The liberalization of rail passenger transport, which up to now has resulted in the opening up to competition of the high-speed lines linking Barcelona and Valencia with Madrid —waiting for them to join Alicante and Seville this year— has had a significant impact on passengers, who have seen ticket prices drop substantially wherever their trains arrive while supply increases. But the entry of two new players into the market, Ouigo and Iryo, is also reflected in an additional problem: there is a lack of drivers.
After the liberalization of freight transport and international traffic, different players in the railway market set their eyes on training train drivers years ago as a way of positioning themselves against the competition. In the past, those in charge of running the trains were trained by the Army, a task that subsequently fell to Renfe, which continues to manage its own Professional Technical School of Driving and Operations, with eight offices throughout Spain.
The arrival of the first freight operators and the progressive progression of personnel in Renfe made it necessary to draw up new regulations in 2007 that regulated the creation of approved training centers. Today the train driver course can be taken at 12 different centers, including those of operators that train their future staff, such as Transfesa or Medway, with a significant weight in freight traffic by train. Others such as CEFF or Cetren only teach and are later used by the companies that provide the service, either in the transport of goods or passengers.
The main problem is that being a machinist is not cheap. Specifically, about 21,000 euros are needed, plus the guarantee of being able to sustain themselves financially during the year that full-time classroom and track training implies. Although this entry gap has not stopped aspiring train drivers, given the rate of opening of new schools and that about 700 are formed annually. Since 2007, 5,000 have entered to work in Spain. The majority union, SEMAF, ensures that the generational change has been completed at 75%, with a large majority, 3,700, who have joined Renfe’s Travelers or Freight subsidiaries.
The last call for the training course launched by Renfe proposed 267 places, which may be incorporated into the operator in the public job offer that it will bring out again this year, with 450 places available. The public has today more than 5,800 contracted machinists. At the end of this year, it expects to be close to 5,900, once the new signings have been incorporated and retirements have been subtracted, which will probably compensate for the number of entries. Sources from the public operator assure this newspaper that its replacement rate is above 1.
The unions reach the private
The competition in passenger mobility is still far from these figures, given that its size is much smaller. The Italian-Spanish Iryo has 102 train drivers and this year plans to hire another 15. It ensures that its growth plans include doubling the workforce for new routes within 5 years. They defend that their salary policy is aligned with the market, and their talent retention plan includes an indefinite contract and the commitment to drive high-speed trains from the first day of hiring.
For its part, the French operator Ouigo has 39 contracted machinists and for this course it expects up to four more to enter. In order to get qualified train drivers, he turned to the Captrain training center, which is also under the structure of the French company SNCF, and train drivers who have already worked for it, but operating freight trains.
Despite the fact that the entry of both companies into the Spanish market is recent, industry sources consulted by La Información allege that there is beginning to be disagreement on the part of some train drivers with the conditions offered by these companies. For this reason, in January union sections of the SEMAF union were set up in Ouigo and Iryo, aimed at “protecting the professional career of train drivers and defending their rights”.
The international market also takes drivers
Although the national competition is fierce, the process of internationalization of the railway must not be left aside. Although cross-border transport has been liberalized since 2010, it was not until this year that real competition came to the routes between Spain and France, with the state-owned SNCF and Renfe programming trains between Barcelona and Paris, as well as Lyon or Marseille.
The unilateral rupture of cross-border cooperation by the SNCF left Renfe without personnel authorized to circulate in France, and since then it has initiated processes to attract personnel with the requirements demanded by French regulators. For example, 20 of the places on the Renfe course were reserved for candidates with a B1 level of French. At the moment it only has 3, in charge of executing the tests through the French routes and who will later be in charge of training their colleagues.
The German DB Cargo, owner of the freight operator Transfesa, also started a process in 2019 to train train drivers in Spain who wanted to work in Germany. They only needed to have a B1 level of German and training equivalent to the middle grade, and they already exchanged obtaining the machinist’s license for free and 1,500 euros for relocation.