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Last modified: 21 November 2017

Pacers and The Art of the Possible

Pacer trains are about as old as me. Built in the 1980s to replace a variety of aging trains in the North of England, the North and its railways were then feared to be in terminal decline. Cheap, small, loud, leaky, unreliable, uncomfortable, trains built on a bus chassis have been workhorses of the North ever since.

Here’s a picture of one I took recently from Salford to Manchester. You can take one in and out of most Northern cities if you want to experience them. But be quick, because in 2018 and 2019 they will be scrapped. Iran got rid of theirs a decade ago.

Pacers have been a rallying call for politicians demanding improvement in public transport in North England for a decade. In a country overly obsessed with postcode lotteries, the idea that people in one part of the country get better services than another, they were an easy target.

If Pacers provided services into London the people of South-East England would riot. And so demanding their replacement was a winnable campaign for Northern politicians. In 2015 the Department for Transport and The Treasury kept protesting but finally allowed their scrappage to be planned. Pacers will soon be replaced with new diesel trains.

This was simultaneously an excellent and a terrible decision. It was a victory for politics, the art of the possible, over evidence-based policy. There was a much better decision in theory, we could have kept the Pacers and bought new trains. Sadly, this choice was not accessible within our political system. Let me explain.

Different fixes

Commuting into the big Northern English cities is, like commuting into London, an unpleasant experience. Debating which is worse will only distract from this blog post, so I won’t. In both cases there are often many more people than seats on trains and trains are sometimes so full that people are left on the platform.

In London this is because services run at capacity. Trains into Waterloo and London Bridge could not be longer and could not run any more frequently than they do today. The same is true at most tube stations. The UK government has invested heavily in providing extra capacity. Crossrail, Thameslink, London Overground, improvements to tube signalling, and much more are all increasing capacity. Digging tunnels, lengthening platforms, and inventing new forms of signalling to pack trains closer together is expensive. But by increasing capacity these investments reduce the cost of providing each journey. Increasingly London’s public transport pays its own operating costs.

Meanwhile the North of England has enjoyed far less investment. Platforms have not been lengthened, signalling has not been upgraded, lines have not been electrified, and tunnels have not been dug. For the most part, this is with good reason. North England’s platforms are long enough, its signalling sufficient, and its existing lines well-placed. With limited investment, investment that we are now making, the North’s trains could simply be made longer.

This difference between North and South becomes most evident during Northern rail strikes, which cause a fraction of the disruption of Southern rail strikes. Trains typically operate at half their usual frequency, every hour instead of every half an hour, but are double their normal length. Capacity is not reduced.

Devolution and the art of the possible

“Why are we replacing pacers instead of adding to them?” is the right question. People are right to ask it and many others. Why are we investing in HS2 when our local rail is so poor? Why are we focused on HS3 when local buses are terrible? Why are Yorkshire businesses backing Heathrow expansion when better links to Manchester would be better value for money? Why is Birmingham bidding for The Commonwealth games when it can’t even collect the bins? These are all great questions.

The answer is that politics is the art of the possible and within the UK’s centralised politics the better choice for the North is not possible. Northern politicians know that without HS2, the money would not be spent on better local rail. Northern politicians know that without HS3, the money would not be available to regulate and improve local buses. Northern politicians know that replacing Pacers was a winnable battle in the media and in Whitehall, but that adding to them was not.

The whole country could see that Pacers were terrible trains. But if the North had less congested railways than the South? Well that would be a new postcode lottery. It wasn't a winnable battle.

Political systems always have a tendency to make poor choices rational in this way. The solution is not to keep moaning that the best choice wasn't taken, but work to fix the system so that better choices are more likely.

I think that we should design our political system to minimise the tendency to make bad choices and in this case I think that means devolution. If the same Northern politicians who campaigned for Pacers to be scrapped were given the money being spent on their replacement, they would add to them and not scrap them. Instead of packed new trains, they would provide their constituents with seats on Pacers.

But within the system we have today it was right for them to push to scrap Pacers, and right for them to back HS2, HS3, Heathrow Expansion, The Commonwealth Games, and the rest. That's why I want our system to change.


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