Railway signallers manage the movement and safety of the 30,000 trains that move across the 21,000 miles of railway track in the UK each day. They instruct train drivers whether they may proceed or not by changing the colour of the lights on the signals, or in the case of old semaphore signals, the position of the signal arm. They also control the direction of the trains by moving the points.
They work in three main types of signal box:
Signallers operate to a 'working timetable' showing every train movement on the network. It shows when trains will arrive at and leave each destination, intermediate point and appropriate passing point. It also details all the relevant time allowances and is updated regularly. Using this timetable, signallers must do the following tasks:
Signallers may be responsible for a level crossing, and if so need to check the lowering of barriers via television monitors or, if it is one of the few remaining manual crossings, give instructions to a crossing keeper.
Railway signallers generally work 36 hours a week. Overtime may be available. They work a shift pattern that can include early starts, nights and late finishes as well as weekend and bank holiday work.
The work takes place in a signal box that could be small and located at the side of the track or a level crossing, or could be a larger control room located alongside a busy junction or away from the track. Signallers may work on their own or as part of a small team.
Signallers working in manual and LED panel boxes move around. Signallers working in integrated control centres spend long periods of time sitting in front of a computer screen.
High visibility safety clothing is provided for use in emergencies.
Starting salaries are around £20,000 a year.
There are more than 1,000 signal boxes and control centres throughout the country. Signalling is the responsibility of Network Rail, which employs 5,500 signallers. About 400 signallers are also employed by London Underground. Signalling is a stable area of work, and vacancies may occur at any time of the year.
Network Rail recruits between 400 and 500 signallers a year. Vacancies are advertised internally, in local newspapers, and also on their website www.networkrail.co.uk.
No formal academic qualifications are required to work as a railway signaller, but entrants need to be at least 18 years old and have good reading, writing and number skills.
Signallers also need to have good or corrected eyesight, normal colour vision and good hearing. The recruitment process is stringent and consists of an entry assessment, interview and a medical examination, including an alcohol and drugs test.
All Network Rail signallers undertake an initial full-time training course at signalling training centres in Watford and Leeds, which lasts nine weeks. Trainees use the most up-to-date training equipment, including computer-based materials and signal panel simulators. They also learn the rules and regulations that govern signalling and how to use the signal control panels that they will use in their job.
Further training takes place mainly in the signal box, although a signaller may train using a simulator to prepare for a move to a more complex signal. Signallers generally start work in less complicated boxes and, with training and assessment, work their way into more complex signalling work.
Signallers must train for every type of signalling panel that they use - mechanical, electro-mechanical, push button and visual display unit (VDU). In addition, each signaller also learns how to use each individual signalling panel before they operate it so they are completely familiar with the particular geography, routes and train services controlled by that panel.
Quarterly briefings are provided for signallers to inform them about changes in rules and regulations so that they stay up to date throughout their career. It is possible to work towards the NVQ/SVQ in Rail Transport Operations (Signal Operations) at Level 2.
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Signallers can progress through different grades, moving to busier and different types of signal boxes. Promotion to the supervisory role of signal manager or mobile operations manager is possible.
Railway signallers can also move into a more specialised skilled role to work as a control room operator. Railway traffic on the whole network is monitored from high-tech control rooms, where screens show the position of every train on the network. Control room operations staff often start their careers as signallers.
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