A companion article to Nodding Donkeys: Greater Manchester’s Love/Hate Relationship with the Class 142 Pacer Unit.

Ich Bin Ein Merseyfailer

Point One: Pacers are a poor substitute to most rolling stock seen on UK National Rail metals. Yes in all but 1% of instances (citing of course the crap window to seat arrangements on the Class 150/1s). Sometimes the side window views are pretty good thanks to the bus seats.

Point Two: some Pacers are more equal than others. Yes, if you are sad or have to use the god damn things each day (users of the Old Lanky line from Manchester Victoria to Stalybridge, I have every sympathy with you). The earlier article explains this in greater detail.

Point Three: Greater Manchester is Pacer Central – and this includes the Merseytravel and Northern Spirit/Nexus Tyne and Wear PTE ones – yes, very true, but these are only the Class 142s. The Class 143s are predominant on the Cardiff and Rhondda Valley lines. Class 144s are often seen outside Greater Manchester.

Point Four: the bus seats are uncomfortable: yes, if you are travelling for more than 2 hours. Let us not forget that the first generation Lightweight DMUs and Railbuses had bus style seats in as well.

The Pacer Unit from Hell

Imagine yourself waiting for a train to Northwich. You make the journey every so often to see your aunty in Middlewich and often see a Class 150/1 or Class 150/2 unit as your regular train. Sometimes you may see a Pacer or a Super Sprinter. You sometimes think nothing about the Pacer unit, unless it turns out to be an ex-Merseytravel one.

The nightmare comes true as Class 142 unit 142042 squeals into Platform 11. Oh my giddy Aunt: it is one of Northern’s 16 Merseyfailers. In other words, the Pacer units designed to Merseytravel PTE. These trains from Hell accounted for one fifth of Northern’s Class 142 units (73) in 2004.

The Pros:

Before I wait for some wag to say ‘there aren’t any’ merits of the Merseyfailers, even a rail fanatic like myself sees some good points:

  • Large indicator display – bigger than standard indicators seen on most ex-BR DMUs and EMUs;
  • Internal indicator display facing the direction of passenger;
  • Bright interiors from toilet to bicycle rack.

Among the saving graces of these units are the bright interiors which (before you sit down) make for a cheery ambience (so long you’re not aboard the 1756 to Huddersfield from Manchester Victoria). The internal indicator is a useful addition which should be seen on all modern trains. In fact it would make sense for Northern Rail to add similar equipment to non-Merseyfail Pacer units and its other EMUs and DMUs.

The Cons:

I would put the kettle on before you read this:

  • Large indicator display could use orange LEDs rather than non-illuminated yellow ones for improved night/low light vision;
  • Individual seats which are likely to cause backache after 10 minutes and piles after 20 minutes;
  • Poor seating layout and legroom;
  • 3+2 seating layout and uncomfortable seats unsuitable for high-density loads.

Firstly, the abject discomfort endured by users of such units encourage them to use spare seats for storing luggage. This in part is also down to the lack of overhead luggage racks (before refurbishment, each car had two sets of luggage racks). Plus, it is harder to store light luggage underneath the individual seats (one advantage of the bus seats they replaced).

Back and bottom support is woeful as the backrests are thinly upholstered compared with the bus seats. Cushions have slightly more padding, but again, less comfortable than a bus seat. The plastic case which carries each seat disadvantages passengers 6 feet tall or above, allowing for a knee-crunching journey.

Though there are few quibbles about all seats facing the front exit, my quibbles concern the 3+2 seating layout. A staple of most Pacer units, the original designs were based on five skinny blokes on each row (two on one side of the gangway, three on the other). Three rounded blokes on each side more like (try that on the Merseyfailers). The 3+2 layout also poses problems for passengers being forced to stand up. First Generation DMUs also had handles on the corners of seats to allow this. Perhaps a 2+2 Merseyfailer might be better, though with the seats of the NEXUS Tyne and Wear examples.

Where next?

Personally I would like to see the North West of England shorn of its Pacer units in favour of trains with more robust bodywork. Some defend the Pacer units due to the cab controls being in the right position, in spite of the undulation faced by its drivers (sprung drivers’ seating as seen on road coaches could be a good idea). Though it has been the difference between Greater Manchester losing her railway lines or retaining them, the conurbation has outgrown them. In spite of rail privatisation, patronage in Greater Manchester has risen – possibly at the expense of inadequate bus services (as seen at Stalybridge, Mossley and Greenfield stations).

In the short term, I would like to see Merseytravel PTE’s interior with NEXUS Tyne and Wear seats for my ideal Pacer unit. Or better still, standard profile Richmond or Chapman seats as seen on the Class 143/144 units bodied by Alexander, with Northern Rail’s dark blues and indigos.

Traumatised by the Merseyfailers? Willing to defend the indefensible?

Feel free to comment on the joys of riding a Merseytravel PTE specification Pacer unit. Share your anecdotes and nightmares.

Useful Sources:

S.V., 08 March 2011 (Giving up Pacer units for Lent)

9 thoughts on “Pacers of the Mancunian: The Curse of the Yellow Peril

  1. An excellent article. Pacers are awful and need scrapping immediately! I can hear the wheels screeching as they go round a bend even now!

    One advantage I’ve observed is that the step into them seems lower than other classes, particularly at Deansgate, unless that’s just me?

    Do you think in 30 years time the East Lancs Railway will be having a Heritage Pacer Day?


    1. Hi Rob,

      What a brilliant question. If they did, I can imagine the units being repainted into the BR light blue livery with its mainly orange interior. Plus you will have to find the brown seat moquette with the light to dark blue vertical stripes. Then you will have to reinstate the vestibule doors which were used to allow the carriage of parcels through Red Star (hence retractable longitudinal front seats).

      As for why ELR wouldn’t have a Pacer Weekend in 2041, my reasons would be: i) preserving the Pacers would mean reinstating that awful centre bar at each entrance (buggy unfriendly); ii) maintenance costs (and trouble trying to source Leyland TL11 engines), and iii) the East Lancashire Railway wants to attract visitors, not get rid of them.

      As the railway line from Rawtenstall to Bury closed under BR in its non-heritage guise, it would also be historically incongruous. Even so, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Class 142 Pacer as a static exhibit 30 years from now so long as it’s fully restored in the BR light blue livery, or the superior GMT orange one. Then again, knowing our luck, Pacers might still be in service by 2041!

      Answers regarding the step on 142s: yes, you are right regarding the step. From past experience (using the Manchester Piccadilly – Chester train as my example), the Pacer step is a good 1 – 2 inches lower than the Class 150 and Class 156 DMUs. The Class 153 and Class 155 DMUs steps seem to be at a similar height to the Class 142s. They too were built in Workington using Leyland National body parts.

      Bye for now,

      Stuart (covering ears whilst approaching Miles Platting or Skelton Junction).


  2. Right, here goes!

    These third world trains should be scrapped and not in use today. Fortunately the DDA will get rid of the 142s by 2019, as there is no way they of making them compliant with the Act, unless the whole body is rebuilt….but that is far, far too late.
    However, there is a rumour about that Angel Trains, who own them and lease them to Northern may sell them to Morocco if the price is right. The problem is though where are the replacements going to come from and the cash to build them?
    The 3 x 180s 5 car units, currently on lease to Northern, which operate between Blackpool North and Victoria and Preston and Hazel Grove will shortly be on their way to either East Coast or back to FGW and the 142s on lease from Northern to FGW will be returning north. Imagine swapping travelling in the luxury of a 180 for a couple of 142s, which will probably be the replacement. 2 x 142s do not have as much capacity and the ride quality is like comparing riding on an unsprung bogey, with old pram wheels, to riding in a luxury coach. Well, that is about to happen on those two routes.
    The units with FGW at Exeter are returning north one at a time presently, to Heaton or Newton Heath depots for repainting into base Northern blue and rustproofing (it beats me how you can rustproof filler and fibreglass). They are then travelling back to Exeter to continue in service there, until they are scheduled to return to Northern, shortly, hence the paint being Northern blue.
    Time people in the North had a pop at the Transport Minister and their MPs, as the continued use of these units is unacceptable, a disgrace in this age and dangerous, given their construction and condition. I have said on the previous thread, that any accident involving a head on at speed with one of these units will probably result in fatality. It is a good job it was a 185 that hit the ice pile in Summit Tunnel and not a 142, as there would have been carnage.


    1. Hi Buspilot,

      I think we should start campaigning for ‘real trains’ in the North of England. Perhaps we could force a few MPs and the Transport Minister to board the 0730 from Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria. A few years ago, the then Stalybridge and Hyde MP James Purnell did just that and saw passengers fainting. He too couldn’t get a seat!

      Firstly, they must go due to the structure and step entrance approach and secondly, due to increased passenger numbers in the North of England. (does anybody know how much it costs to charter a Class 142 Merseyfailer for a return journey from Manchester Victoria to London Euston, carrying a number of MPs on board?)

      The problem was, Pacers were developed at a time when local railway lines were losing patronage. What they didn’t foresee was any rise in patronage post-bus deregulation, a figure most marked in the PTE areas. Even now, the train offers a more dependable and (compared with single bus fares in Greater Manchester) a cheaper alternative for commuters even in peak hours. Hence chronic overcrowding, exacerbated by trains designed for lightly-used routes rather than intense commuter runs.

      Another problem: the Conservative government of the day forced the Pacers onto GMPTE and GMC, who wanted the ‘more expensive’ go-anywhere Class 210 DEMUs. Prior to the mid 1990s, Pacer units were less reliable than the first generation DMUs which they replaced (gearbox and Leyland TL11 engine issues).

      Thirdly, the conditions of Northern Rail’s franchise awarded in 2004 was based on zero growth, and no new trains. The next franchise commitment should state suitable clauses for the replacement of all its Pacer units.

      I’m looking forward to Channel Four’s ‘Train Journeys from Hell’ programme to see if Richard Wilson can survive the Pacer Experience. There was reference to him struggling with the ticket machines at Manchester Victoria in the Daily Mirror a week ago, so there’s half a chance that 3 million viewers could see ‘The Joys of Riding a Packed Pacer Unit to Work’ for themselves.

      This clip from the Channel Four website may be of use to you:
      Richard Wilson v. National Rail Enquiries

      Bye for now,



  3. I can’t beleive how many people are saying how
    bad the pacers are!!! Yes they screech round
    bends, are slower than other trains, have old
    basic interior and bouncy ride, but i’ve been
    on the ones on the colne to blackpool line. Yes
    they look old, but they aren’t that bad at
    all. On the colne to blackpool line they have
    made the track smoother so the ride is smooth in
    most places.

    I actually like riding on the pacer’s and love
    the sounds that they make, even if i don’t get
    a table!! I suppose it all depends on your view
    of things. If i was in a wheelchair for example,
    I probably would not like the pacers as I would
    feel different having to use a ramp to get up
    while everyone else can just step on with ease.
    I saw someone with a wheelchair get on ONCE.
    There is even a youtube video where a guard
    refuses to let a disabled passenger get on
    because he refused to put a ramp down for him,
    you can view
    here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxyBU3SM4hk

    There are a lot of different opinions about this

    Also the newer classes such as 150’s and 156’s
    aren’t nessessarily faster than than the 142’s,
    they seem to go at similar speed but with the
    pacers having slower accelaration.

    To me the pacer’s are like old but practical
    and reliable. My mum still has a hoover and tv
    from the 80’s or even earlier, along with other
    technology she still uses.

    Taking the example of the hoover, it is very
    “noisy” (get the reference there?), looks old,
    and still uses old bags.

    Why does my mum still use it? Because it still
    works! The older things are the longer they
    last! It’s true!!! My mum says the hoover may
    not be that deseriable or attractive or “modern”,
    but it does the job (just like the pacer’s),
    and quite well. She says it does a better job
    than her hetty (more commonly the henry hoover)
    at general hoovering, but she says hetty is
    better at getting into tight corners. Speaking
    of which, this hoover my mum has is the old type
    that is not very good at “turning corners”
    (another pacer reference there), unlike the modern
    hoovers you see today.

    Taking the old tv, that maybe unlike the modern
    flat screen wide screen tv’s you see today! And
    yes it does make a big buzzing “noise” with black
    and white dots apperaing on the screen as you turn
    it on!

    The point of what i’m saying is that my mum has
    the same view of the train companies. The older
    stuff may not be as good as the new but usually
    “does the job”. And at the end of the day thats
    all that matters. When the old technology my
    mum has no longer works, then she’ll upgrade,
    but for many years, she will use the older
    more reliable technology as long as it still
    works and does not cost more money to replace
    than buying new technology. If it still works,
    then why spend money replacing it? You may as
    well wait until it’s lifetime is over, then
    replace it with so,ething new, and start the
    cycle again. It makes no sense to scrap something
    that works pefectly fine just because it isn’t as
    new as something else.

    For those still not convinced by my lecture, the
    pacers will probably be taken out of service by
    2020, because they are not disabled friendly
    (there is a step inside the train to get up)
    and that modifying this would be difficult and
    there is a law put in place that by 2020 all
    transport must be disabled friendly (ie easily
    accesible entrance). That will be the right time
    to get rid of the pacers, when they don’t comply
    with regulations or become inadequate to run for
    some reason.

    For those who like pacers and don’t mind the
    bounciness and screeciness ect (i actually like it!)
    then there is a Pacer Preservation Society set
    up so that some pacers will be preserved.) See
    thier website
    here: http://www.pacerpreservationsociety.co.uk/

    Who knows, 50 years later pacer’s from the 80’s
    could be running on preserved lines!

    People will be saying “remember them old clankers
    dat ya used to go ta blackpool om?”. lol!

    Anyway I’ve typed way more than anyone else here
    so i had better stop! If anyones read the whole
    of my lecture then well done to you. Just voicing
    my opinion. I do not work for any rail company
    and i do not have anything to do with the railway
    industry. Thanks.


    1. Hi Steffan,

      Thank you for your eloquent defence of the Pacer units. I’ve found them serviceable enough on journeys up to an hour, if they are the ones with the proper bus style seating. With the Merseytravel PTE style Pacers, unbearable after 10 minutes sat down, better stood up.

      You are right about the speeds of the Class 150s and 156s; they too have a maximum speed of 75 mph like the Pacer units – and similar engines.

      I can relate to the Hoover and television hypothesis myself, particularly with film cameras. Though I like the convenience of digital, a 35mm or medium format 120 film camera can hold their own. Not only on quality but also focusing, which is why I opt for a digital camera with the same manual control as my 1959 Kodak Retinette or an Olympus OM-1.

      Much as I like the flatscreen televisions for their space saving advantages, I would still say a Cathode Ray Tube receiver – with a HD box – probably surpasses the LED/Plasma televisions (though bulky, the pixellation isn’t as obvious).

      I too am familiar with the Pacer Preservation Society. Though they may have won few friends with passengers, I do agree with the need for their preservation. Preserved examples have also proved their worth on the Weardale and Wensleydale preserved lines. Which probably speaks volumes about the Pacers’ operational costs and ease of maintenance compared with more new fangled trains like Transpennine Express’ Siemens Desiro units.

      Bye for now,



  4. The main problem with the Pacers is the horribly unconfortable seating. The bus type was a little better than the individual ones but it is so worn out that the internal supporting structure can be painfully felt through the remains of the upholstery. When did you last come across a service bus with 30 year old seats?

    I have travelled on similar trains in South Wales which have much more comfortable seating and used on shorter journeys. Whilst not ideal they are much more acceptable than those used here.


    1. Hi Paul,

      Agreed on the bus seats to some extent, though legroom (with the bus seated Pacers) is certainly more generous than a lot of contemporary buses. As for the individual seats on the Merseyfailers, well, similar to some of the individual seats on First Greater Manchester’s Volvo B10BLEs and B6BLEs and the T68 trams though without the comfort of the three vehicles. Besides the hard cushions, the tread depth and angle of the backrests make for the worst train seats in any developed country.

      As for the last time I boarded a service bus with 30 year old seats or of a similar age? Once in 2009 on the 22 service from Stockport to Bolton. Aboard a Volvo B10BLE (late of GM Buses North’s Superbus examples), there was one seat which stood out from the rest – a single seat on the front which seemed to have come from a Leyland Olympian – most incongruous compared with the individual plastic backed seats (it might have been the only one they had left from Bolton or Queens Road depot)!

      I’ve yet to have the experience of the South Wales Pacer units, so one is going to have to find an excuse to visit Barry Island.

      Bye for now,



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