Signalling Technician

The Job and What's Involved

Train SignalSignalling technicians install and maintain signalling and telecommunications systems used on the railways.

Railway signals control train movements to ensure the safety of passengers and trains using the railway. They also help manage train movements on the rail network so that best use is made of the track.

Technicians work on systems such as:

  • Integrated electronic control centres that use high-tech equipment to control around 100 miles of track.
  • Panel signal boxes - electro-mechanical relay systems, typically controlling between 10 and 50 miles of track.
  • Manual lever frame boxes - boxes with levers connected to semaphore or colour light signals and points, typically controlling a single station or a few miles of track, usually in rural areas with low traffic.
  • Colour light signals that tell drivers when to go, slow down or stop.
  • Systems that control the points that switch trains from one track to another and interlock them with the signals.
  • Displays that inform signallers and controllers of train movements, allowing them to control the traffic.
  • Systems to warn the driver or stop the train automatically if it goes too fast or passes a signal at danger.

These systems use copper and fibre-optic cables to carry information between signalling centres and the trackside, and operate mechanical, electrical, electronic and computerised devices and displays. They also have their own power supplies.

Signalling technicians may work on:

New Signalling Installations - renewing the signalling for existing layouts or installing systems for new tramlines, underground lines or rail links.

Maintaining Existing Signalling Installations - which involves routine checks on signals and points.

Fault-Finding - checking for faults and attending to problems that might be causing delay or danger to trains.

The work involves using hand and machine tools. Signalling technicians may work with signal engineers and fitters, railway engineers and track crew.

Signalling technicians work around 37 hours a week. They are likely to work shifts and might be expected to work overtime.

For some of the time signalling technicians work in the open air, alongside the track. This is where cables run and where control boxes are placed. Other work may be in or near signal boxes or on stations. Technicians should be prepared to work in all weather conditions and wear protective clothing, such as high-visibility overalls and rainwear, hard hats, boots and ear protectors.

Technicians can work in different places each day. These places may be a long way from base, involving a lot of travel by train or road, sometimes staying away from home. They have to stand, kneel, crouch, bend, lift and walk a lot. Work at heights may also be required. In some jobs, a driving licence may be needed.

Working alongside the track means that technicians have to be aware of safety at all times.

Starting salaries for signalling technicians may be around £13,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Signalling technicians are employed by Network Rail, London Underground, Metronet and Tubelines, the Docklands Light Railway, Translink and on new city tramway and metro systems around the UK. Network Rail is the largest employer, with more than 1,000 signal boxes and control centres.

Signalling technicians are also employed on signalling renewals and major construction projects by private contractors, which may be large civil engineers or specialist signalling companies.

Jobs are advertised by the individual companies. Job vacancies may also be advertised on websites such as www.railnews.co.uk/jobs.

Education and Training

It is possible to start work as a trainee straight from school and train on the job. Many companies offer Apprenticeships leading to NVQ's/SVQ's. Another route is to transfer from related work in engineering or electronics.

Employers generally ask for three to five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), and prefer English, maths and science, though alternatives - such as a BTEC first diploma - are possible too. The double GCSE in engineering and other GCSE's in areas such as technology can be useful.

The selection process includes a medical examination for physical fitness, eyesight and hearing tests, and alcohol and drug screening. There is a rigid policy on drugs and alcohol abuse, and random tests may be conducted at any time. An aptitude test or an assessment of existing knowledge and skills may also be required.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

Some people do a college course before starting work. These include:

BTEC National Certificate in Electronics and Railway Signals/Telecommunications.

BTEC National Certificate in Engineering - Signalling and Communication.

BTEC Higher National Certificate in Engineering - Signalling and Communication.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Apprentices work towards NVQ/SVQ Level 3 in Railway Engineering (Signalling).

Employers also provide numerous short courses for new trainees and for existing staff. These include:

  • Basic signalling.
  • Basic fault-finding.
  • Equipment-specific installation and maintenance courses.
  • Management of testing.
  • Signalling principle testing.
  • Safety.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Signalling technicians should:

  • Be able to use hand and machine tools.
  • Have some mathematical ability to carry out mental calculations.
  • Have a logical approach and be good at tracing faults.
  • Understand engineering drawings and manuals.
  • Have ICT skills.
  • Work well alone and as part of a team.
  • Be very safety-conscious.
  • Have good eyesight, with or without glasses.
  • Have normal colour vision to work with colour-coded wiring and components.
  • Be physically fit and have stamina.

Your Long Term Prospects

Signalling technicians with experience and skills can apply for membership of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers. The Institution offers a route to becoming a registered engineering technician and, potentially, an incorporated or chartered engineer.

They can be promoted from junior to senior technician, to team leader and then manager. Senior signalling technicians have additional responsibilities. They may test and commission new signal installations or work on the design of new installations in a drawing office.

Highly experienced signalling technicians could move into more complex signalling design work or into a consultancy role.

Get Further Information

Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC),
3rd Floor, 40 Bernard Street,
London WC1N 1BY
Tel: 020 7841 8134
Website: www.atoc.org

Careers in Rail
Website: www.careersinrail.org

GoSkills, Concorde House, Trinity Park,
Solihull B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520
Website: www.goskills.org

Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE),
4th Floor, 1 Birdcage Walk, Westminster,
London SW1H 9JJ
Tel: 020 7808 1180
Website: www.irse.org

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