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Rail Industry

Rail Industry

Like many youngsters, you may have dreamed of becoming a train driver – that’s still a possibility, of course, but the modern rail industry offers so much more scope than that, with jobs covering a huge range of areas, from signaller to site manager, engineer to HR officer. Does rail offer the role you’ve been looking for?

What’s involved?

In these days of climate crisis awareness rail offers a recognised environmentally friendly way to transport people and freight around the country. Within the sector, many different career opportunities are available, fuelled by the fast growth of the industry, which has created demand for enthusiastic people with new ideas to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

UK train operating companies (TOCs for short), like Abellio, Arriva and Virgin, run the national rail network. They are responsible for the UK’s passenger train services, and look to recruit people who can look after their customers at stations or on their trains. They are also seeking people to drive their high-speed or metro trains, and technicians to look after the complex equipment involved every day.

Network Rail is the national organisation that looks after the rail track and signals; it needs people who understand how to make a complex system work efficiently. Many other organisations supply goods and services – such as caterers, consultants and contractors. Designing and building trains is an international industry, with multinational companies using their worldwide experience. There are also rail-related public-sector jobs working for government departments or agencies.

The structure of Britain’s rail industry has featured in the news a great deal over the past few years, specifically with regard to the controversial planned HS2 high-speed rail link. This is just part of the radical overhaul of the UK rail system to which the government has pledged investment, aiming to achieve greater efficiency, reduced congestion, environmental benefits and lower fares. Such an approach is sure to have a fundamental effect on the sector, increasing the range of job opportunities for those wishing to take up a new career in this thriving industry.

Skill up while serving

Rail is an excellent transport resource for heavy and bulk items. Many military movements use rail transport, large supply depots will often include loading and unloading facilities, and the use of troop and medical evacuation trains is quite normal. Indeed, establishing a railhead, as well as a port and airhead, is an early priority in any expeditionary operation, to enable bulk shipment of manpower and material.

If you’re considering a career in the rail industry, the following general skills will boost your chances:

  • people skills – customer care and team working
  • technical skills – IT and engineering skills for some roles
  • commercial skills – an understanding of the marketplace and the ability to optimise resources.

Get qualified!

The variety of different jobs in the rail transport sector means that there are several different routes into it. At entry level, good maths, English and IT skills are in demand, while, for more senior roles, technical, engineering and business-related qualifications are sought after, along with soft skills like those highlighted above, in the ‘Skill up while serving’ section.

Network Rail runs training courses for employees, in areas like maintenance and signalling. It offers a range of programmes that are accredited by universities, colleges or professional bodies, providing job-related training at all levels, including:

  • National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs)
  • Higher National Certificates (HNCs)
  • Higher National Diplomas (HNDs)
  • professional diplomas
  • bachelor’s degrees
  • master’s degrees.

There are various different qualifications available that can help you make yourself more attractive to employers in the first instance. And, don’t forget, you can use your ELC for rail-related qualifications at level 3 and above.

The National Skills Academy for Rail (NSAR) (see ‘Useful info’) supports professional development and training throughout the UK. This includes Network Rail, the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure, private providers, specialist centres (e.g. the National Training Academy for Rail, NTAR), and strategic-partner FE colleges and universities. The NSAR ensures there is access to quality professional development and training throughout the UK.

The following qualifications are also considered very complementary to a variety of rail-connected careers:

  • Association for Project Management training, for aspiring rail-related project managers
  • CSCS Certification – many rail projects require construction workers to hold a valid CSCS (Construction Skills Certification Scheme) card, which proves they are competent at carrying out specific tasks
  • IRSE (Institution of Railway Signal Engineers) Accredited Technician, for those wishing to work specifically in signalling.

In addition, registration as a Chartered Engineer (CEng) is recommended for technical rail professionals.



You may be used to a field-based environment working with big kit in all weathers. Or you may have been desk based, involved in planning and analysis, strategic design, systems or electrical engineering. Dependent on your skills and experience, you may be suited to one of our engineering functions:

  • maintenance
  • asset information
  • track
  • buildings and civils
  • construction
  • signalling, power and communication.

Just like the Forces, we rely on a number of support functions. If you don’t feel engineering is for you, we have plenty of other areas that you may be better suited to, such as:

  • commercial management
  • finance
  • HR
  • legal
  • project management.

Join us and we’ll give you every opportunity to develop a highly rewarding and long-term career, offering training and development that will make the most of your potential.

Source: Network Rail

Use your ELC

Under the ELC scheme, a wide range of learning can be taken, provided it is offered by an approved provider listed on the ELC website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to our in-depth features elsewhere on our website. 

Finding employment

Despite the recessionary gloom lingering in some sectors, the future for railways remains remarkably bright. Both passenger and freight transportation demand remains high and is predicted to continue to grow, as road gridlock becomes ever more common and fuel prices increase. As noted above, new and improved railway lines are planned for the near future, so it seems that rail travel is definitely here to stay.

Network Rail is also keen to recruit ex-Forces personnel, recognising the cross-over between the two careers: ‘The skills and experience you’ll have picked up in the Forces are easily transferable to the kind of work we do here. The big connection is safety. You’ll know that keeping yourself and your colleagues safe is top priority in the Forces. And it is for us too. After all, millions of people depend on us every day to get them to their destination, safely.’ Good news if your plan is to pursue a rail-related career!


For detailed information about the kinds of career opportunities offered by the rail industry, click here

The aforementioned developments planned for the UK rail sector add up to a growing demand for new staff on the railways, although the industry already has recruitment problems at all levels, particularly in specialist engineering positions, so if that’s your specialism you could find yourself very much in demand. One significant development has been the requirement placed on Network Rail’s contractors to employ more staff direct and rely less on agencies, in an attempt to improve standards in the quality of new build, with the in-house management of maintenance also calling for new staff. Indeed, Network Rail has announced that it is in the process of creating more skilled engineering jobs to help deliver some of Britain’s most vital rail infrastructure projects.

As you might expect, there is a lot of competition for train driver positions, with many TOCs actively seeking to recruit drivers. The job has come a long way from the schoolboy dream, with today’s driver having a critical safety role, and needing to undergo a rigorous aptitude test and training programme. Qualifications are less important than the ability to think clearly and concentrate, and rewards reflect the importance of the person in the cab, who can attract a salary of £55,000–£60,000 (source:

TOCs are also finding it difficult to recruit customer service staff to work at stations and on trains. These positions need few formal qualifications, but they do require an ability to deal with the travelling public. Network Rail has a significant shortage of signallers, too, and is seeking new recruits. As with driving, the job of regulating train movements demands attention to detail rather than a long list of qualifications. 

Infrastructure maintenance organisations employ a small core staff, and there are vacancies for workers to maintain the track and signalling structures. Skill levels vary from technical staff with engineering experience and qualifications, to gangs of track maintainers who need physical strength and can work in all weathers. Many specialist agencies work under contract to supply such people. This can provide flexible work, good rates of pay and a useful entry into the industry.

There are also management and engineering opportunities. Rail is very much a people business, with many staff and even more passengers, and there is significant demand for experienced customer service managers. It is also a business that relies on getting the most out of limited physical resources, so those with a logistics background are in demand. Academic qualifications and practical experience help to secure the better-paid management positions, but the most serious skill shortage remains in the engineering functions, which is why, as noted above, Network Rail has announced the creation of the more skilled engineering jobs; this is likely to remain the case for some time to come.

A good way to get more information about vacancies is to look online. All the train operators are linked through one central site and virtually all of their home pages include a job opportunities list. To access the websites of all  current TOCs from one central point, click here

Network Rail has its own site (see ‘Useful info’) with a useful job search facility and full details of the sorts of roles on offer.

It is less simple to check for vacancies with subcontractors because these companies rely heavily on agency staff. There are many agencies, and several have websites offering work in maintenance, as well as other short-term contract work at stations and on trains.


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