How to become a train driver in London: a step-by-step guide

Updated 1 June 2023

A career as a train driver typically provides clear progression, a competitive salary and a strong package of support and benefits. Train driver roles can require unsociable hours and challenging working conditions, but they tend to provide stable employment and career development opportunities. If you're considering jobs in transportation, you might want to learn about the numerous train driver career options in London. In this article, we discuss how to become a train driver in London, outline the differences between overground and underground train driver jobs and explain the key skills for train driving careers.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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How to become a train driver in London

If you would like to learn how to become a train driver in London, the guide below outlines the qualifications and experience necessary to pursue this career and the process of applying and training to become one. In London, you could be a driver of overground trains for one of the rail companies that provide services into and across London, or you could become a driver on the London Underground. Here are some general steps to follow to become a train driver:

1. Gain GCSEs in English and maths

Most train driver positions require candidates to have GCSEs in English and maths at grades 9 to 4 (the equivalent of A* to C). If you have more GCSEs or higher qualifications, these could improve your chances of success, but English and maths tend to be the minimum requirement. GCSEs in these subjects can qualify you to take a train driving apprenticeship or apply directly to train companies for trainee positions.

Related: How to write a train driver CV (With template and example)

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2. Reach the minimum age

In the UK, you can only become a train driver at the age of 21 or over. Employers might ask you to prove your age when applying for an apprenticeship or trainee train driver position. If you're under the age of 21, you could gain experience in other roles related to rail travel until you reach the minimum age to be a train driver.

Related: How to become a train driver in 9 steps

3. Pass the medical requirements

There are certain medical requirements and restrictions to becoming a train driver. As part of applying for a role as a train driver, it's necessary to have a medical examination from a doctor accredited by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). They assess your eyesight, hearing and colour recognition. Employers may also require you to pass a psychological examination as part of the application process.

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4. Complete an apprenticeship

A train driver apprenticeship combines academic study with hands-on work experience. An advanced apprenticeship in train driving typically takes one to two years to complete and provides a Level 3 qualification upon completion. You can apply for train driving apprenticeships directly with rail service providers, such as Transport for London (TfL) or other rail companies that serve London. During the apprenticeship, you learn all the skills and knowledge necessary to become a train driver, including safety systems, train routes, railway legislation and train operation.

Related: 35 train driver interview questions (With answers and tips)

5. Gain experience working on railways

Another pathway to becoming a train driver involves gaining work experience in other roles within a rail company. This could include working as a passenger assistant or a conductor or working in signalling, railway maintenance or any other role related to trains and rail. By working for a rail company, you can gain valuable railway experience and learn about opportunities to progress to a train driver position.

6. Apply for trainee driver roles with train companies

As an alternative to a train driver apprenticeship, where you gain a formal qualification, you could also apply directly to rail companies for positions as a trainee driver. Trainee driver roles provide all the training necessary to operate and drive trains unsupervised. Expect to train for one to two years before you become a fully qualified train driver capable of taking responsibility for your own train.

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7. Complete your training

Train driver training is extensive and requires many hours of supervision and assessment. The training may differ depending on whether you're training for passenger trains or a freight role. Training can include learning how to establish and maintain a safe working environment, how to respond to security issues and the basics of incident and emergency management. It also includes lessons on rail legislation, managing automated rail systems, learning routes and timetables and preparing trains for servicing and maintenance. In addition, there is extensive training and supervision in operating trains.

Related: How to become a train conductor (With skills and duties)

How to become an underground train driver

If you want to work on the London Underground as an underground (also known as 'tube') train driver, there are several differences in the application and training process. Below are some of the steps to becoming a tube driver, where these differ from other train driver jobs:

1. Apply for a role with TfL

TfL is the organisation that runs London Underground services. TfL rarely advertises externally for underground train driver vacancies due to an agreement with rail unions. As such, it can be easier to get a job as an underground train driver by first applying for a different role within TfL, such as a customer service or ticket office position. After successfully completing the probation period for the job, you're likely to be eligible to apply for train driver positions.

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2. Meet the minimum age requirement for the London Underground

Train driver jobs with national rail providers typically have a minimum age requirement of 21. The only exception to this is the London Underground. You can drive a train on the London Underground from the age of 18.

3. Complete assessments

There are stringent tests and assessments for candidates for London Underground train driver jobs. The application process includes an online multiple-choice test, an assessment centre, a group test, an English test and various other assessments. After passing these tests, you can proceed to a face-to-face interview.

Related: 10 transportation careers (With duties and salaries)

4. Receive training

If you're successful in your application, you have extensive training and preparation before taking full control of your first London Underground passenger train. For London Underground roles, training usually lasts between six and 12 months. This is a slightly shorter training period than for overground train drivers, who tend to train for at least 12 months and up to two years before becoming fully qualified.

Related: 15 jobs with no degree requirements (Plus salaries)

Key skills for train drivers

Although there are few formal qualifications necessary to become a train driver, the selection process is competitive. Employers tend to look for certain skills and personalities suited to the demanding and often lonely working conditions that you can face as a train driver. Some of the key skills to consider include:

  • Concentration: Driving a train requires impeccable concentration skills and the ability to focus on a task for long periods of time. Maintaining concentration and focus is essential for ensuring the safety of train passengers and cargo.

  • Decision-making: As a train driver, there may be situations where it's necessary to make quick decisions that could affect both passenger safety and quality of service. The ability to remain calm and make the correct decision is highly valuable.

  • The ability to work alone: Train drivers spend much of their time alone, although there are parts of the job that require collaboration and communication with colleagues. Train driving, and particularly driving on the London Underground, can be a lonely occupation, so it's useful to be comfortable working alone.

  • Attention to detail: Train driving requires attention to detail, which can help identify faults, spot safety issues, follow routes and ensure trains run on time.

  • Basic mechanical knowledge: Although train drivers receive all the training necessary to understand how a train works, it can be useful to have some mechanical knowledge before starting the role.

  • The ability to work under pressure: Train driving can be a high-pressure work environment, with requirements to ensure trains run on time and safely. As such, remaining calm under pressure is a useful skill to have.

  • Computer literacy: As a train driver, you may use certain computer devices and software as part of your everyday duties. It's useful to have some experience of using computers before applying for the role.

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