Blackpool rail users look set to have to put up with the obsolete 142 Pacer trains for longer than promised.
Operator Northern has admitted the much-criticised 1980s rail buses will have to be used on Fylde coast lines throughout this year.
The aged diesels are used throughout the county, particularly on the Blackpool South to Preston line, between Blackpool North and Manchester Piccadilly and Oxford Road, between Preston and Colne or Ormskirk, between Lancaster and Morecambe, and between Morecambe and Leeds
They are due to be replaced by refurbished diesel and electric trains, plus new vehicles being built in Spain.
That was supposed to have started before the end of 2018 but, so far, none have been retired, although Northern this week said it aims to phase them out by the end of 2019.
It said the delay is down to the ongoing delays hitting electrification work between Manchester and Bolton, which has meant trains used there cannot be redeployed elsewhere.
The news led to dismay among passenger groups already unhappy with this week’s rail fares rise and fall out from last year’s time-tabling chaos.
Stephen Brookes, a rail champion for disabled passengers, said: “The whole system seems to be in complete delay. This is another unfortunate failure.
“The Pacer trains are totally unsuitable. The phasing out was supposed to have begun and it is disappointing.
“This is more of the blame game.”
He said the Pacer trains were uncomfortable and impossible for disabled people to use.
Paul Nettleton, from the Blackpool and Fylde Rail Users Association, said the delay was due to a cascade effect.
He said: “It is disappointing but I suppose we have just got to be patient.
“A lot of the trains area coming from north of the Border and other places and if they don’t get their replacement stock then they cannot release the trains for our lines.
“I know a lot of people don’t like the Pacers. They are basically a bus on a wagon chassis and not a comfortable ride, but they have lasted a long time in service and probably were responsible for saving a lot of branch line services over the years.”
A spokesman for Northern said: “The delays to infrastructure improvements including Manchester-Bolton electrification meant that the May 2018 timetable was re-written in 16 weeks rather than 40 weeks, and one ongoing consequence of the delays to electrification is that we can’t yet use electric trains on Manchester-Bolton.
“This means the diesel trains that continue to operate on that route have yet to be redeployed elsewhere on our network.
“As a result, we need to continue to operate the Pacers and we are still working on the phasing of their retirement.
“Northern operates around 100 Pacers which are used across many of our routes each day.
“We still aim to retire all Pacers by the end of 2019.
“We are investing £500m in new trains for use across the network during 2019 - and we are refurbishing the rest of our fleet to improve our customers’ journeys across the region.”
The new Spanish-made trains due in the north west are currently being tested.
A 195 (the diesel version) six-car set was tested on the Liverpool to Blackpool North line this week and are likely to be used on the Blackpool to Leeds service.
The 331 four-car electric sets look set to be used on the Blackpool North to Manchester Airport run.
Anger over rail fare rises continues
Blackpool South’s Labour MP Gordon Marsden has criticised the Government over this week’s 3.1 per cent fares rise.
He said it means a weekly ticket to Manchester now costs £85.60 – an increase of 3.1 per cent on last year’s fares, while weekly tickets to Preston from Blackpool North have also risen to £36.70 – a rise of also 3.1 per cent.
He said that, under the Tories, Blackpool commuters have seen their peak fares and season tickets rise by 36 per cent since 2010.
He said: “These latest fare increases from Northern and the Government are completely unjustifiable.
“It’s an insult to commuters to and from Blackpool, who have had to experience a shambolic and second rate service throughout 2018.
“Chris Grayling and the Tories have sat idly by and not held Northern to account for their failings.
“They also continue to rip off passengers by raising fares in line with the RPI measure of inflation, which over-estimates real inflation, and which has been condemned by independent statistical authorities.”
Mr Marsden said he was pressing Northern for answers on whether the rail replacement buses scheduled during the closure of the Blackpool to Preston line in January and February will be accessible for disabled people.
He added: “We have a lot of elderly or people with mobility issues travelling to and from Blackpool.
“That’s why I have written to Northern asking for cast-iron guarantees from them that all their replacement buses will be assessible for everyone to use.
“I had first-hand experience myself at using the replacement buses services last year. Blackpool Transport did an excellent job with supplying as many of their disability-compliant buses as they could during the long period of disruptions.
“However, it was not always the case for the other coach companies Northern brought in.
“If Northern fail to give me assurances I want, I will have no hesitation in raising their failure on this in Parliament.”
New rail cards welcomed
Blackpool North Conservative MP and former rail minister Paul Maynard welcomed the move to bring in a rail card for 16 and 17-year-olds.
The Government’s announcement came in the same week a new rail card for 26 to 30-year-olds was trumpeted.
The teenagers’ card will be introduced in September ready for the start of the new term, it was said.
Mr Maynard said: “This is an initiative I promoted as rail minister and I welcome the launch of these cards.
“It is important rail travel is affordable and accessible to a broad range of individuals.
“These new rail cards will ensure more people than ever before have access to lower fares. They will be particularly useful for sixth form students, helping with their travel costs.
“Now we need to ensure we have a reliable seven-day service in the north west so passengers can take advantage.”