Train Driving in Australia & New Zealand...

Every now and then I get an e-mail from someone thinking about seeking train driving opportunities in Australia but have been at a bit of a loss as to how to respond as I know so little about the subject. Of course, Australia’s railways are physically similar to Britain’s since they evolved from British practice, but this doesn’t mean that recruitment and training will necessarily be the same. Here, at last, is a new section written by a driver who qualified and worked in Australia for many years before coming to Yorkshire and which give a flavour of what it is like to work there….

“I was a Train Driver in Australia for 19 years working for the State Rail Authority of NSW, which is a government owned operation. I started in the Newcastle Coal fields driving 10,000 ton, 1.8 km long trains with 16,000 hp to haul them. Part of the state rail authority remains, but the freight side of the business was privatised in 1994. That was when I joined National Rail in Brisbane, the first private national railway company in Australia and which has since become Pacific National. I worked freight trains to Taree which was 600 kms to the south of Brisbane. The freight was mainly containers and the trains were 1.5 km long and weighed around 2,500 tons. Being a driver who worked into another State – Queensland – I had to have two Rules competencies, which was a little confusing some times. For example, a flashing yellow in NSW means the next signal is not red as it represents a double yellow, but a flashing yellow in Queensland means the next signal is red and a very dangerous situation lies beyond the red signal. Also the States decided on different rail gauges early on as they couldn’t imagine they would ever join up one day. These days the more common is standard gauge though. As Australian railways were modelled on the British system they are quiet similar in most cases.

The Locomotives that Pacific National use are made in Australia under licence from GE America and are a 4,000hp unit. They have all the mod cons, air-conditioning, heating, CD/Radio player (the authorities would wet themselves in Britain!), hot plate and grill, cordless jug for the all important cup of tea and a large fridge. The units even have a flush toilet, something the British locos are missing! They are usually coupled in twos or threes, so plenty of grunt for those big loads. The freight locos don’t have TPWS, AWS or even DSD, just a vigilance button – but then they are all double-manned, except in Queensland.

Holidaying in the UK, I was chatting to some train drivers who told me there was (then) a shortage of drivers in Britain, so I decided to make the move. Yes I know everyone is going the other way but we love it here! Although I was a fully qualified Driver in Australia I still had to do the full training course at the training pay rate (ouch). I now work for Northern driving passenger trains out of Leeds.

To become a driver in Australia there is no Psychometric Test to be done, only a simple mechanical aptitude test. So, no pesky bells and buzzers to freak you out! All the train companies train their own drivers, but my advice is to go to a train driving school called Southern Cross Rail Training. It is run by a retired Train Inspector, or Driver Standards Manager as we call them in England.

Their rules course (safe working course as they call it) takes three weeks and costs around $2,200 (£980). You can follow this with a traction course (engine, air and braking systems) which runs for two weeks and costs another $2,200 or so. With these courses under your belt your chances of getting a job in the industry would be greatly improved *. I know Pacific National, the company I worked for, employed former Train Drivers from New Zealand; all they needed was their rules course and they were employed as a second person on the train. After around six months they were assessed and given the opportunity to drive. They are very strict on alcohol and drug use, so forget it if you like your drink or the odd bong as drivers are random drug & breath tested up to six times a year. But with plenty of days off you can do all the drinking you want.

My duties as a Driver in Australia included driving main line freight trains, shunt engines, fuelling, sanding, cleaning the cabs, cleaning the toilet, topping up oil and coolant, changing brake shoes, changing head lights and other bulbs, realigning sanding equipment and shunting wagons into sidings. It’s a far more comprehensive job than on British freight trains; you feel you’re more of an engineman that just a driver. The job also included lodging away in motels for which you get a tax free payment to buy food, around $100. The drivers for South Australia who travel across the Nulabor Desert have a three-driver crew swapping to a rail car decked out with a kitchen and beds, so quiet the long shift.

Pay-wise, I made around $80,000 a year, which included some overtime. This represented a better than average wage in Australia. As a second person the pay is only slightly less. Some former work mates have moved to Port Hedland, Western Australia, to drive the iron ore trains and are being paid $9,500 a month (net) with a house thrown in and work 14 days on and 14 days off. They drive trains 85,000 tons in weight (wow). Holidays are around five weeks a year and after ten years service employees are awarded three months fully paid Long Service Leave (all employees in Australia get Long service leave)”.

So, there it is. Having said all that, I suppose the real problem with becoming a train driver in Australia is getting into the place. You can’t just decide to walk in, you have to have sufficient points to immigrate. The Southern Cross firm mentioned above will take people for training who have previously qualified as drivers in Britain, but not others. Although you will be paying for this yourself I am told that it is best if you can get a train operator to ‘sponsor’ you in the sense of offering you a job, which I think you need for immigration purposes. Otherwise you will be doing it at your own risk as well as your own cost! The first course you need to do is the Safeworking Systems course, which is compusory in all States. Of course, if your partner has enough points to get you in you could always emigrate first and then try for a driving job later. Either way, I think that what you really have to want is to emigrate to Australia first and foremost and take the train driving as it comes. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has sucessfully made the change…

Some Australian railway links:

Train Driving in New Zealand