Train Operator Exams
Updated July 14, 2021
The skills required by a train operator are many and varied – vigilance, concentration, precision, awareness. They’re all necessary, along with technical know-how, effective communication and problem solving.
With such a broad range of abilities a prerequisite, train operator companies (TOCs) use a number of psychometric assessments in the recruitment process that together make up the train operator exam suite.
Between them, these assessments measure cognitive ability, psychomotor skills, and workplace behaviours, helping to identify candidates able to perform the duties of a train operator diligently and with the utmost regard for safety.
These tests not only ensure successful applicants have what it takes to work both efficiently and safely, but they also give TOCs a way to narrow down a large candidate pool, with on average 300 applications received for every opening.
Taking all of this into account, train operator exams are purposefully designed to be challenging. They require unwavering concentration, are taken under time constraints and typically issued in a single day at a recognized test centre.
That said, what’s under assessment here is your natural ability, and with the right amount of practice and preparation, those with the relevant skill set should do well in their train operator exams.
The selection criteria for train operators is determined by the authority responsible for any given rail network, and, as such, there are slight variations depending on where in the world you are located.
In the UK and mainland Europe, the tests administered are fairly consistent, inclusive of those detailed below.
They follow a similar format in the US with the addition of group exercises, though here you will also need a Federal Railroad Certification. In most cases, you will also need prior experience or specific training before being offered a train operator post.
Australia differs again, with verbal, logical and numerical reasoning tests often forming part of the train operator assessment process.
You may also find slight differences depending on the TOC to which you have applied, with some preferring to use specific versions of certain test types.
Below are the most common exams issued as part of the train operator test suite. As you’ll see, they test various abilities, including technical understanding, memory, comprehension, focus, reactions and situational awareness.
Mechanical reasoning tests are used to measure your understanding of concepts and principles found in basic physics and how well you’re able to apply them.
Throughout, you’ll be presented with diagrams depicting mechanical scenarios. Each diagram will be accompanied by a question, with around four or five multiple choice answers to choose from.
In a train driver exam, questions typically revolve around things like gears, levers and pulleys, but you should also be prepared to solve problems relating to movement, force, balance etc.
This is a timed exam, so you’ll need to work at speed. You’ll receive one mark for each correct response with no negative marking applied, so take an educated guess whenever you are unsure of the right answer.
Group Bourdon is a popular concentration test that measures perception, vigilance and attention to detail, all under the pressure of a strict time limit.
You may take it as either a pen and paper or computer-based exam, but in each case the format is the same.
You’ll be presented with a grid, 25 columns across and 21 rows down. Each cell of the grid will contain an arrangement of dots. There will be anything from three to six dots present in any cell, arranged at random.
The task is to select each cell containing four dots. You’ll have two minutes to work through the entire 25 x 21 grid and will need to complete five grids, giving a total test time of 10 minutes.
Marking of the Group Bourdon test is complex. You’ll be scored on speed, average speeds per cell and per row, and consistency of speed. You’ll also be marked on accuracy and lose a point for every incorrectly selected cell.
Although simple in principle, this is a taxing assessment that requires you to maintain absolute focus for the full 10 minutes while working both quickly and accurately.
Alternative concentration tests may sometimes be used, such as the Safe Concentration and Attention Test (SCAAT), but in the majority of cases, it is the Group Bourdon test that will be administered as part of your train operator exams.
The TRP test is a measure of your ability to work with new information and assesses comprehension, interpretation and memory recall. It is split into two parts.
In the first part of the TRP test, you’ll be given an audio clip to listen to. This will typically walk you through a train-related scenario, and you’ll need to listen attentively, as it is unlikely you’ll be permitted to take notes at this stage.
You’ll then be issued a written version of the audio clip and given around five minutes to read it through. You may be able to make notes here, but these will be taken from you before the marked section of the test begins.
This marked section comes in the form of a multiple-choice questionnaire, with around 18 questions relating to the information you have just processed. You’ll need to answer these based on memory in the allotted time.
You will not be marked down for incorrect answers on the TRP, so it’s always worth taking your best guess.
In part two, you’ll be assessed on logic and how well you can follow rules and procedures.
You’ll be given a color-coded guide outlining the priority order for fault finding. You’ll then see a number of dials split into corresponding colored segments.
Each dial will have a hand pointing to one of these segments, and you’ll need to use the guide to determine which order the dials need to be checked in. Four multiple choice options will be given.
All questions follow the same format, with 40 to answer in eight minutes.
Again, this test may be simple in principle, but is challenging when you account for the time pressure and concentration required.
The TEA-OCC comes in three parts and is designed to test observation, concentration, and your ability to complete routine tasks simultaneously.
This is a measure of auditory perception and awareness.
You’ll be played an audio clip in which beeps are heard at random. Some of these beeps will be in low tones, some high.
The challenge is to stay alert throughout and count, in your head, those beeps in low tones only.
In this section, you’ll be tasked with processing visual cues to identify items that match specific criteria. This type of assessment is often referred to as a phonebook or directory test.
For example, you may be given a grid with icons referencing different types of accommodation, their price range, zip code and telephone number.
Question prompts may ask you to highlight all hotels under a certain cost per night or all campsites within a geographical area.
The final section of the TEA-OCC is a combination of parts one and two. You’ll search for relevant entries in a visual grid, while simultaneously keeping count of beeps heard in low tones.
Your multitasking skills are under assessment here, along with your ability to maintain focus in the face of distraction.
All in all, the TEA-OCC takes around 20 minutes to complete, and you’ll be working against the clock at every stage.
This short, computer-based test looks at your level of awareness and visual perception.
You’ll hear an alert tone, after which an image will appear on screen, depicting some sort of traffic or street-related scene in which various items are present.
The image will be visible for seconds only, and you’ll need to take in as much information as possible in that time.
Once the image is removed, you’ll be given multiple-choice options of things that may or may not have been visible, and you will need to select those which you believe you saw.
As an adaptive test, the images will become more detailed the better you perform and vice versa. The aim of this is to identify your optimum performance level.
In some cases, you may be asked to sit the Train Driver Awareness and Recognition Test (AART).
This alternative to the ATAVT looks at the same skill set, but instead of asking you to select items you recall seeing, there’ll be a more direct question, like how many cars were present in the image, for example.
The WAFV Vigilance test measures your ability to maintain focus and react quickly to potential hazards. It does this in a simple yet effective way.
You’ll see a gray box on screen and will need to keep careful watch for when the shade of the square changes.
This will happen intermittently, and each time it does, you’ll need to register the change by pressing a button.
The test lasts for 30 minutes in total. Your score will be a combination of how many changes you picked up on and the speed at which you did so.
Alongside your cognitive and psychomotor skills, TOCs also want to ensure that you understand what constitutes effective behaviour in a work-based context.
For this, they use situational judgement tests. You’ll be given a range of hypothetical scenarios, much like you’d come across in your role as a train operator.
Each scenario will be accompanied by several response options. You’ll need to rank these in the order of which you see as most to least effective.
Some TOCs, but not all, will also look to assess your written communication skills to make sure you’re capable of fulfilling administrative duties associated with the role.
The task here is not to produce a comprehensive essay, but a brief write-up based on either a text or visual prompt.
Essentially, what’s being assessed is your ability to compile things like incident reports. Where these tests are used, they do not carry weight on whether you pass or fail your train operator exams.
Although they test your natural abilities, it is possible – and indeed advisable – to practice and prepare for your train operator exams.
To help you on your way, follow the steps below.
If you’re invited to complete the train operator exams, it won’t be without fair warning. In fact, the TOC to which you have applied should send you a comprehensive information pack.
This will include a breakdown of the exact tests you’ll be required to sit, along with a schedule for your assessment day and a range of preparation materials.
This is valuable information so review it carefully. It will tell you precisely what you need to prepare for so you can focus your efforts accordingly.
Now you know what tests you’ll be taking, and when, work backwards from your test date to create a feasible and effective study plan.
Make a point of putting extra effort into your weak spots. It can be tempting to focus only on what you’re good at, since this is most enjoyable, but for a strong all-round performance, you need to challenge yourself.
Although we say study plan, you can’t really learn the skills you need. However, you can improve on them, and this should be the focus of your approach.
Whilst there may be slight variations in the tests you sit, you can be sure there will be a variety of train operator exams involved, each unique in its format.
You can also be sure you’ll be taking them consecutively and will need to quickly switch your attention to a new task.
The best way to prepare for this is to become familiar with the exact requirements of each assessment. The more you understand what is in store, the more confident and focused you’ll be.
There are plenty of practice tests and preparation aids available online, some free of charge, some for purchase. Your TOC may also send you practice tests as part of your information pack.
Take these under timed conditions, since the trickiest part of train operator tests is learning to pace yourself.
Keep in mind that you will not complete every test in full. Take the Group Bourdon, for example. It’s impractical to think you can complete every row of every grid in the time limit and attempting to do so is likely to impact your accuracy and your score.
By practicing against the clock, you can find your optimum working speed.
As we’ve mentioned, train operator exams are usually sat in a single day at a test centre. This can be menally challenging, since all tests require high levels of concentration.
To prepare yourself, you need to work on your mental stamina, so try taking all the tests one after another, just as you will on your official test day.
Repeat this exercise a few times. Think of it as training your brain for a marathon of concentration.
The train operator exam suite is a challenging set of assessments, and rightly so. The role is one of great responsibility, and as an applicant you need to prove you have the appropriate skills to ensure maximum safety at all times.
The good news is that you likely already possess these skills, and with practice they can be developed to a highly effective standard.
You’ll also find that the more practice you put in, the more your speed, accuracy and scores will improve, and the less anxious you’ll be about sitting your train operator exams.