Taking the train to visit a signal box in the hinterland of Thurso is not an option for students and staff at Clackmannan College in Alloa, Scotland, - there's no station there. The cross-country trek to get to it is all part of pilot NVQs in signalling, train-driving, cleaning and customer service.
Depute principal John Allen says: "We're working with the paper-based side, helping drivers and signallers prove they have the skills. They're very well-trained, but here's a certificate to prove it."
Fatal accidents at Southall in 1997 and Ladbroke Grove in 1999 led to reviews of driver training. But the training council and Learning and Skills Council believe NVQ standards should be developed not only for drivers, but for occupations right across the industry. The process of working for an NVQ adds a dimension beyond technical competence.
"People with NVQs tend to be more content with what they're doing," said an LSC spokesperson. "They realise they've got a passport to a job. It has a morale boosting effect on employees."
The College of North East London is working with Midland Mainline drivers at NVQ level 2. "FE had a long history of training within the rail industry," says Susan Neill, head of professional studies. "NVQs develop people's basic skills and skills in learning. They provide fuller employees, people who can contribute to the company, who are more liable to take on new thinking." She says putting together a portfolio of knowledge helps people to really understand their role.
The college also works with rail unions, running courses for their learning representatives. These reps then encourage members to take on training and think about a lifelong learning programme.
Other colleges are developing training for firms' own assessors. Anglia Railways is working with Otley College in Suffolk to standardise its internal training and want all staff to take part over the next three years. St Helens College is training staff and trainers in management and customer services for Merseyrail Electrics.
Many rail workers were apprehensive. "They thought there would be an immense amount of additional learning," said Catherine Earle, vice-principal of Stourbridge College in the West Midlands. "There was a fear that college staff would come into an industry and tell them how to do it, but that's naive."
In fact the FE sector's strength lies not in knowing precisely how to drive trains or operate signals, but in understanding how training works. It provides expertise in structuring and running courses while the industry provides detailed content. Stourbridge College worked with Railtrack and Central Trains to develop NVQs in driver and signal operations.
"The industry wants some continuity in the way training is delivered... It's working across vast areas and needs to develop understanding of programme accreditation and expertise in how to deliver professional development," says Ms Earle. She was impressed by rail staff's enthusiasm for training. "It was very pleasantly surprising that, in an industry that takes a lot of knocks on a daily basis, the staff were extremely keen to upskill."