Nodding Along: The ‘Pacer’ Story – Part 1

By the time this issue of The Railway Magazine goes on sale, the first Northern Rail ‘Pacers’ should have been withdrawn, so beginning the ‘end’ for the ‘Nodding Donkeys’. Gary Boyd-Hope, a self-confessed ‘Pacer’ fan, explores the origins and history of this much-maligned type, which began 40 years ago this year.

PACERS’ – arguably one of the most unpopular and derided, yet economically important, items of rolling stock to grace the national network.

For more than 30 years bad press over their ride quality has hovered around them like wasps around an empty pint glass, leading some to nickname them ‘Nodding Donkeys’, and others to use less flattering terms that cannot be printed here in the name of decency.

Over the years, ‘Pacers’ have often been compared to Marmite – you either love ’em or hate ’em. Alas, the comparison is somewhat unfair as a large proportion of the population actually likes Marmite; something which cannot be said of the poor old ‘Pacer’.

LEV1 returned home following a visit to the United States in early 1981, and that summer was sent on test to North Wales. It is pictured running alongside Marine Lake in Rhyl on the North Wales Coast Line on June 27 that year. J D JONES/COLOUR-RAIL

Such is the low opinion of them one wonders how they will be viewed in years to come when their presence on Network Rail lines will be just a memory.

For example, preserved first-generation DMUs are popular on many heritage lines, with some railways even hosting special DMU galas or events geared around them.

On other lines they have become ‘Heritage Diesel Observation Trains’ no less, turning them into an attraction in their own right.

Among the most desired forms of conveyance are the early four-wheeled railbuses from the likes of AC Cars, Wickham and Park Royal, with their central access and commanding views of the track ahead.

Their family lineage to the ‘Pacers’ is inescapable, but one cannot help doubting whether incessant flange squeal, a lack of passenger comfort and a ride quality that can bring on travel sickness will ever result in a similar level of affection being bestowed upon the austere Classes 142-144.

No, the ‘Pacers’ have few redeeming features, and it is unlikely any of their regular users will miss them when they’ve gone.

Yet, in spite of having been built as a low-cost stop-gap measure by a cash-strapped British Rail (BR), the ‘Pacers’, and in particular the Class 142s, have been in service for more than three decades.

That’s some achievement for something that is to all intents and purposes a double-ended bus on rails, and equal if not better than many of the first-generation units they replaced.

Perhaps one day the longevity of the ‘Pacer’ and its role in keeping certain rural services operating is what they will be remembered for, rather than their unfortunate operating characteristics.

Without them, the 1980s may well have seen swathes of the network closed as BR attempted to balance the need for new trains with a cripplingly small budget in a period of recession.

Read more and view more images in the October issue of The RM – on sale now!

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