The modern rail industry offers so much more than the traditional train driver role, with jobs covering a huge range of areas – from signaller to site manager, engineer to HR officer – so take your seat and read on …
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) 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 of late, specifically with regard to the controversial 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.
Rail is an excellent transport resource for heavy and bulky 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.
How do I qualify to work in the rail industry?
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 in the previous 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)
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) supports professional development and training throughout the UK. This includes Network Rail, the Advanced Transport & Infrastructure National College, 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.
New rail qualifications for ex-Forces personnel
The NTAR has been working with the rail industry to develop a portfolio of training that will assist ex-Forces personnel into a second career in the rail industry. The journey towards delivering these qualifications began at the Step Into Rail 2017 event, which saw the NTAR open the door to more than 100 ex-Forces personnel who learned that their valuable military skills could be transferred into a rail industry career.
The new qualifications allow Service leavers to use these transferable skills and attributes, and provide the introductory knowledge and practical skills necessary for the maintenance of traction and rolling stock systems. Click here for full information and a link to a downloadable brochure.
Developed by the NTAR and accredited by EAL – the specialist employer-recognised awarding organisation for engineering manufacturing, building services and related sectors – the qualifications are eligible for ELCAS funding and are accredited at level 3. Visit EAL’s rail qualifications page for full details.
STEP INTO RAIL, 11 MAY 2023
Step Into Rail is an annual one-day event held by the NTAR at its purpose-built training facility in Northampton. After a brief hiatus following the Covid pandemic, Step Into Rail returned in 2023, taking place on 11 May. Offering a unique opportunity for those leaving, or due to leave, the military to speak with some of the biggest names in the industry and explore what the rail industry has to offer, the event saw representation from across the rail industry, including train maintenance and telecommunications. In addition, members of the various rail-related recruitment teams were on hand to discuss the transition process as part of the informal networking phase of the day.
If you missed out this year but are interested in attending future events, or require further information, keep an eye on the NTAR events page for updates.
The day is designed specifically for ex-Forces personnel and aims to illustrate how valuable military skills and experiences can be translated to roles within the rail industry. Although the main focus is engineering, telecoms and signalling, the NTAR is also able to showcase other roles that require a range of skill sets, suitable for recruits from all ranks.
With attendance completely free of charge, Step Into Rail offers a full agenda, with great networking opportunities, case studies of how others have made the journey into industry, and the chance to explore how military-gained knowledge can be applied to careers within rail. It’s a day not to be missed. Watch out for its return in 2024!
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 ELCAS website and is at level 3 or above. For full details of how to make the most of your ELC, refer to the in-depth features elsewhere on the Quest website.
RAIL APPRENTICESHIPS Both Network Rail and the Rail Delivery Group offer a range of rail-related apprenticeships. Click on those links to find out more and stay up to date with the latest opportunities. Alternatively, use your favourite search engine to discover more options. Or browse the government’s apprenticeship website (check out the ‘Transport and logistics’ section) or Find Apprenticeships, both of which allow you to search for apprenticeship opportunities by area of interest and location.
Finding a job
The future of rail is looking remarkably bright. Both passenger and freight transportation demand is predicted 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.
It’s also good news that Network Rail is keen to recruit ex-Forces personnel, recognising the cross-over between the two careers: ‘We admire so many of the attributes that someone from the Forces can bring to any role:
ability to stay calm under pressure and change
comfortable in a fast-paced environment
decision-making with a high level of ambiguity
flexible in an evolving environment.
All these qualities, which are essential in the military, are also highly sought after within our safety-critical environment at Network Rail.’
Click here for full details of Armed Forces opportunities at Network Rail.
NETWORK RAIL NEEDS YOU!
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:
buildings and civils
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:
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.
The 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 them. The job has come a long way from the schoolboy dream of yesteryear, however, with today’s drivers 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.
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 homepages include a job opportunities list. Click here to access the websites of all current TOCs from one central point.
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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