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How to Become a Train Driver

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Train Driver

What does a train driver do?

A train driver operates passenger and/or freight trains on the rail network across the UK. They can work on different networks locally and nationally, such as the mainland, the London Underground (tube), and intercity, and may even drive trains to Europe, e.g. the Eurostar. Some drivers may operate trains for specific engineering projects and may specialise in driving certain types, such as diesel, electric, hybrid, steam, etc. Therefore, what train drivers do will depend on where they work and their specialisms.

A train driver’s main aim is to get on-board staff, passengers and cargo to their destinations efficiently, safely and on time. They are responsible for ensuring trains leave and arrive on schedule, passengers are comfortable and safe, and cargo is undamaged during transportation. If there is an emergency, train drivers must also think and act quickly to mitigate harm and damage. Therefore, they have a lot of responsibility. Mistakes can cost many lives, cause severe damage and result in significant financial losses.

Train drivers will carry out many tasks, including checking the train/equipment, communicating with control centres, driving the train and operating controls, making passenger announcements, controlling automatic doors, following track signals, complying with speed and safety instructions, reporting issues to the network, etc. The role may also involve some administrative work, e.g. completing incident records.

A train driver will work and communicate with many people during train journeys, including conductors, on-board staff, signallers, crossing attendants, passengers, customers, control centres, station staff and engineers. They may also liaise with management teams, other drivers, depot workers, rail network workers, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), trainers, instructors, mentors, medical staff, accident investigators, the British Transport Police, the civilian police, and others, etc.

Train drivers typically work for one of the 28 major UK train operators. They can also work for freight companies, engineering firms, private businesses, e.g. chartered trains, and heritage companies. Some roles enable train drivers to work overseas.

Responsibilities

A train driver’s responsibilities will depend on who they work for, the types of trains they operate and their specialisms.

Some examples of common duties can include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Adhering to company safety guidelines at all times.
  • Inspecting the train, controls and equipment before each journey.
  • Ensuring the correct freight has been loaded.
  • Communicating with control centres about the route, weather and any issues.
  • Driving the train along pre-determined routes, e.g. between railways stations or depots.
  • Transporting passengers or freight to specific destinations.
  • Using various controls within the driver’s cabin, such as brakes.
  • Safely stopping at platforms to pick up/drop off passengers or freight.
  • Adhering to track signals on the route.
  • Following any speed and safety instructions.
  • Making announcements to passengers on board.
  • Controlling the train’s automatic doors.
  • Positioning and transferring engines once the shift is over.
  • Having appropriate shift handovers with other train drivers and making them aware of any issues.
  • Taking the appropriate actions in the event of an emergency.
  • Reporting any issues to the rail network, such as delays, faults and other problems.
  • Recording incidents as they arise.

Working hours

A train driver can expect to work 35–40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their specialisms. Some train operators may offer part-time, job-share or flexible jobs, but most jobs are full-time, i.e. four/five shifts a week.

Being a train driver is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours (e.g. early mornings, evenings, weekends and bank holidays) on shift. Freight train drivers will usually have to work nights.

Train drivers travel to rail depots to start their working day and must live within 45 minutes to an hour of their base depot. They will work on the train until they reach the intended destination. Once there, overnight stays may be necessary at the end of a run.

What to expect

Being a train driver is not for the faint-hearted, as there is a lot of responsibility associated with the role. Controlling a fast-moving train and getting hundreds of passengers or cargo safely to their destinations may be daunting for some. However, it is a rewarding and exciting career choice for those with the right personal qualities and competence. Individuals can be incredibly proud of being train drivers.

Train drivers play a pivotal role in ensuring passengers are comfortable and safe during the journey. Some passengers will go to or from leisure trips, work and business. If they have a pleasant journey, it can make for a positive experience and happier customers. Train drivers can go home at the end of their working day knowing their job makes a difference to other people’s lives. They also do their bit for the environment by operating public transport.

It is a good career choice for the more introverted, as train drivers will spend long periods alone. Shift patterns tend to be flexible, so it will suit those who do not want a typical 9–5 job. Also, individuals do not need a degree, so they will not have to be very academic. However, they will usually need some GCSEs.

Boredom will never be a problem for train drivers, as no two days will likely be the same. They will operate trains to numerous destinations meeting different people and seeing new/varied places along the way. They may drive several train types and face tough challenges and operating conditions.

There are many perks to being a train driver. They and their families usually get free or reduced train travel and other bonuses. Their salaries are also very competitive. However, this does reflect the level of responsibility that train drivers have.

Even though being a train driver is rewarding, and there are many positives associated with the role, they may also face challenges, for example:

  • A lot of responsibility – train drivers have lots of responsibility and pressure in their roles. They will operate expensive trains and be responsible for hundreds of passengers and potentially expensive or dangerous cargo. Mistakes are not an option, as they can cost lives, cause environmental damage and result in significant financial losses.
  • Challenging passengers – there can be instances where passengers can get verbally and physically abusive and even threaten the lives of other passengers and train staff. Even though train drivers are secure in the cabin, they will have to make quick decisions in these situations, which can be stressful.
  • Physical and mental demands – being a train driver can be tiring, especially when working unsociable shifts and spending nights away from home. Train cabins can be cramped and noisy places. Drivers will be sat down for long periods, possibly leading to weight gain. They will still need impeccable concentration and to remain focused when operating trains.
  • Training, tests, medicals and competition – individuals will need to complete a lot of training to become train drivers, and they will also need to pass various tests and medicals. There is fierce competition for roles, as the number of applicants significantly outweighs the number of available jobs.
  • Uniform – train drivers may need to wear a uniform.

 

Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable career. There is no doubt that there is a lot of responsibility on train drivers and the role can be physically and mentally demanding. It also takes a lot of training, and competition is fierce. However, there are many positives. The love of travelling and the benefits are why individuals choose to become train drivers.

When considering whether to be a train driver, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a train driver

Some of the personal qualities a train driver requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • An interest in trains and travelling.
  • A positive attitude to safety and willingness to follow the rules.
  • Honest, trustworthy, responsible, disciplined, punctual and conscientious.
  • Good physical fitness, eyesight and hearing.
  • Good hazard perception.
  • Knowledge of public safety and security.
  • Knowledge of trains, routes, signals and emergency procedures.
  • Knowledge of legislation and compliance.
  • Communication skills, both verbal and written.
  • Concentration skills.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Critical-thinking skills.
  • Leadership skills.
  • Customer service skills.
  • Interpersonal skills.
  • Observation skills.
  • Recording skills.
  • Being thorough, accurate and having excellent attention to detail.
  • The ability to concentrate and remain vigilant for long periods.
  • The ability to work well with others in a team and alone using their own initiative.
  • The ability to think and react quickly in difficult situations.
  • The ability to understand, operate and control complex equipment, instruments and systems.
  • The ability to work under pressure, be patient and remain calm in stressful situations.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to give and follow instructions.
  • The ability to cope with multiple demands.
  • The ability to use IT and software packages.

Qualifications

There are many different routes to becoming a train driver. Individuals could apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly to train companies for trainee jobs. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.

Apprenticeship

There is an apprenticeship route to help individuals enter the role, e.g. train driver advanced apprenticeship, which is Level 3 and equivalent to an A Level. Individuals will usually need GCSEs in English and maths, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), or equivalent. They must be over 18 years old to apply and pass the medical.

The advanced apprenticeship is a mixture of theory and practical work experience. It typically takes 12–18 months to complete.

Opportunities are found on Government’s Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Indeed or train company websites.

Applying directly as a trainee

Individuals could apply directly to rail companies for trainee train driver roles. Like the apprenticeship, employers will typically ask for GCSEs in English and maths, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), or equivalent.

The time it takes to become a train driver on a trainee programme will depend on each employer. However, it is usually between one to two years.

Individuals should look at the careers section on the websites of individual train operating companies.

Work experience as a train conductor

Work experience

Individuals do not have to have previous rail experience or qualifications. However, relevant work experience can help individuals become train drivers. They could apply for roles as a train conductor or rail passenger assistant. They could then apply for a trainee train driver position.

There may be volunteer opportunities, e.g. with heritage railway companies, museums and charities, where individuals could gain experience in trains and customer service. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO, Volunteering Matters and Indeed.

Age requirements

Individuals must be over 21 years old to apply for a train driving licence and become train drivers.

Distance requirements

As mentioned, individuals must be within 45 minutes to 1 hour of travel to their chosen depot.

Tests and assessments

Individuals will need to complete various tests as part of the selection process, such as:

  • Online assessments, e.g. Situational Judgement Test and Visual Search Exercise.
  • In-person paper and/or computer-based tests.

 

They will also be required to undertake a psychometric assessment with an ORR-certified psychologist.

Medicals

Individuals must pass a medical to become a train driver, which will also include drug and alcohol screening.

Individuals must have a good level of physical fitness. Train drivers’ eyesight and hearing must also be good, and their colour vision normal.

Criminal records checks

Train drivers must undergo a criminal record check.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

Applying for a train driving licence

Train companies typically apply for licences on behalf of their drivers via the ORR’s train driving licence application system. However, individuals can also apply to the ORR.

Train drivers’ licences are valid for a maximum of 10 years.

Further guidance on licences can be found on the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) website.

Taking training courses

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge.

Some examples of CPD courses that may be useful for train drivers include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Health and safety, e.g. risk assessment, electricity, work-related stress, work-related violence, lone working, work equipment (PUWER), hazardous substances, and DSEAR (if transporting dangerous substances).
  • Customer service skills.
  • Time management.
  • Conflict management.
  • First aid.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • LGBTQ+ awareness.
  • Disability awareness.

 

It may also be worth enrolling on low-cost online short courses to see if a career as a train driver is of interest. That way, if it is not, it will save an individual a lot of time and trouble.

Professional bodies, unions, regulators and associations, such as the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators (CIRO), the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), RMT, ASLEF, the Associated Train Crew Union (ATCU), the Rail Academy and others, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become train drivers and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development and keep their licence.

Training for train drivers is standard. However, there may be additional qualifications and requirements, depending on who an individual works for and their specialisms. It is worth looking at several job advertisements to see what employers will ask for with regard to training. Jobs can be found on websites such as GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and RBD Rail Recruiter. Also, look at individual train operating company websites, which can be found on the Rail Delivery Group.

More relevant training and competence (skills, experience and knowledge) will open up more opportunities. Refresher training is also necessary as it is legally required and allows individuals to keep their licence. It also keeps their knowledge and skills up to date.

Train drive working on heritage railway line

Where do train drivers work?

A train driver will work in and around various trains, but they will predominately be in the cabin. They may also briefly work in depots, stations, yards, sidings, maintenance sheds, offices and maybe outside if there is an emergency.

Train drivers can be employed and work for companies across the UK, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

  • One of the 28 train operators, e.g. National Rail franchisees, independent operators and state-owned operators.
  • Freight rail operating companies.
  • Heritage railway companies.
  • Rail tour operators.
  • Railway engineering, construction and maintenance firms.
  • Railway societies, centres and museums.

 

Overnight stays are usually associated with long-distance train routes.

Train driver with lots of experience

How much do train drivers earn?

The exact salaries for train drivers will depend on the following:

  • The train operating company they work for.
  • The types of trains they drive, e.g. passenger or freight.
  • Their experience.
  • Their location (those in London will earn more).
  • The size of their employer.
  • Their working hours.

 

According to Check-a-Salary (these figures are a guide only):

  • Train drivers, on average, earn a minimum of £30,000 per year.
  • The average train driver’s salary in the UK is £50,520.05 per year.
  • Train drivers, on average, earn a maximum of £124,280 per year.

 

The starter salaries for train drivers are around £20,000–£25,000 (data from various sources). Their earnings should increase with experience.

Train drivers will also receive further benefits, e.g. pension schemes, sick pay, generous annual leave and free or discounted travel.

Train driver specialising in commuter train

Types of train driving roles to specialise in

A train driver can specialise in operating specific train classes and types, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Commuter.
  • Intercity.
  • Metro.
  • High speed, e.g. HS1 Eurostar.
  • Long distance.
  • Overnight/sleeper.
  • Electric.
  • Diesel.
  • Hybrid (electric and fuel).
  • Freight wagons.
  • Intermodal, i.e. moving freight between different transport modes.
  • London Underground.
  • Shunter locomotives.
  • Maintenance/engineering, e.g. on-track machines.
  • Steam, e.g. tourist attractions.

 

They could also specialise in specific areas, such as cargo transportation for freight companies, focus on passenger journeys or work in engineering/maintenance. They could work for a small or large network operator or transport special cargo, such as dangerous goods.

Various train driving roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. All train drivers will need the correct medical and licences. They will need to cope with significant responsibility and remain calm under pressure. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what a company is looking for and the specialist areas a train driver wants to work in. Further qualifications and training are necessary for specialist roles, e.g. operating a train carrying dangerous goods, such as fuel or chemicals.

Train drivers incompetently carrying out their roles may make mistakes, which can have serious consequences. It can result in passengers being injured or killed, damage to cargo and significant financial losses if the train is beyond repair. It can also mean uncomfortable journeys or delays, leading to unhappy passengers and customer complaints. Therefore, whatever the type of role, train drivers must have the necessary competence to carry out their jobs professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise and not doing any tasks in which they are untrained.

Train driver after learning guidelines

Professional bodies

Guidelines, laws, trains, systems, controls, equipment and technologies are regularly changing. Therefore, train drivers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to carry out their roles effectively, safely and correctly. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives train drivers the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes, understand their responsibilities, be legally compliant and progress in their careers.

Joining a professional body, union or association (as mentioned previously) can help individuals enhance their skills and overall career. They may offer different levels of membership, CPD, support, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression for train drivers. With more qualifications, experience and training, individuals can work on passenger, freight or engineering trains. They could move from short journeys to longer distances or overnight, meaning operating larger trains. Alternatively, they may become driver training instructors or move into operations management, team leading or supervisory roles.

Knowledge, skills and experience from being a train driver can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they may want to move into an enforcement role and become an ORR inspector or specialise in accident investigations. They may also want to work on rail infrastructure projects.

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