Northern Class 331s

To most rail passengers in the north of England, the word ‘Pacer’ is synonymous with a long, uncomfortable and noisy journey on one of Britain’s most infamous trains. The Class 142s and 144s, more commonly known as ‘Pacers’ were built in the 1980s to serve as a short-term solution to the rolling stock shortage with a planned lifespan of 20 years, however many are still in use across the north, southwest and Wales.

2019 is a momentous year in the history of UK rolling stock. In May the last High Speed Trains (HSTs) departed Paddington to be replaced, along with their East Coast counterparts, with Hitachi Class 800/801/802s. LNER have started to introduce the class 800s on their services with the 1st August marking the first time it’s named train, ‘The Flying Scotsman’ was operated by an ‘Azuma’. Elsewhere, Trans Pennine Express are awaiting the introduction of three new types of train, whilst Northern are starting to replace and retire the train that can be described as the ‘Marmite’ of the railways.

A Class 144 ‘Pacer’

Northern began to introduce the first of 101 CAF Civity trains in July 2019 with diesel class 195s entering service on routes from Manchester Airport and electric class 331s operating between Leeds and Doncaster. All in all, Northern are due to receive 58 class 195s and 43 class 331s to operate across their network which will provide more reliable and comfortable rides for thousands of passengers each day.

Whilst on most Northern routes these new trains will not directly replace the Pacers, they will allow the cascade of other trains onto routes currently operated by Pacers. Along with the age of the Pacers and their associated comfort issues, all but one fail to meet the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations and therefore must be removed from service by the end of 2020.

A Class 331 at Doncaster

On a recent trip to Leeds (which you can read about here), I took the opportunity to try on of the new trains and jumped on board Northern’s 1421 service from Leeds to Doncaster. The first thing I noticed upon boarding the train was how open and spacious the carriages were with plenty of table and ‘airline style’ seats available as well as wheelchair and bicycle spaces and an accessible toilet. Each pair of seats share a power socket and Wi-Fi is available throughout the train.

Each carriage has six passenger information displays (three facing each direction) which show service information including the destination, the next stop and which side the platform will be at that stop. The displays also show the carriage letter along with the date time and outside temperature. There also appears to be seat reservation capability on these trains, however this was not in operation on the commuter route I was travelling on.

The interior of a class 331

Whilst the technology and amenities will greatly improve passenger comfort and satisfaction, the most understated but important improvements are the ride quality and level access. Pacers, with their bus body shells, had no hope of being accessible even with platform ramps, however the new class 331s allow direct level access in some locations with an on-board ramp deployed by the guard allowing access in others. In terms of ride quality, the new class 331s are generally very smooth and thankfully don’t have the squealing brakes of the Pacers.

Despite departing 2 minutes late and being caught by a red signal outside Leeds, the acceleration of the Class 331 allowed us to make most of the time back with our arrival into Doncaster being only slightly delayed. All in all I think the new Class 331s (and their almost identical cousins, the class 195) are a massive improvement on the Pacers in terms of accessibility, amenities and passenger comfort. I’m sure Pacer users throughout the north are looking forward to new trains arriving on their routes.

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