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The Train Drivers Academy

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In the months up until 2021, around 7,000 new vehicles are set to be introduced by train companies across the country. Drivers will swap some of the oldest rolling stock on the network for some of the most state- of-the-art in the world as a result of the country’s current multi-billion-pound train-building boom. 

The good news doesn’t end there either. While sitting in the cab of brand-new trains may be a big draw for some drivers, others will be more interested in another major project the industry has quietly been getting on with: the Train Drivers Academy.


The academy was announced by the Department for Transport (DfT) and devised, launched and funded by industry in April last year to further professionalise the train driver’s occupation through improvements to training and recruitment. Taken forward by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and train operators, the project has gradually gained traction and in April a free-standing organisation with its own identity will emerge.

“The idea of the academy is to increase the amount of trainee drivers in the industry,” explained Phil Barrett, RDG’s rail modernisation team leader, who heads up the project. “Drivers are a critical resource for the industry and the aim is to increase the bandwidth for training drivers and to have enough trainees going through the system.

“We are also planning to improve the quality of driver training by working together and we very much want to improve diversity because there aren’t enough female drivers.”

The details

Each year 100s will graduate from the Train Drivers Academy but none will ever pass through its doors as the academy only exists online. Operators will still undertake the training themselves but it will be standardised, drawing on existing industry training resources, best practice and the promotion of innovative training techniques.

Training will focus on two core elements.

  • Part A: a complete set of basic training documents, modules, methods and media, developed by RSSB, that explore the rules and theory and allow trainees to gain their formal certification. This standard package will be hosted on an online learning management system that has been procured from Net Dimensions; 
  • Part B: the necessary driving hours, traction, route and company-specific training to become a qualified train driver.

Part A and B can take 32 weeks to complete but is often longer depending on the complexity and size of the trains and routes to be familiarised.

In addition, a newly developed level 3 train driver apprenticeship standard has been incorporated into the academy, a standard which combines parts A and B with the addition of wider English language, maths, IT and communication skills.

By pooling resources to standardise the process, operators will benefit from economies of scale. Training will now be developed once for the industry, rather than separately by each operator.

East Midlands pioneers

Kirsty Derry, East Midlands Trains’ human resources director, who is also chair of the Train Drivers Academy, welcomed rail minister Andrew Jones to Derby in November, to introduce him to a special cohort of nine new apprentice drivers. The group – one of whom was previously a window blind fitter – was chosen from 2,500 applicants to join the first trial for the level 3 train driver apprenticeship standard. Further trials on the standard are also now underway with Northern and VolkerRail.

Kirsty said: “Train drivers are key to delivering great customer service, and with the industry’s exciting investment in technology it was clear that there was a skills and capability gap developing across the entire sector.”

Applicable to passenger, freight and depot train drivers as well as on-track machine operators, the level 3 apprenticeship standard replaces the level 2 rail services framework which, according to East Midlands Trains, no longer meets the level of competence required for a train driver. Developments in security, digital technology and new traction and rolling stock as well as the need for drivers to react and make decisions unsupervised have changed the required skillset.

This new apprenticeship level has also been designed to support the industry’s commitment to growing its skills base by providing trainees with formal certification, and to further professionalise the train driver role by setting industry- recognised standards.

Rail minister Andrew Jones (L).
Rail minister Andrew Jones (L).

A workforce that reflects its passengers

Recruitment is a key branch of the academy’s work to help diversify the workforce because, as Phil explained, it is a largely male-dominated and aging one.

Academy members Southeastern and East Midlands Trains have recently announced their efforts to encourage more women to become train drivers by introducing such practices as anonymous candidate screening and advertising campaigns targeting women. Southeastern, which launched its campaign in November, is aiming for 40 per cent of applicants for its train driver roles to be from women by 2021. Currently women only make up 4.5 per cent of its driver workforce. East Midlands Trains has only recently launched its campaign, but has already seen the number of female driver applicants double.

“Although we attract a lot of people to become train drivers, it doesn’t appeal to everybody. The aim is to have a website to improve the attraction across the board,” said Phil, explaining how the Train Drivers Academy’s website will support this drive.

Smarter working

Phil has worked with passenger operators over the last year to make the Train Drivers Academy a reality. All of them are now on-board and Phil is excited about the future possibilities – plans are in place to include all freight operators too – to help make the next generation workforce of train drivers more diverse, sustainable and skilled.

He said: “There is a momentum and enthusiasm to actually deliver the academy. We’ve moved from what was an idea to starting delivery very quickly.

“The industry is training between 800 and 1,000 drivers a year so there is a fair amount of throughput. What it hasn’t been so good at doing is dealing with the big lumps. By pooling in all of the training resources from across the country we can be the most effective in the way we deliver training. It’s just being smarter as an industry.”