It’s the small details that matter, says Amtrain’s Sheila McKenna. Having someone on the front desk to greet new learners may not seem so fundamental but it can make a big difference. This has been the training provider’s ethos since it first opened its doors 20 years ago.
Amtrain was established by husband and wife Andy and Sheila McKenna in 1997. Like so many small businesses, it initially operated out of the family home and provided training courses in portable buildings on the site now occupied by Network Rail’s training centre in Walsall.
In 2008, the company moved to new premises off the A38 in Fradley, where it is to this day. Earlier this year, Amtrain acquired a purpose-built training site formerly owned by Balfour Beatty at Hoo Junction in Kent as it looked to expand to meet the industry-wide demand for skills.
‘There’s a shortage of skills within the industry generally,’ said Andy. ‘The training sector has an ageing profile as well. As a company, we’ve done work to redress that, training two young people through apprentice programmes to become trainers and developing the existing staff with a wider range of skills and competencies.’
Double the size
Amtrain, which is a member of the Association of Railway Training Providers (ARTP), offers a diverse mix of training courses, including track inductions and PTS, COSS, lookout/site warden, crane controller, engineering supervisor, the list goes on. It is also one of the last companies to still offer steam crane training.
Amtrain has almost doubled in size from those early years. It now has a team of 12 trainers and has travelled around the world providing its railway training services.
Flexibility is key, says Andy. As well as delivering courses from its own premises – often at very short notice – Amtrain also works with customers to create and deliver training programmes that meet quite specific requirements. The company recently trained all of London Midland’s senior conductor staff to use a new onboard ticketing terminal.
The company tries to respond where it can to the changing demand for skills and ensure its trainers are equipped to deliver the training required.
‘We’re generating the skills that are required to satisfy the market,’ said Andy. ‘We’re finding there’s a big demand for piling courses and MEWP courses because rail electrification has created a demand for those skills.’
Around half of Amtrain’s trainers come from either a further or higher education teaching background. Both Andy and Sheila are from an education background, working at the same college in the West Midlands before setting up Amtrain. Andy, who has had a lifelong interest in railway preservation, said the service provided by Amtrain’s trainers was based on a deep understanding of how people learn.
‘It’s a good mix,’ said Andy. ‘The educational skills in some way are more important than the technical skills.’
Sheila is one of Amtrain’s COSS trainers, but in her previous life she was a sign language interpreter for deaf people. ‘You can make people feel very good about themselves just with little things that you do,’ said Sheila, who described how Amtrain has worked hard over the years to create a comfortable environment for learners. One example is the additional work the team do with learners for whom English isn’t their first language.
Amtrain benefits from having retained a wealth of knowledge within its training team. ‘As a company, we’ve been pretty lucky because staff turnover is very low,’ said Andy. What’s the secret to the company’s high staff retention rates? ‘Because we’re a happy bunch.’
In fact, the business is looking to grow further and add to its training staff in the coming months; it’s a bigger challenge than it sounds because of the general lack of training staff – but not an impossible hurdle to overcome.
The company is also continuing to look at how it can add to its offering. For example, it also provides medicals and alcohol/drugs screening. Amtrain is now looking at how it can support the medical requirements of other industries.
Ten years on from their move to Fradley, Andy and Sheila remain enthusiastic supporters of the industry. For Andy, the job is a fantastic opportunity to explore parts of the network he has revered for years. ‘There’s some fabulous engineering works out there. We can get up close and touch them.’
For Sheila, the training is its own reward. ‘We’re enthusiastic. We love what we’re doing. We’re here for the customers.’