The train operating company currently paying the highest rates, according to informed industry sources, is South West Trains. Some drivers earned up to pounds 52,000 a year by putting in the maximum hours and the average pay was around pounds 35,000, the sources said.
Last year, the company narrowly escaped a pounds 1m fine for cancelling up to 39 trains a day having "down-sized" the workforce by 70 drivers. Since then they have been forced to take on an even greater number than they made redundant and the 720 drivers currently on the pay roll are being stretched to the limits.
South West Trains, along with most of the other 24 passenger train operators, are also paying premium rates in order to keep their employees.
Since privatisation the number of drivers being trained has declined and companies are poaching each other's staff to ensure their services are kept running.
It is understood that some ex-train drivers who became depot managers are going on refresher courses to resume their previous careers in order to take advantage of the bonanza.
While Aslef, the train drivers' union, opposed privatisation, it is determined that its members will now the reap the benefits of a new market for drivers created by competing companies.
Lew Adams, general secretary of Aslef, calculated that the network needed another 450 drivers and that the shortage would worsen unless companies trained more drivers.
The wage inflation could get worse. Commenting on the scarcity of drivers and the competition for their services, Mr Adams said: "If they think they are going to be able to stick to pay rises which match the rate of inflation, they've got another think coming."
Having recently achieved a 37-hour working week, the union plans to reduce it to 35 hours - a policy which will exacerbate the shortage.
Last December, the union and Richard Branson's Virgin Trains, which runs both the West Coast Main Line and the CrossCountry services, launched a joint venture to recruit, train and supply drivers to the network.
All but one of the companies have agreed "restructuring" deals with Aslef so that the union's members are paid salaries instead of basic pay plus a Byzantine series of add-ons. Mr Adams has warned ScotRail, the only company to stick with the old system, that it faced conflict with the union unless it agreed a new structure and might also be the victim of poaching raids from other operators.
A spokeswoman for South West Trains, which last year contributed an estimated pounds 4m to its parent company Stagecoach, said it was not the company's policy to discuss drivers' earnings, but pointed out that the basic salary was around pounds 25,000 a year.
She said drivers could only work a maximum of 13 days consecutively before taking a day off. All drivers were entitled to two rest days a week and many chose not to work on their days off.
South West Trains' pay rates were "competitive", she said. and the company was currently training 30 drivers.
t Aslef is to seek damages and legal moves to clear the name of a train driver who served a prison sentence after pleading guilty to manslaughter over a train crash which killed five people eight years ago.
The union said it believed Robert Morgan should be exonerated of blame over the crash at Purley, south London, in 1990, in which five people died and 88 were injured.
Mr Morgan was driving a Littlehampton to Victoria train which hit the rear of a Horsham to Victoria train, throwing six coaches down an embankment.
Mr Morgan was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment, with 12 suspended, which was reduced to four months by the Court of Appeal.
Aslef said it had decided to seek a judicial review of the case following the acquittal earlier this month of another driver involved in a train crash.
Peter Afford, who drove a train involved in a crash at Watford Junction in 1996 in which a woman died and 70 people were injured, was cleared of manslaughter by a jury at Luton Crown Court.
Union general secretary Lew Adams said the union would be seeking "substantial damages and exoneration" for Mr Morgan.
"It is quite clear that Mr Morgan was left to take the blame when the accident may have been caused by infrastructure shortcomings," said Mr Adams.Reuse content