Rail’s remarkable recent growth means there is no shortage of opportunities to pursue a career on the metals. And while some areas of the industry are struggling to recruit anywhere close to enough apprentices and graduates, there has been no such shortage in the number of people looking to become train drivers.
Last year, ScotRail’s driver recruitment campaign made national headlines when more than 22,000 people applied for 100 driver positions within just a week of the posts being advertised.
Generally speaking, there is no specific level of education or set of qualifications required to become a driver, although applicants do need to pass a series of taxing psychometric and attitude tests, and training programmes vary from operator to operator. However, you must be at least 21 to drive on the national main line network or 18 on the London Underground.
Another requirement, which is now common across all operators, is for all new drivers to hold a European train driver license and certificate to drive on the national network. The licenses, which were introduced in 2010 by the EU, are valid for 10 years and, in theory, qualify drivers in the UK to operate trains in other member states.
Vacancies for trainee driver positions, as demonstrated by ScotRail, are often oversubscribed, but they offer a great route into the industry. Salaries for trainee drivers can be between £20,000 and £30,000, according to the National Careers Service. Qualified drivers could earn as much as £60,000.
Typically it takes between nine and 12 months to become a qualified train driver. Having completed a medical examination, trainees are required to demonstrate an understanding of the rules and regulations, mechanical knowledge, route knowledge and 200 to 300 driving hours, initially this may also include some work on simulators. Trainees also need to complete a Personal Track Safety (PTS) certificate.
Below: Northern Rail’s operations training team manager, Greg Parr, breaks down each stage of Northern’s driver training programme.
Northern Rail is one of the UK’s largest train operating companies, covering a route of over 2,600 km. We have trained over 90 train drivers in the past year across our enormous network and currently employ over 1,440.
At Northern, we look for positive, self-motivated people, whether they are new into the business or changing roles from within. Key qualities we look for are those applicants who are able to follow instructions while at the same time not being afraid to think for themselves and understand the responsibility of being a driver.
For our training team, it’s easy to tell if people are going to do well in the role from an early stage and this all begins in the classroom. Recruits will spend 16 weeks with a driver training manager, mixed with some classroom and some practical field based training but all with a huge emphasis on communication.
The first few weeks are spent on adjusting the trainees to the railway environment, concentrating on the critically important safety aspect of the role. They are then introduced to basic traction knowledge on one of our trains which may one day help them to fix something in order to bring the train home for repairs should they need to, or at least to know the consequences of continuing on their journeys with defective equipment, all the while, learning as they go.
The next few weeks are spent deconstructing the railway, understanding signalling and generally finding out how trains are moved around our network.
Six to 12 weeks into training, this is the bread and butter stage of the course and it is supported by rides in the cabs of ‘real’ trains with experienced drivers and real-life customers on-board. When they return to the classroom in weeks 13 to 15, they can share their experiences with each other, making the next weeks easier to refer back to in their journey.
The final week is spent on a private railway line, demonstrating their newly attained driving skills. After week 16, ongoing training continues: extra traction knowledge and one-to-one practical handling, which takes an additional 230 hours – approximately four months.
The average total time to become a productive driver with Northern is around one year. Although we could be called ‘low tech’, we have an excellent pass rate of around 96 per cent, which is an impressive statistic.