Driving a train and piloting an aircraft – how similar are they? During the pandemic, there were several initiatives and many more voluntary switches where pilots re-trained to drive trains.

Pilots becoming train drivers

During the pandemic, there were many cases of people switching jobs. Several hard-hit industries suddenly had no work for many people, forcing them to look elsewhere. With the huge slowdown in aviation and the grounding of many fleets, pilots were undoubtedly among these. In January 2021, only 43% of pilots worldwide were still employed and flying (according to the Pilot Survey 2021 from Goose Recruitment and FlightGlobal). Of the rest, 30% were out of a job.

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft parked at Boeing field in April 2020.
Photo: VDB Photos/Shutterstock

Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that many pilots sought alternative employment. There were many cases of pilots working elsewhere or re-training for other roles. Driving trains was a popular choice. There are many similarities between the roles – operating a vehicle, transporting passengers, and traveling. And for employers, the requirements of skill, responsibility, and reliability are similar.

This switch to the rails happened in many countries. There were several reports of this happening all across Europe and New Zealand. In Switzerland, the train operators Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses (SBB/CFF) and Rhatische Bahn (RhB) launched programs to recruit pilots from airlines (largely from SWISS and Edelweiss). The companies noted at the time that they were short of around 30 drivers every day.

A Swiss Airlines Airbus A320, registration HB-IJL, on the taxiway.
Photo: Bradley Caslin/Shutterstock

A spokesperson for the Swiss pilots union Aeropers, Roman Kälin, explained the union support at the time to Le Nouvelliste, saying:

"Many things are very similar, such as the fascination with technology, the transport of people and goods from point A to point B, safety, or a sense of responsibility. In our eyes, this is a win-win situation. We ask our employers to think outside the box."

How similar are they both to “drive”?

In theory, the roles sound similar. Both pilots and drivers operate their vehicles to transport passengers (or cargo) between two places safely. To get an idea of the practical differences in operations, we turn to a fascinating publication from Virgin Atlantic. The airline looked at the experience when one of its Boeing 787 pilots and a UK train driver swapped roles – by trying out each other’s simulators. You can read the full coverage on the Virgin Atlantic website.

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Despite noting that the two simulators were very different (with the airline full motion simulator being vastly more expensive), the two men found many similarities in operation. Clearly, more training would be needed to operate either perfectly, but both seemed to feel immediately comfortable in the new role.

A Virgin Atlantic train simulator.
Photo: Virgin Atlantic

Whilst there were basic similarities, they did note the important difference of additional complexity of aircraft operation. Train driver manager Chris Drewery explained:

“While there are some similarities to our experiences on trains, it was the complexities with dealing with so much information and the ability to prioritize that really stood out for me."

Do you know of more cases of airline pilots switching to drain driving – or vice versa? Feel free to discuss further in the comments section.

Sources: Le Nouvelliste, Virgin Atlantic