MINISTERS have dumped a flagship pledge to scrap the district’s hated ‘Pacer’ trains, to the fury of passenger groups.
The decrepit 30-year-old vehicles – widely condemned as “cattle trucks” – were due to finally be replaced as part of a new contract to be introduced on local lines in 2016.
But the department for transport (DfT) has now admitted to the T&A that the Pacers may be “modernised” instead, to keep them running for at least another decade.
Passengers have long protested that Pacers are noisy, cold, uncomfortable, dirty and prone to break down, while lacking modern facilities.
Industry insiders say the U-turn is being considered because new trains may not all be ready for 2020, when the 90 remaining Pacers will fall foul of disability discrimination laws.
Furthermore, it is likely diesel trains will be “cascaded” down to Northern Rail routes after electrification schemes on other lines – schemes with uncertain completion dates.
But the potential move is hugely embarrassing for the Government, after it promised – in a Commons debate earlier this year – that the Pacers would go.
Stephen Hammond, since replaced as rail minister, told MPs: “We expect to ask bidders for the Northern franchise to put forward proposals for the removal of Pacers from the area.”
Moreover, big fare hikes are – controversially - being considered on Northern Rail routes with the justification that passengers will be enjoying better, more comfortable services in the future.
And, to add to the political headache, Chancellor George Osborne has made transforming Northern trains a personal priority, as a vote-winner for next year’s general election.
James Vasey, chairman of the Bradford Rail Users Group, said: “I think passengers will be livid when they hear this.
“Pacers are noisy, uncomfortable, overcrowded and the ride quality is terrible – people get buffeted from pillar to post.
“They would be spending an awful lot of money on making these trains complaint for disabled people, but disabled people still won’t want to use them.”
Brought in as a stop-gap – way back in the mid-1980s – Pacers consist of a bus body mounted on a freight wagon chassis, with a diesel engine slung underneath.
Because they fit so poorly to the track, with slow acceleration and a need to brake early for station stops, delays are all-too common in autumn and winter.
Northern Rail has accepted they need replacing, but warned a new train would cost about six times as much as a Pacer in leasing charges.
The Campaign for Better Transport said it was “ludicrous” to contemplate re-fitting the Pacers – especially when billions were being spent on new trains for the Thameslink and CrossRail routes, in London.
In a statement, a DfT spokesman said: “The Pacer trains have served the railway well, but we recognise that they fall short of many passengers’ expectations.”
However, he added: “We will specifically ask bidders for the franchise how they will replace, or modernise, these trains to give passengers a better experience.”
A three-strong shortlist was announced last week for the new Northern Rail franchise. The winner will be revealed late next year and the contract awarded in February 2016.