We went down to Northern’s train driver academy to find out what it’s like for would-be drivers – with vacancies coming up across the north.

Just a stone’s throw away from Leeds’ busy Headrow is Northern’s training academy.

What goes on here is usually pretty secretive – and trainers are coy about revealing any details.

Tests are designed to assess candidates’ perception, memory, and other aspects of their psychology.

The whole process is secretive. The tests we were given are based on the real ones – but have been made different in ways we are not told.

The Bolton News: In this attention test, candidates had to count the occurences of a certain letter - all against the clockIn this attention test, candidates had to count the occurences of a certain letter - all against the clock (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Candidates have to go through an attention test, where trainees have to spot anomalies in patterns of data, followed by tests of memory, as well as tests in trainability, vigilance, perception, hand co-ordination, situational judgment, and finally a structured interview.

In one such test, the ATAVT perception test, images of traffic quickly flash up on the screen, with test takers having to choose what they saw.

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Every application is looked at by a person and manually sifted before a decision is made. Anyone who is unsuccessful at the process only gets one extra chance to do it – after that, it’s game over.

When I ask for statistics on the pass rates on different tests, and which is the toughest, I’m told it’s not going to happen – with a Northern press officer telling me that we’re lucky to even be inside doing the practice questions, given how secretive the process is.

A few years ago, I’m told, questions leaked on social media website Reddit – and test-takers had to scramble to control the situation.

The Bolton News: A tablet is used to help train driversA tablet is used to help train drivers (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Hundreds of applications being received

The reason I’m being shown some of the process would-be drivers have to go through is because of an influx of applications caused by the tempting prospect of a £50,000+ salary.

Successful applications to driver positions at Northern start on £23,000, with a yearly increase in salary. The first increase is to £40,000, then £44,500, before finally reaching £54,500.

Recruitment takes six months, followed by four months of intensive training school. Only then do prospective drivers finally get to go to depot-based training – where they’ll finally get a chance to drive a train. They’ll then do 240 hours of driving with a mentor-minder before they’re qualified.

Northern recruits six months in advance of its training – and, the company says, they’re in demand, with 555 applications per job advert, or 79 applications per job – with some even applying from as far afield as Spain.

Nicole Johnson, Northern’s senior recruitment officer, said anyone can become a train driver, but that the company has a ‘responsibility to find the right person to join Northern’.

She adds that the process isn’t easy. “Would I do it? No,” she says.

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The Bolton News: Learners go back to the classroom at Northern's training academy in LeedsLearners go back to the classroom at Northern's training academy in Leeds (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

Virtual reality in use

The training process at Northern has evolved over the years. Now, the company is experimenting with virtual reality.

Dan Davison, who has worked at Northern for 14 years, walks us through the virtual reality portion of the training.

After putting on my virtual reality goggles I’m transported to the lines outside Heaton depot.

“We can take people to potentially unsafe environments without having to leave the classroom,” Dan explains.

The system is basic, but it’s supplemented by other software – including an interactive tablet video game to train drivers on procedure, putting them in the cab of one of Northern’s trains – a useful tool in the box, considering Northern does not have access to any simulators.

The Bolton News: Reporter Jack Fifield tried out the VR headsetReporter Jack Fifield tried out the VR headset (Image: Jack Fifield, Newsquest)

With 13 types of train driven at the company, from ageing Class 150s, manufactured by British Rail in the 1980s, on the Clitheroe line, to newer CAF Civity trains to Manchester Airport, drivers need to know the ins-and-outs – and be prepared to carry out ad-hoc maintenance on the rails, should the situation call for it.

Dan explained: “They have to know where things are, for example, if they drive over a shopping trolley – what could have ruptured?”

After successfully coupling two units together (with a lot of help from Dan), Northern media and communications executive Nathan Hyde walks me through the company’s recruitment and selection process.

Nathan said: “We’re looking to recruit a number of drivers throughout 2024 as part of our regular, ongoing normal recruitment process, as we need to plan ahead to ensure we can keep running services day in, day out.

“A lot of people saw the fact you can apply with no experience, which is true, and end up earning quite a nice salary of £54,000 per year, but also we want to make clear there is a really rigorous selection and recruitment process.

“Last year we got around 79 applications for each position that was advertised, showing it’s not straightforward and you can’t just walk into one of these jobs.”

More information on jobs at Northern can be found on the company’s website.

If you have a story, I cover the whole borough of Bolton. Please get in touch at jack.fifield@newsquest.co.uk.