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Lockdown on railway training

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While lockdown was in place, no one could travel and face-to-face meetings were barred, railway training companies suddenly had no work to do.

With no immediate work, and unsure when normality would return, rail training organisations, typically small, privately-owned companies, had a real challenge to face. One of those was Midlands-based Amtrain…

The Covid-19 epidemic has affected a huge number of people in a number of ways. Tragically, many of those have been in the worst way.

But workers have also been furloughed, asked to work from home, and even been made redundant. Students and schoolchildren have been sent home, home schooled or, in some cases, ignored. Shops and restaurants have been closed, as have tourist attractions. Public transport has been severely curtailed.

The rail training industry was amongst those badly hit. People couldn’t travel, and weren’t allowed to gather, so were unable to attend courses. Although training by Zoom was considered, how do you train people to fix detonators, experience the sheer noise and bulk of a train passing just two metres away, and learn to watch behind you at all times, on Zoom?

A good example

Typical of the companies affected is Amtrain. A family-owned and run company, it operates out of premises at Fradley, between Lichfield and Burton-on-Trent in the Midlands, with a satellite operation at Hoo Junction in North Kent.

Duncan McKenna has been one of the trainers at Amtrain since 2014. He explained that, in the early days of the epidemic, the company’s staff was put to work on a number of jobs that needed doing. As well as simple things like painting the premises, the short length of track outside the building that was used for training was extended.

The eight-metre length of plain track, and a separate set of points, was turned into a 40-metre length with the points integrated. A level-crossing half-barrier has been installed.

“We wanted lockdown to actually give us some benefit for the future,” Duncan explained. “The new track layout will help us with our track induction courses, and we can now have installed a level crossing on site.”

Of course, even 40 metres of track won’t give trainees the experience of being around moving trains – Amtrain uses sidings at Lichfield Trent Valley for that. However, it will allow students to change rails, change sleepers and hand-tamp ballast in a completely safe and controlled environment.

The site at Hoo Junction, incidentally, has a 100-metre-long pair of tracks as well as a RRAP (road-rail access point) and switches, so Amtrain can offer track induction courses there too. Both venues have a suite of five training rooms.

Two events then hit the company hard. The make-work tidying up and rework of the training track came to an end, and Network Rail extended all its track workers’ competencies, so no training was required apart from for new starters, of which there were very few.

Amtrain therefore furloughed all 14 of its staff, apart from the managing director.

However, the trainers didn’t just sit at home and prune their roses. Most of them went back on track, refreshing their knowledge, regaining their experience of life on the ‘real’ railway. Once again, lockdown would prove useful in the long term.

Return to work

A couple of months later, as demand started to pick up, the trainers began to come back from furlough. Training was now allowed, but with restrictions. It had to be face-to-face, training by Zoom wasn’t allowed, and so, obviously, social distancing had to be observed. Training rooms that could seat 10 were now only used for five. Extra cleaning took place before and after sessions. There was a one-way system around both sites – Hoo Junction had reopened as well – and everyone was given the opinion to wear gloves and masks.

Then there were the little things. Instead of everyone signing the register, they each now had their own. And their own pen.

Amtrain introduced another new product – Covid19 testing. It purchased the kit, its staff had the necessary training, and it can now test its own staff, its trainees and even third-party workers, with results available in fifteen minutes.

Duncan explained that it needs one drop of blood, which is then transferred onto a glass slide. He has become adept at keeping his arms straight and as much distance between himself and the ‘patient’ (or victim!) as possible, while taking the sample. But it gives both staff and trainees reassurance, and it is another service that Amtrain can offer to its customers.

With Network Rail continuing to extend staff competencies, primarily to keep its workforce intact as having them retrained and recertified could be a problem right now, the demand for retraining is still slow. New starters still need PTS (personal track safety) cards, and workers still need upskilling, giving them qualifications they didn’t have before – the level crossing is coming in useful for this. However, Duncan feels it will be some time before things are back to normal.

There may be a sudden surge when Network Rail stops extending certifications – at some stage there may be the double whammy of extended certificates running out at the same time as un-extended ones, but that’s in the future.

For now, Duncan and his colleagues can only train those that need it, keep things moving, and hope normality returns soon. But will it?