‘My apprenticeship beats the monotony of a desk job – and my starting salary is £50k’

George Browning, 22, pictured at Selhurst Train Station
At 22, George Browning is the youngest trainee train driver - Rii Schroer

Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and “train driver” often tops the list.

But what many dismiss as a childhood dream is seeing a resurgence among young adults. A fifth of Generation Z said they would love a career on the railway, according to a survey by London North Eastern Railway (LNER).

This is in part thanks to social media stars such as Francis Bourgeois, whose earnest railway appreciation clips have shaken up perceptions of the industry.

But the real appeal comes from the perks: with salaries hard won by Britain’s powerful rail unions averaging at £60,000 a year, plus enviable benefits and often a four-day workweek, a career driving trains is increasingly appealing to young people.

New proposals could soon allow teenagers to drive trains on Britain’s railways, reducing the minimum age from 20 to 18 in a push to replace retirees and fill driver shortages.

A recent report said the average train driver was 46 years old, male and white. Younger drivers are also more diverse, something the industry has previously struggled with, with a higher proportion of women and non-white workers entering the industry.

The rising interest in apprenticeships has also helped get more young people into the rail industry. A report by UCAS found that 59pc of young people in school years 9 to 12 are now considering an apprenticeship.

Neil Robertson, of NSAR, a consultancy for the rail industry, said: “While we were sitting around being old-fashioned, suddenly a new trend is helping us.” He adds: “Train drivers are by far our most popular apprenticeship because they’re very well paid.”

According to NSAR, 925 apprenticeship train drivers entered the workforce in 2021-22, up from 396 in 2018-19.

We meet two young train drivers who are starting their careers on the railway.

‘I’m frequently asked if I’ve done my strike training yet’

George Browning, 22, pictured at Selhurst Train Station and at the train simulator centre
George spent the first six months of training in the classroom before driving under supervision - Rii Schroer

Growing up in Portsmouth, George Browning wanted to be either a pilot or a train driver. But when he saw the qualifications needed to become a pilot, his fate was sealed.

While many of his peers viewed university as the obvious next step after finishing their A-levels, Browning was searching for something different. “I finished my A-levels on the Friday and started the apprenticeship with Govia Thameslink Railway on the Monday.”

During his apprenticeship, Browning spent four years managing train services across the network. Last year, at the age of 22, he landed his dream job with Southern Rail, becoming the youngest trainee train driver. The first six months of the scheme were classroom-based, including learning a 1,000-page rulebook off by heart.

Now that is complete, Browning is out in the driver’s cab learning to drive under the supervision of an instructor. After learning the ropes, he will begin driving solo.

When he tells, people he works on the railway, the first question he gets is, “have you done your strike training yet?” Since the summer of 2022, a prolonged and contentious dispute between Aslef and 16 train companies has resulted in ongoing strikes.

Striking train drivers have lost sympathy among certain parts of the public in part because they are perceived to have a relatively comfortable salary compared to the average UK worker.

“When I was a kid I had no idea how much train drivers earn, I didn’t even know what striking was. It’s just the job I always wanted,” he says. For Browning, the £30,000 apprentice salary and £50,000 starting salary are just the perks of the job. He adds: “I’d do this for free.”

A typical day in the life...

A typical day starts with a train ride to work from one of his colleagues, followed by reviewing any notices for the day ahead. Then he’ll head to the depot station to pick up the train for a shift that ranges from six to nine-and-a-half hours.

“I like the flexibility of the job,” says Browning. Some shifts require an early start, some end late into the night. “Every day is different,” he adds. “My office is a moving train, which is quite cool.”

The monotony of a desk job never appealed: “You’re doing the same thing every day and you feel like a bit of a robot.” Instead, being responsible for the lives and commutes of his passengers is something he embraces.

“If I screw up or make a mistake, that’s a big deal,” he says. “You’ve got thousands of people on your train. Then I’ll come home and my parents will complain I haven’t done the washing up.”

However, Browning admits that driving trains isn’t for everyone. He says: “You spend a lot of time on your own.” Robertson, of NSAR, described the psychological profile of a train driver as a person on the lower end of the risk spectrum, “someone content with their own company, happy to follow rules, and calm”.

Browning sees a long future ahead, whether that’s with Southern Rail or perhaps in the future driving the Eurostar or Orient Express. He says: “I think I’ll be doing this forever.”

‘Nobody ever leaves’

Trainee train driver Lauren Carruthers at Morpeth railway station, Morpeth, Northumberland
'I didn't think I was clever enough to do this job,' says Lauren Carruthers, 27 - Mark Pinder/Guzelian

When Lauren Carruthers, 27, was a child, her uncle always encouraged her to become a train driver. “That’s where the money is,” he’d say. However, Carruthers had no interest in trains, let alone driving them. The town where she lived in Newcastle didn’t even have a railway station.

On leaving school she went to college to study travel and tourism and after a few jobs in the hospitality and travel industry, she landed a job as a train conductor.

She says: “I was quite happy being a conductor. I just wanted to progress, so when the driver role came up it was well paid, you’re well looked after, and it’s quite a challenge. I felt like it was something that I wanted to try.”

Carruthers knew the tests were rigorous as her partner, also a train driver, had already been through the process. She says: “I thought, I’ll give one a go and see how it goes.” She surprised herself and passed first time. “It was never, ever something that I thought I would do,” she says. “It was never something that I thought I would be clever enough to do.”

In February this year, Carruthers started her 17-week training course. For the past 14 weeks she has been put up in a hotel in Leeds, so she can revise without any distractions while attending the training school.

“We had Ofsted in and they basically said that the training course is like a degree, but squished down into three months,” she says. “People don’t realise that I’ve been in the classroom now for 14 weeks and haven’t even been near a train until this week. That says a lot, in my opinion, about how much we actually have to learn.”

Carruthers’ training has been an eye-opener, even as someone who has previously worked in the industry. “I used to think train drivers just pulled levers,” she admits. “I absolutely used to think that. But no, it’s about what happens if things go wrong and everything behind the scenes.”

As well as learning the hefty rule book off by heart, the rules continue beyond the classroom. She says: “You have to adjust to the lifestyle.” This includes no drinking and getting the right amount of rest between shifts.

“There are so many rules in place so that we do our job properly. Which makes total sense, really, because nobody wants anybody driving a train unsafely.” The payoff, Carruthers adds, is that drivers are very well looked after.

As well as the perks of the job, she loves the tight-knit community and the camaraderie among her colleagues. As part of a new wave of young people coming into the industry, she affectionately refers to those who went into the railway straight from school as “old timers”.

“A lot of us younger people have been in different jobs, came to the railway and just realised how amazing it is. Nobody ever really leaves.” In a full-circle moment, her uncle will often tell her, “I told you so”.