Rail jobs, staff issues and training

21.12.18

Training the next generation: Govia Thameslink Railway

In December, RTM’s Jack Donnelly paid a visit to GTR’s training facilities across London. Here, he reports on the state-of-the-art technology and innovative classroom techniques being implemented to equip the next generation of drivers with the skills they need.

Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) is the UK’s biggest rail franchise: it operates around a fifth of the country’s entire rail services and, since its inception in 2014, the TOC has reached mammoth-sized numbers. GTR capped off 2018 with its winter programme to create capacity for an extra 50,000 passengers a day in and out of London. However, to ensure the company is not a victim of its own success, more investment and attention than ever before will need to be paid to future operations. GTR’s investment in 115 brand-new Class 700 trains, a new Gatwick Express, and an investment of 25 six-car Class 717 EMUs will reliably and comfortably transport passengers using the lines; but will there be enough drivers to meet demand?

GTR’s answer has been to launch the UK’s largest recruitment and training programme, which has just taken the number of drivers to a record-breaking 2,000. This flagship training scheme is based around three ‘Centres of Excellence.’ Facilities in north London’s Hornsey, central London’s Lower Thames  Street, and Selhurst near Croydon, give training managers the ability to use high-tech train simulation software to provide bespoke, comprehensive, and authentic experiences to prepare future drivers for their training time on the track.

Discovery-led learning

The theoretical aspect of driver education is not lost, either: GTR relies on a ‘flipped classroom’ technique, where trainees are given information in advance of a training session to immerse themselves in the terminology and colloquial terms used by  drivers in operation, thereby increasing the chance of retaining that information in long-term  memory and giving the opportunity for trainees to evaluate the content and raise any questions within that training session.

Newly-qualified Thameslink driver Paul Butler at BlackfriarsOne of GTR's newest recruits, Paul Butler, used the simulation technology before entering full service as a driver on the networks.

“When we talk theory, this can have a dry feel to it,” says John Tomlin, operations development manager at GTR. “But the way that we design it is to take it away from that so that the theory itself comes to life a lot more. It’s more learner-led, there’s more discovery learning, there’s more facilitation in relation to what we’re expecting our trainees to accomplish. So, it’s taking responsibility for your own learning as well as having to learn the material.”

Applying the theory to the practical side of training, when trainees work on the simulator, one of GTR’s key points of emphasis is flexibility and ease of access. The centres of excellence each host the exact same suites of cutting-edge hardware and programming, allowing training managers to use any of the three facilities to deliver training sessions. A high-speed internet link ensures the simulator, developed by French company Corys, is collecting data reliably and efficiently at all times; and a bespoke scenario tool allows training managers to challenge trainees with varied layouts of tracks, conditions, and thousands of other possibilities to ensure that the future generation of drivers are prepared when entering service.

Tim Wells, operations simulator manager at GTR, echoed this sentiment, adding that simulation managers can look to target areas of improvement needed for each individual trainee. Tim said the simulation room is a hub where the management team can build tailored scenarios to target areas to improve within a trainee or current driver’s skillset, allowing GTR to effectively and efficiently educate on best practice for driving.

“Say for example there’s an existing driver out there now that has been driving for a number of years and has a misdemeanour out there — he has to have the training,” Tim said. “We would then develop and build a scenario that’s suitable for their managers to tell them what they need. Our team will build it and run through that scenario.”

He added: “Everything we do is about safety discovery learning. We are not going to let anyone injure themselves, or injure anybody else, but we’re going to let you fall into a trap. You’re not going to hurt anybody doing that, but now you can go out there and do it.”

Taking inspiration

Nuclear, medical, aviation, and rail: these are all major sectors in the UK that are embracing the use of simulation technology, and GTR is taking inspiration from industry leaders to provide the best possible platform for its trainees to excel. Using simulation software gives future drivers an authentic experience of unusual and emergency situations which they are unlikely to come across for real during their training, thus allowing them to practice and develop strategies for these type of events. And, like TOCs around the country, GTR has made a concerted effort to drive interest in the industry and future recruitment by inviting schoolchildren and people from different industries to be inspired by their progressive approach to training and development and the career when visiting their facilities in the nation’s capital. 

“This is quality training now, rather than quantity training that we used to do years ago,” Steve Wright, professional head of training at GTR, said. “If you go in next door now [into a training suite], we’ve got policemen in there, security officers, CCTV controllers, all saying the same thing: ‘If only I’d known about this career earlier.’ It’s a great career.”

Diversifying the sector

But how can GTR inspire the young women and girls, traditionally demographics less popular with the rail industry, to enter the diverse and growing sector? Steve said taking industry leaders into schools to educate young men and women on the potential routes into the rail sector can go a long way in achieving that. “We have two ladies on the course for Orpington — if we take them into an all-girls school to express what they’ve done, how they’ve gone through their careers, and how much they’ve enjoyed it, I think that’s absolutely something the industry should do to attract more women in the profession.”

And this drive to be more diverse is bringing benefits: in 2017, 18% of Southern’s new trainee drivers were female. This has increased to 30% for 2018, and this year has seen the first class of trainees with more women than men.

Our visit to GTR’s training offices highlighted the outstanding practices being offered to future train drivers to ensure that they are equipped and prepared to deal with issues they encounter when driving full-time on GTR’s rail routes. The application of innovative classroom teaching techniques combined with cutting-edge technology gives the training management team the ability to harness a trainee’s talents, and effectively target and improve areas where their skillset could be improved further. The result is a prepared and willing train driver workforce ready to take on the new fleets of rolling stock and growing passenger numbers that will come their way. With a busy 2019 ahead for GTR, passengers on the route may just depend on the new wave of drivers to keep their networks running smoothly and safely.

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Image credit: GTR

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