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More franchise delays as Pacer talks and electrification overruns drag on

The government has confirmed via the Autumn Statement that the Invitations to Tender (ITTs) for the new Northern and TransPennine franchises will be delayed into next year.

There are uncertainties at the DfT about how to handle the current TPE franchise extension, while the delays in Network Rail's infrastructure and electrification upgrades in the region, plus the negotiations over the Pacer replacement, have all made the franchise specification more complex.

The Autumn Statement says: “The government will publish the ITTs for the Northern and TransPennine rail franchises in early 2015 [not December 2014 as in the franchise schedule], and will specify a substantial package of upgrades including new services and modern trains in order to phase out the outdated Pacer trains.”

Another paragraph of the Autumn Statement refers only to “encouraging” bidders to replace the Pacers, however, and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin, when this was pointed out to him in Parliament yesterday, said nothing to offer a firm commitment.  

It had long been assumed that the Pacers, originally a stopgap solution and never intended to serve the sorts of commuter routes they do today, would have to be replaced because of the difficulties and costs of getting them compliant with modern disability access rules.

The DfT said earlier this year it expected that replacing the Pacers would be a condition of the new Northern and TransPennine franchises – but then appeared to go back on that in August when it said franchisees could look at ‘modernising’ them instead.

Porterbrook has had a plan in place for how to upgrade its own Class 143/144 Pacers, which it showed to DfT officials in more detail recently, though Angel Trains has not made public any such plans if it has them.

Northern Rail service credit Alvey and Towers

Porterbrook says: “The expected modifications are: Seat back handles – New design required with wider grip; Priority seats – some fitted at refurbishing but more required; Second wheelchair space required (both spaces to be near toilet); Call for aid buttons to be fitted in toilet and wheelchair spaces; Door sounders – required in all external door control panels; Universal Toilet to be fitted (assuming service requires the facility); Passenger Information System to be fitted.

“It is an obvious concern that providing these facilities would result in an unacceptable loss of seating however an innovative proposal has been made to optimise the interior layout for the new facilities. It is proposed to fit a new gangway which will be suitable for wheelchair use, opening out the inner-end of the vehicle and providing a common circulating area between the two doors. This arrangement means the toilet can remain in the same place with wheelchair spaces in the adjacent vehicle and exterior doors accessible on both sides.”

Speaking at RTM’s High Speed 2 The Northern Hub Dinner last month, Northern Rail boss Alex Hynes said: “Pacers were launched by British Rail for a particular purpose and they have had a good life, but we probably shouldn’t be using them for peak commuting into Leeds and Manchester. They’ve got to go.”

Alex Hynes crop

Pacers also remain in service on some First Great Western and Arriva Trains Wales routes.

Osborne’s announcement has been welcomed by campaigners and politicians in the north.

However, the delays and unanticipated problems in Network Rail’s electrification programmes are causing concerns at the DfT and the Treasury, and the issue was raised this week before the Transport Select Committee.

MPs heard that the prospect of freight electrification in CP6 is beginning to look distant because of the electrification overruns in CP5.

Maggie Simpson, executive director at the Rail Freight Group, told the committee: “We are already seeing talk of over-runs on the existing schemes that are underway and funded today. So the prospect of rail freight electrification in CP6 is beginning to look a little more distant as we see schemes delayed in CP5. So, where we thought there might be opportunities in the next five-year period, I’m not so sure that we are consciously aware that they will happen.”

Both the Great Western Main Line electrification project and the £160m electrification of the Manchester-Liverpool route via Eccles and Newton-le-Willows have suffered delays, cost inflation and teething troubles with plant and equipment in recent months. It was confirmed this summer that the costs of TransPennine electrification remain unknown.

Asked for clarification on her comments by RTM, Simpson told us: “Generally if funded schemes are slipping into CP6, the ability to do any new ones must be reduced. For us, Electric Spine elements are already slipped, I do not know where Midland Main Line electrification is up to but the capacity works at Leicester – which are critical to F2N [Felixstowe to Nuneaton] – appear to have slipped into CP6. Interim solutions are being sought to deliver partial benefits, but it's unclear yet what the outputs are.”

(Image, top, copyright Matt Buck, Creative Commons. Shows FTPE Class 185 'Desiro/Pennine' DMU 185123 at Cleethorpes; alongside is Northern Rail Class 144 'Pacer' DMU 144006)


John   05/12/2014 at 13:38

The Pacers just have to go. The Franchisees should not be allowed to wriggle out of their commitments to Customer service. These awful trains were dreadful when they were new and they are now totally unacceptable anywhere on the modern Railway Network.

Kevj   05/12/2014 at 15:51

Breweries and P*** *** spring to mind when reading this about Pacers and most of the other old rolling stock on Northerns Franchise ...including the no doubt cheap refurb of the old castoff EMU 319s from First Capitol Connect !!!...take your pick who to blame ...I'd put my money on the idea about anything beyond Watford!!

Lutz   05/12/2014 at 18:07

Perhaps it is time to look at taking the management of the large electrification schemes away from NR and putting them into the hands of a more capable organisation that can demonstrate a history of delivering complex infrastructure programs on time and to budget. This would allow NR to concentrate on it's other tasks such as providing a reliable platform for existing rail services.

Mikeyb   06/12/2014 at 20:50

As Network Rail is the owner of the infrastructure currently being electrified and will therefore be responsible for the maintenance of the OHL equipment being installed, they must continue to manage the projects and to monitor the work being carried out by the private-sector contractors. It would therefore be wrong to suggest that they should not have any control over the projects - unless of course, firms like Balfour Beatty become owners of the electrification masts and overhead lines, which they then continue to maintain into the future. With regard to the Pacers, they definitely have to go, together with the awful Class 150s, but what are they replaced by?

Rodger Bradley   02/01/2015 at 18:27

These are 30 years old Leyland National bus bodies on a simple underframe and drive train. I assume this s what passes for investment by the TOC's. The only way for the leasing companies to "upgrade" these life expired units - since they must have recovered there "investment costs" by now - is to provide new. Years and years of under-investment since they were absorbed by the ROSCO's is simply to do the decent thing - invest in new rolling stock, and provide a better service.

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