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Despite the challenges this year has presented, we have worked around the clock to train over 1000 conductors and nearly 900 drivers (this compares to 121 conductors and 97 drivers trained in 2015). We achieved this by increasing the number of our trainers and radically improving training programmes. We also developed retail and gate line courses and now successfully run the only rail-related assessor course in the UK.

We believe apprenticeships are vital to equip the next generation of drivers and conductors with the tools they need to succeed. That’s why, in 2019 we introduced a Level 3 Train Driver apprenticeship and earlier this year a Level 2 apprenticeship for trainee conductors (with 164 conductors and 190 drivers on each programme). Our Employer Provider Status means we can manage and provide all the necessary support to apprentices on programme.

How did we cope with COVID-19? –  Well, the pandemic was a huge adjustment to our training programmes where face to face learning plays such a critical role. Initially, our academies shut down, and 32 trainers and 148 trainees were sent home to comply with Government guidance.

Like many businesses and educational establishments, we turned to online systems to continue to run regular revision sessions for our trainees.  When it became apparent that the pandemic was not going away, we began looking at options to reopen our academies in a COVID-secure way. Two metres social distancing, sanitiser, anti-viral wipes and testing needed to be considered when creating the master plan to create large enough training rooms in our academies to facilitate social distancing.

Behind the scenes, our trainers explored how we could reduce transmission risk at our academies. The Cave, our interactive simulator which replicates platform risk in various different scenarios, was added to the conductor training programme to include assessments that would normally have taken place in the practical environment of a station. Whereas, our driver trainers pioneered the use of Immersive Reality to replicate the inside and outside of our Class 150 and Class 195 fleet to introduce apprentice drivers to the trains without having to leave the safety of the classroom, reducing the amount of time they would need to be in a live depot environment. Our academies finally got the go-ahead to reopen on 15 June, but we continue to develop these workstreams to reduce COVID risk, including the potential use of Augmented Reality.

Working closely with our union safety representatives we’ve created risk assessments and continued to enhance precautionary measures as nationally the ‘R’ rate increased.  While we were able to restart theory training, there was an inevitable backlog of apprentices awaiting practical training. Close working with industry partners and union colleagues meant we were able to put in place safe methods and guidelines to enable practical conductor and driver training to resume. 

Restarting training was a massive logistical challenge, but our teams worked tirelessly, especially with the uncertainties created when any returned positive test meant self-isolation of training ‘bubbles’. 

Other innovative ways adopted to minimise risk and enable training to continue include: designing crew diagrams for ‘ghost’ trains (planned empty passenger trains to enable trainees to practice different procedures),  positioning trains at strategic COVID-secure locations to allow drivers to practice static, coupling and slow speed moves and separately for conductor trainees to continue static training.

Restarting practical in cab training also means we are now able to address the backlog of training for qualified drivers on our new trains, this is a longer-term process as we balance training with operating daily passenger services. Importantly, our approach means all our practical training for existing trainee drivers and conductors is back on track and we are now welcoming new trainees into the academy – part of our wider recruitment programme as we are ready to support the region to build back better.