The UK’s Rail network is big business. Or, rather, it’s a collection of big businesses – and they’re always on the lookout for skilled and qualified staff. What technical, engineering and managerial opportunities are open to former Forces personnel in this remarkably expanding industry?

It’s over 180 years since the world’s first ever passenger rail service ran between Stockton and Darlington, but in that time the UK’s railways have redefined, transformed and expanded the world we live in. Nor have they become some overlooked relic of the past: with increasing fuel prices and road congestion, this ‘marvel of the 19th century’ is being transformed into a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly ‘new hope’ for the future of passenger and freight transport. Multi-billion pound investment – in projects such as the construction of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line – are all proof of the industry’s continued relevance in the 21st century. Nor is this just in transport terms (although more people now travel between London and Paris by train than fly); it’s also as an employer!

Although many people still talk of ‘British Rail’ or ‘the railway’, the rail industry is in fact made up of numerous companies.

Network Rail is the Government-created company that owns (and is responsible for) the national rail infrastructure: this includes over 21,000 miles of track (‘the permanent way’); 9,000 level crossings; 40,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts; around 2,500 stations, depots and associated properties; a large retail portfolio and 10,000 advertising sites. After the privatisation of the railways in the Nineties, maintenance of this infrastructure was carried out under contract by either existing construction companies or the newly ‘privatised’ regional maintenance companies; in the last year, however, most of this work has been brought back ‘in-house’ in order to ‘deliver a more efficient, cost-effective and well coordinated programme nationwide’. Already, some 15,000 employees have transferred from the regional maintenance companies to Network Rail.

Train Operating Companies (TOCs) – including long-distance operators such as GNER and Virgin as well as regional and suburban operators such as Merseyrail and First Scotrail – run rail passenger services and may also lease and manage railway stations from Network Rail. Although subject to market forces, TOCs also receive input and direction from the appropriate government body – the Department of Transport, the Scottish Executive and Northern Ireland Office. Meantime, freight companies – such as English, Welsh and Scottish Railways – have the responsibility of both transporting non-passenger goods – ranging from petro-chemicals and steel to cars and food.

Many TOCs do not actually own or maintain the trains they run; these are owned by Rolling Stock Companies – such as HSBC Rail, Angel Trains and Porterbrook Leasing – who then lease them to the TOCs and ensure that available engines, carriages and trucks are what are required in both the short and longer term. Rolling Stock Companies also have a responsibility to help TOCs develop their services through the phasing out of old rolling stock and its replacement with more modern, accessible and safer trains.

The UK’s rail sector directly employs some 180,000 people, and indirectly employs thousands more, through manufacturers and contracted service providers. As a result, it is an industry that is able to offer former members of the Armed Forces a wide range of career opportunities for people who can not only cope but actually thrive in a challenging and (often literally) fast-moving environment.

Career opportunities come in one of four areas:

Operations cover all those involved in keeping the railways running effectively and efficiently, from those who plan the routes and schedule services to those who drive the trains and operate the signalling and control equipment.

Operations staff have an immediate responsibility for the safety of passengers and freight, so must be used to responsibility and working on both their own and as part of a larger team. Drivers and Control Room staff, in particular, must have the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, be able to react quickly when required, and have the ability to quickly understand quite complex systems. Most will also be working shift pattern rather than the traditional 9 – 5. All of these are attributes and experiences that military personnel can bring to the industry. Logistical experience from the Armed Forces (such as in the Royal Logistics Corps) would be of particular value in planning and scheduling; alternatively, a degree in transport planning or logistics is increasingly a route into supervisory or managerial work.

Technical & Engineering
From the days of steam, the railways have always needed mechanical engineers, but as technology has advanced, so has the range of skills needed to keep the trains moving. Thanks to the advent of micro-processor controlled systems, high speed locomotives, state-of-the-art communication systems, computerised customer services and interactive websites, the UK’s rail industry now needs people skilled and practised in Information Technology and electronics just as much as mechanical or civil engineering – responsible, respectively, for the rolling stock and buildings, and track, bridges and tunnels.

Technical and engineering staff must be able to work in a wide variety of locations, both individually and as part of a team, and be willing to work to differing shift patterns. Workers must have a well-founded and developed knowledge of their particular field of expertise, with engineering staff in particular expected to have professional qualifications such as Chartered Engineer. Engineering and Electrical Engineering qualifications earned within the Armed Forces would obviously be of value for anyone wishing to enter this sector.

Customer facing
Customers are, of course, at the heart of the rail business, and recent years have seen growing numbers of people and freight once again travelling by rail. ‘Customer facing’ roles take in sales staff, ‘revenue protection’ (issuing and checking tickets), catering and the general staffing of stations. These are roles that require excellent communication skills, an understanding of customer service, reliability, an acceptance of possible shift work and extensive travel, and an ability to understand the complex system that is the modern rail network – with ticketing that can apply over a number of different rail companies, each with their own fare structures and special offers.

Most stations and many TOCs contract outside firms to carry out their catering provision, but others still employ their own staff in roles as varied as on-board trolley service to high quality chefs; these can require the ability and experience to work in often cramped and otherwise challenging locations – or on the move at over 100 miles an hour!

Like any other ‘people-focused’ industry, even the most effective and efficient work of railway staff can be largely undone by poor planning and leadership; indeed, the quality of management can make the difference between overall success and failure, which is why there are plenty of opportunities for Armed Forces personnel with excellent leadership skills.

First Line Managers – often called Supervisors or Team Leaders – are the ‘middle managers’ of the industry. Management and communication skills are highly important, along with an effective understanding of not only their own role and specialisms but also Health & Safety law and existing legislation covering the likes of Equal Opportunities and disability rights. General management – covering the likes of sales, marketing and finance – and operations management – with responsibility for scheduling and running trains and stations, or supervising the day-to-day maintenance work – provide opportunities across the rail industry.

Attributes for management include reliability and a willingness to take on responsibility, good people-management skills, an acceptance of shift-work patterns (certainly for First Line Managers) and some practical experience of the sector. However, while recruitment is often from within the industry, more graduates are entering directly at the level of First Line Management.

GoSkills, the Sector Skills Council for Passenger Transport, recently merged with the Centre for Rail Skills (CfRS) to ensure that National Occupational Standards being developed for the rail industry will be on a par with those across the whole public transport sector. The GoSkills website includes a database that links jobs within the rail industry and describes career routes, including the vocational training schemes required for most operational roles.

In general terms, though, required qualifications will vary depending on the job. Those working in direct ‘customer-facing’ roles may need little in terms of paper qualifications, but must be able to clearly show they have good communication and customer skills. In contrast, engineers will be expected to be qualified to HND or degree level, while those working in general or operations management, will almost certainly need to have the relevant professional qualifications – for example, a management qualification from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development – or membership of an appropriate professional body (such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales).

Salaries across the rail industry depend on an individual’s profession, location, hours and grade. According to the ‘careers in rail’ website, train drivers can earn between £20K to over £30K a year; control room operators, planners and schedulers can earn between £10K to £30K (for the most senior staff); ‘revenue protection’ staff can earn between £9K and £22K depending on seniority.

Although Britain would be guaranteed a gold medal if complaining about our railways ever becomes an Olympic sport, the fact is that our railways are an industry that is ‘on the up’ with companies, as a result, crying out for enthusiastic, alert and conscientious personnel that have the maturity and self-motivation natural to most people leaving the Armed Forces. Although there remain problems – from limits on resources to general health and safety – the rail industry offers a real challenge to anyone looking to get stuck in and help sort things out!


Association of Train Operating Companies
020 7841 8000

Careers in Rail

0121 635 5520

Network Rail
020 7557 8000