More than 1,200 hopefuls applied to join the industry’s first train driver apprenticeship scheme launched by Virgin Trains.
A cohort of 30 high-calibre candidates were offered interviews following psychometric tests devised by Virgin Trains and the RSSB, with three successful applicants navigating their way through the 16-stage recruitment process.
The year-long trial programme was launched in February in partnership with the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) trade union. It will see apprentices trained in all the aspects of the train driver role and shadow train drivers, but it won’t be confined solely to the driver’s cab.
In addition to English, Maths, ICT and PTS training, the scheme’s pioneers will also shadow station staff and learn about control and command and safety and fleet management to gain an appreciation of how the role fits into the train company’s operations. To further familiarise themselves with the Virgin Group’s mentality and see how another side of the transport business works, the apprentices also visited Virgin Atlantic’s head office in Crawley.
Sam Edwards, a former apprentice from Virgin Trains’ RedTrack graduate programme, has helped to shape the scheme since September 2016 and is now overseeing its delivery alongside Virgin Trains’ head of drivers, Nick Chadwick.
Nick has been credited with creating and managing the first driver apprenticeship programme in the UK and picked up the Rail Manager of the Year gong at the RailStaff Awards in October because of his “visionary leadership” and for fostering a positive culture change throughout the company. He came up with the idea, prompted by the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, to encourage fresh blood to join the train driver profession.
During the days of British Rail, driver training was conducted at regional centres but nowadays it falls to each train or freight operating company – there are, however, plans to launch a National Train Driver Academy in April. Currently the majority of drivers are more than 40 years old.
Patrick McGrath is the human resources director at Virgin Trains West Coast. He said: “We are delighted to be launching the first ever train driver apprenticeship scheme alongside ASLEF. “At Virgin Trains we believe in giving our staff the tools to innovate and it’s great to see that one of our former apprentices has used his skills to truly shake-up the industry. “It’s clear that the appetite for high-quality training in the rail industry is still there and we look forward to inviting the next generation of train drivers to come join us at Virgin Trains.”
ASLEF’s district organiser Kevin Lindsay added: “We welcome this joint initiative and look forward to continuing developing the driver apprenticeship scheme with Virgin West Coast Trains as this is a great opportunity to bring young people into the rail industry and particularly the driving grade.”
The first three apprentices to join the programme are Joe Wilson, 19, from Liverpool; Samantha Jones, 24, from Manchester; and Simon Tyrer, 29, from Preston.
After trying his hand out at a motor vehicle apprenticeship, Joe decided to follow in his father’s footsteps while Simon turned his back on managing a phone shop to pursue a train driving career. Samantha is the only one of the trio with any experience in the rail industry having previously worked onboard trains.
She said: “I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be able to dive straight into this apprenticeship and build on the skills I’ll need as a driver. It’s given me a clear picture of what the role is actually like and everyone has been so supportive along the way.”
Although the apprenticeship scheme has proven successful, as things stand it is not yet known whether the scheme will be renewed.
One lasting legacy of the programme is that it could produce the youngest ever train driver on the national rail network in the post British Rail era. Joe, who is old enough to drive a train on the underground but not mainline routes, will begin the driver training programme with his fellow apprentice graduates in 2018. Should he prove successful, Joe will pick up his train driving licence on his 21st birthday – beating his dad, a fellow train driver, by four months.
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