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Why the Pacer train contest is symbolic of political failure

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Commentary on the Department for Transport’s competition to transform ageing trains into community spaces.

Churchill won the War, Attlee gave us the welfare state and Thatcher tamed the unions. Now the current government has launched a consultation into how Pacer trains can be turned into community spaces.

For any capital-based readers more acquainted with gold-plated bullet train commuter services – London guys, this is a joke [smiley face emoji] – a Pacer train isn’t exactly on a par with the Flying Scotsman in our national railway heritage. It is literally a bus plonked onto a rail “four-wheel freight-wagon inspired underframe” (yes, I did get that from Wikipedia).

Pacers were built in the early 1980s as a short-term, cut-price solution to a rolling stock shortage. Thirty-four years after their introduction they are still in service, in particular on Northern Rail routes. They have become totemic of the shortcomings of the Northern Powerhouse.

While the south-east gets Crossrail, and a new runway at Heathrow, ministers have been curiously resistant to spending £7bn upgrading the main Liverpool to Hull route, which takes in Manchester and Leeds, into a high-speed service. Journey times between main northern cities remain a joke and the Pacer is the symbol of the chronic underinvestment in northern infrastructure, which the glitzy Northern Powerhouse hype has never overcome.

In addition to the insult to the north of the Department for Transport’s latest brainwave, from a localist perspective, the notion that local areas should enter a competition, presumably judged by civil servants, to ‘win’ a creaking old relic is a trifle offensive, to say the least.

According to the department, Pacers could be transformed into a “community space, a café or even a new village hall after rail minister Andrew Jones announced that a call for ideas will be launched on how the Pacer could be renovated to continue to serve communities”.

And Jake Berry – the Northern Powerhouse minister, no less – said: “Replacing Pacers with a brand-new fleet of trains is not just great news for passengers, it now provides this exciting opportunity for our grassroots community groups across the north to bring people together through this competition.”

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This is not to say there is something intrinsically wrong with reusing a Pacer train. Whether they make an efficient community space might be in doubt (not least when so many areas have empty shops crying out for new uses). However, the DfT’s latest wheeze somehow feels symbolic of the crisis in our political system.

Transport secretary Chris Grayling recently attracted wrath by writing to council chiefs to demand that all signage was in imperial rather than metric measurements. Mr Berry also recently mooted that a new Royal Yacht Britannia should be built to “bring our country back together”.

This is at a time little progress is being made on upgrading northern rail routes and bus use has fallen. And many of the people of the north feel disenfranchised (as Lord Kerslake said today). One might add that a number of car factories appear doomed. And social care is in crisis (but the government can’t muster a green paper to offer solutions). Oh, and by pursing Brexit, as a nation we’re jumping off a cliff. A government which can’t govern is reduced to fiddling while Rome burns.

We are in the early stages of the Conservative party leadership contest. The frontrunner is a prominent former mayor, and the former housing and communities secretary is also taking part, but it doesn’t feel as if localism is going to be a major issue. All too much of the debate so far has been about Brexit, and has been aimed at winning over the key constituency – the Conservative party’s disproportionately old, pro-EU withdrawal membership.

Please someone, offer some new ideas! Politics has diminished – creativity, pragmatism and vision no longer exist at a central level (in both main parties, not just the Tories). And, please, can someone try to slay the centralist mindset which gave rise to the Pacer contest.

In fairness to Pacers, they have staying power: designed in a bygone era and somehow plodding on long after their prime. A bit like centralism.

Nick Golding, editor

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