB in establishing the cause of the incidents.

    The RAIB’s investigation is independent of any investigations by the safety authority (the Office of Rail Regulation).

    The RAIB will publish a report, including any recommendations to improve safety, at the conclusion of its investigation. This report will be available on the RAIB website.

    Stuart,
    It really is time that these excuses for trains were consigned to the scrap yard.

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    1. Hi Buspilot,

      Thank goodness for the fact this train wasn’t fully loaded.

      Surely, there must be enough evidence supporting the abolition of Pacer units. Not least the lightweight bodywork; also the step entrance which contravenes Disability Discrimination Act regulations (passengers are required to wait for a guard to place a ramp at the entrance).

      Come in 142, your time is up!

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  3. I believe the issues with the Class 142 units lie not in their design, but in how they are used. The problems of overcrowding on busy services when operated by Class 142 units is due to a number of factors. Firstly, the lack of other available rolling stock to Northern Rail forces them to rely upon the railbuses, while in some other instances, their use is just a case of wrong unit on the wrong route.

    For example my commutes out of Liverpool at peak times have highlighted this. The 1701 Lime St to Wigan is made up of two Class 142 units and always has seats spare on it. The 1710 Lime St to Manchester Victoria (which follows the 1701 as far as Huyton) is typically only one Class 142 and is packed! On the 1719, a far more sensible system is used, whereby the 142 is attached to a 150/156 in order to solve overcrowding.

    The 142s should thus be used to combat overcrowding rather than cause it. With regards to the Disability Discrimination Act regulations, the problem would not be solved by removing the Class 142 from national network metals. Class 150 and 156 units also have a considerable distance between the platform and unit (indeed a man fell down between the gap caused by a 156 at Prescot last year!).

    Finally, it is only a small number of Class 142 units that are the cause of most of the bad-news. These are the Merseyrail units (142041-58) – the ones with the terrible seating – and have been abused quite frankly in their use. To name just a few examples: 142042 was a Merseyrail unit when it dropped its carden shaft at Broad Green in 2009; the latest Durham incident was also caused by a Merseyrail unit.

    If some investment had been put into the units, we would not be discussing the matters we are at the moment. Indeed the South Wales based Class 142 and 143 fleet is superb following a full refurbishment programme with new seating, interiors and DPTAC door controls. Had Northern Rail followed this example, there would be very few people grumbling!

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    1. Hi Peter,

      Most definitely in the way they are used – and more markedly so as rail patronage (particularly along the Calder Valley and Huddersfield line) has increased around Greater Manchester. Perhaps using the Class 142s as reinforcements for often packed trains could be a good future use on busy routes, co-working with Sprinters and Super Sprinters.

      You are right to mention the gap issues on Class 150s and 156s. As I can testify myself at Manchester Piccadilly, there is a good 4″ gap between platform edge and step. Likewise at Victoria and Ashton-under-Lyne stations, though less so at Stalybridge where platform heights have been raised. Yet there are none of these problems with step heights on the Pacer units – and the other Leyland National derived DMUs [the Class 153/155 units].

      I also agree with you on the need for proper refurbishment. I’ve noticed a fair gulf between the Metro West Yorkshire 143s and Newton Heath’s 142s. Now imagine if Newton Heath’s Pacers had full height seating?

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  4. Hi Stuart,

    I am glad you agree with my comments. There is now a Pacer Preservation Society that has been formed with the intention of preserving at least one 142/143/144 unit when they are withdrawn from service. The PPS website is: http://pacer-preservation.webs.com and is full of information about the PPS’ aims and how you can get involved.

    Surely you mean the WY Class 144 units though? And with the fears of safety, I’d just like to point out the ORR’s official statement, which read “A well maintained Pacer is a safe Pacer”. Yes, the Pacers do not have sanding gear, because a Railway Group Standard excludes them from being fitted with such devices (there should be at least 6 axles behind the point at which sand is delivered). And yes, the units aren’t exactly hi-tech: they are hardly a Voyager or Turbostar. Yet they are an important workhorse of the system and are one of the safest units I know.

    Indeed, how many fatalities have been caused by Pacer accidents? None! The most severe injury was whiplash and when major incidents have occured, the workings have been empty stock movements (Winsford, Durham). Unfortunately these get picked up by the media and blown into a “Scrap the Pacers” campaign – something that is highly unfair and unjustified.

    In comparison, both the Class 150 and 156 units have fatalities to their record. 150209’s driver was killed at St Helens on 11 November 1988, while on Jan 31st 1995, the conductor of a Carlisle to Leeds service was killed in a collision at Mallerstang, involving 156490 and 1564608. The full Class 156 incident list can be found at: http://members.madasafish.com/~dysgraphyk/156/class156_mishaps.htm

    Like

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thank you for your correction. I wasn’t sure whether it is the 143s or the 144s which do the West Yorkshire routes. It’s the Class 143s that do the Cardiff Valleys lines.

      It is interesting to find out about the Pacers’ safety record. Perhaps it is down to how easily they can be maintained compared with other Second Generation DMUs.

      Could there be some snobbery about its bus origins, even though the Derby Lightweight and Class 102 DMUs had bus style seating? Even the Wickham and Bristol/ECW railbuses had four wheels per car like the Pacers, but none of the hysteria in terms of safety issues – back in the day of slam-door rolling stock. Where’s the same hysteria about the Class 139 Parry People Movers on the Stourbridge branch?

      On a personal note, I’ve been more at ease stood by the doors of a Pacer than a Sprinter unit, which seems strange given the former’s more lightweight construction. On the 150s, its passenger doors tend to rattle at high speeds which give the impression of bursting open if the train goes beyond its maximum design speed of 75 mph. The worst you can expect from a Pacer’s bus style doors is a draught between the centre hinges and a less pronounced rattle.

      Pacer units are The Marmite of DMUs: you either love them or hate them to pieces. Most of the teething troubles from its launch have been ironed out, yet it is the type of routes they’ve been on (and the squeals) which has besmirched their reputation.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  5. Stuart.
    Here we go again!

    Apparently many 142s have now had their top speed restricted to 60 mph as precautionary measure due to new final drives fitted on overhaul, failing at low mileage. It appears the input shaft bearing is overheating and seizing, which then drops the carden shaft on to the track..It is possible that a derailment could occur as a result.
    Would you fancy being on a 142 derailing at 60mph?
    I think not!

    Surely this should have a Health and Safety case opened.

    Like

    1. Hi Buspilot,

      If common sense and passenger safety has the upper hand, possibly. Chances are, temporarily, they may be banished from the more limited stop or longer distance services (i.e. Southport – Manchester Airport), without a Health and Safety case.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

    1. Hi Buspilot,

      I’d like to say there’s a joke in there, but I shan’t elaborate on anything of a jovial nature as it may cause offence to the fellow concerned. I hope this makes the national ‘papers, though I pretty much doubt it (there might be a couple of paragraphs in Rail though).

      I’ve recently borrowed Stanley Hall’s ‘Railway Milestones and Millstones’ from my local library, and (as you may well know yourself), he is VERY scathing on the Pacer units. It seems to me the author claims they were inflicted on the North because ‘civil servants thought the Class 210s were too good for them’. Yet Mark I rolling stock (which the Pacers have similar characteristics to in terms of their lightweight bodywork) post-Clapham disaster have been banned in the Southern Region.

      Double standards indeed!

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  6. Is this good news?
    Apparently, 5 of the returning 142s are to be allocated to Heaton for service around Newcastle, releasing 2 x 156s to move west of the Pennines.

    Like

    1. Hi Buspilot,

      If anything, this is a net gain of 2.75 trains for Heaton depot given that the Class 142 has a smaller seating capacity than the Class 156s. For Newton Heath, this doesn’t quite address the Oldham Four Pacer units displaced from the Loop Line. I would assume that Newton Heath or Neville Hill would be getting the three Sprinter units.

      Apart from alleviating some capacity issues, it is a bad news story akin to swapping a Ford Escort for a Trabant!

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  7. It would appear that the new Allerton Depot will have a mix of 142/156s. It is due to be in operation for the December timetable change. A 142 is there at present for training purposes.

    Like

  8. Stuart,

    Thank you for this link from 2009. Now in 2013, it makes for an interesting reading of the 2014 aspirational period

    Like

  9. I can’t believe we have to ditch the Pacers when there is such a need for more stock and a wish to reopen numerous branch lines.
    Why not refurb with:
    – ramps built into the doors,
    – disabled captive toilets,
    – 2+2 seating with wider gangways,
    – new engines and transmission with more power but less weight and cleaner emissions,
    – lighter suspension springs but stiffer dampers.
    Have I missed something?

    Like

    1. Hi Les,

      I would love to see 2+2 seating on all Pacers, but the construction and length of each car stymies this. Much as I would love to see such improvements, this would mean far fewer seats – unless sufficient numbers are transferred to rural lines with enough suitable replacements.

      Instead of the present axle arrangement, I would like to see proper bogies in their place. In my view, that would also improve passenger comfort.

      DDA compliant toilets could be moved from the rear to the front of the unit where the retractable seats and cycle racks are placed. Luggage/cycle racks/retractable seats could be moved to the present position of the toilets halfway through the two-car unit.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  10. I think it’s a joke that there is a company who is genuinely modifying London Underground District Line D Stock to run as a DEMU, to replace the pacers. Surely that isn’t all that far away from being a little insane?

    On the subject of preservation: I may despise the pacers, but they’re a part of BR history, so still do deserve to be preserved.

    Like

    1. Hi Jamie,

      I agree with your sentence regarding the Pacers’ preservation. Given their footnote in history, they are worthy of exhibition in the NRM collection. As much as the APT, Sir Nigel Gresley and the EM1 Woodhead line locomotive. If we airbrushed them out of railway history, it would be like a British history course without reference to The Black Death, William the Conqueror and the Industrial Revolution.

      The idea of converting District Line D Stock to DEMUs is completely hatstand. Not least the conversion cost, and the time required for a safety case. Replacing old trains with older stock? Stupid, given the possible crash worthiness issues.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart.

      Like

  11. From where I live, Scotland, it seems that the North of England is poorly served by its “bench-warmer” politicians, and that the Pacer is indicative of that.

    We started the process of getting rid of our “bench-warmers” recently: they don’t like it!

    Get active, folks! All the best!

    Like

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