MINISTERS have dumped a flagship pledge to scrap the North’s hated ‘Pacer’ trains, to the fury of MPs and passengers.
The decrepit 30-year-old vehicles – condemned as “cattle trucks” – were due to be replaced as part of a new contract to be introduced on local lines in 2016.
But the department for transport (DfT) has admitted to The Northern Echo that Pacers may be “modernised” instead, to keep them running for at least another decade.
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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.
The potential move is embarrassing for the Government, after it promised – in a Commons debate earlier this year – that 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.”
The revelation comes after news that most rail fares across the country will rise by 3.5 per cent in January, with some soaring as much as 5.5 per cent - largely to fund better, more comfortable trains.
Labour MPs Iain Wright (Hartlepool) and Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) have led protests that Pacers are noisy, cold, uncomfortable, dirty and prone to break down, while lacking modern facilities.
Mr Wright said: “The Government is letting down the region again. If you travel on a train in the South-East, you get adequate seating, modern facilities and digital displays to show where you’re going.
“Here in the North-East, on the Pacer trains, it’s like being in another country."
Mr McDonald said: “Pacers are way beyond their shelf life and are not fit for purpose. No amount of refurbishment can change that.
"These outdated cattle trucks should be scrapped and replaced with rolling stock fit for the 21st century.”
Brought in as a stop-gap in the mid-1980s Pacers consist of a bus body mounted on a freight wagon chassis.
Northern Rail accepts they need replacing, but warned a new train will cost about six times as much in leasing charges.
The Campaign for Better Transport said it was “ludicrous” to contemplate re-fitting the Pacers – especially when billions are being spent on new trains for the Thameslink and CrossRail routes, in London.
Andrew Allen, its policy analyst, said: “We want to see a firm timetable to see these old trains taken out of service before 2019 and the consultation doesn’t commit to that.”
In a statement, a DfT spokesman said: “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.