Keeping Britain's trains and buses running safely and on time is a huge and complex task

In a nation of grumblers, public transport is paid the dubious compliment of being public gripe number one. Everyone has an opinion on it. And understandably so, as it is a hugely complex service used by millions of us every year.

Since privatisation it is also an industry that has been in massive flux, with franchises coming up for grabs, mergers, and massive government and private investment. So it's no surprise that transport companies are reintroducing apprenticeships and graduate trainee schemes, and recruiting expertise from outside the industry to find the future architects public transport who can bring together the pieces of this multi-billion pound Rubik's cube.

It can be profoundly satisfying work. "You're creating something, making something happen the way you want it to happen," says Terry Pierce, schedules manager for bus company London Central, London General. "It's a mathematical game, but one where people's lives are at stake so you have to take it seriously." Pierce, 59, links duty schedules to bus time tables, making sure that the best use is made of drivers and buses, matching routes and garages.

"It's a series of problems and puzzles that have to be solved around different garages and contractual agreements," he says. "The duty schedule doesn't fit the time schedules, and it doesn't follow one bus. That's the complicated bit, the interesting bit. You're looking to move work round to make the best schedule."

Pierce's interest in schedules dates back to boyhood. "I've always been a schedules enthusiast," he says. "As a lad I was an engine spotter and wanted to know more about it." He has spent the 40-odd years since leaving school working on bus schedules. "I always compare it to chess," he says. "You need the same flexibility of mind and dedication to detail."

Not all transport management is as rarefied as this. For Howard Collins, 46, one of the best parts of the job has been a chance to get his hands dirty. His first two years training as a school leaver and management training in his mid-20s gave him a chance to try out all the different front-line roles on offer on the Tube, from fighting fires to training drivers.

"You won't find yourself doing the photocopying or making the tea," he says. "And it's very useful, you learn more from working on the front line than from any paper or analysis."

That, however, didn't stop him studying, and London Transport has supported him on day-release programmes to do a range of business qualifications, most recently an MBA at Westminster University. He is now one of the three service directors that run the Tube, responsible for a third of the network, including the Metropolitan, District, and Circle lines.

"You're holding together an antiquated railway so you've got to be prepared for the unexpected," he says. "There's never a dull day, as you can see from the Evening Standard headlines."

For Collins, transport management is less like chess than rugby. "You could see the teamwork in action after the July bombings," he says. "And sometimes you can feel as embattled as on a rugby field. But it feels good to be there."

To make sure the team is in place and moving on, you need experts like Pierce and Collins. But if the fleets aren't there, you don't even have a ball to play with. And one of the most important roles in public transport is that of engineers such as John Hawkings. Hawkings, 48, oversees the technical aspects of multi-billion pound mergers and the introduction of millions of pounds' worth of new trains for First Group, but most of his career was spent in train maintenance. "Rail offers everything," he says, "from heavy engineering through to micro-processor-controlled traction systems."

He joined the rail industry after graduating in mechanical engineering from Imperial College London, attracted by the well structured graduate scheme. Such schemes were put on hold for a few years after privatisation, but companies are now bringing them back. And for Hawkings, privatisation has made the industry more interesting.

"It's a fascinating world, you couldn't get bored," he says. "Particularly post-privatisation it's a highly complicated three dimensional jigsaw. Now it's not only technically complex but also complex contractually."

As privatisation has brought a greater complexity to the industry, so it has increased the need for new and different insights, and alongside traditional internal recruitment an increasing number of people are moving into transport from other industries.

"The transport industry is now looking outside itself to bring in new ideas," says Catherine Mason, 44, managing director of Arriva Midlands. And she should know. Until 1998 Mason did marketing for food and drink companies.

"I was looking for something different," she says. "The transport industry was just waking up to the idea of marketing, and so I could make a big difference, overseeing a cultural change from an operations-led industry to a more customer-focused one."

Mason was never particularly interested in trains, and when she graduated with a genetics degree from Liverpool the thought of applying to the transport industry didn't occur to her. The move into transport has not been effortless but, she says, it has certainly been enjoyable. "Transport's a great industry," she says. "It's continuously changing and it's used to change, so new ideas are welcomed."

So whether you get off on the steel certainties of an engine or the subtle business of people, there is the chance to bring A and B that little bit closer. So do us all a favour, and keep British transport moving.

Bob Holland, 54, Southern Europe Director for Arriva: 'It may not seem the sexiest job but you're not stuck behind a desk'

"I was never a trainspotter. At university I just wanted to get into management and people management. Sixty per cent of the cost in buses is the people, and that attracted me. I graduated in economics from Salford University and joined the graduate training scheme with the National Bus Company.

"The graduate scheme is nothing to do with having a specialism. Having a degree is just a way of showing you can think and adapt. We're looking for people to become managing directors, to develop their skills in people management.

The old graduate training scheme went into every part of the business and it meant I moved into management after two years. There were 12 of us on the programme , and a lot of the top managers in transport now did that scheme.

"Those opportunities are still there. Our new graduate trainee programme seeks to give everyone a flavour of the different parts of the industry. A strong graduate trainee is expected to be a subsidiary company director within four or five years.

"Now I manage Arriva's businesses in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. We run 3,000 buses in southern Europe, and we're looking to move into trains in Italy. It may not seem the sexiest job in the world but you're not stuck behind a desk. In 32 years no day has ever been the same.

"It's a complex logistical puzzle. You have to get thousands of buses and drivers to the right place at the right time every day like clockwork. Then you've got to make people want to use it. So there's that logistical complexity with a commercial side.

"There's always going to be public transport. There has to be a solution to urban gridlock, and that isn't building more roads. Any problems there are is because trains and buses are too popular. That's the challenge for graduates to address now. NJ

The lowdown

What qualifications do I need?

Any, it depends on where you want to start. London Transport has recently restarted apprenticeship schemes for 16-year-olds, and some transport companies, such as Arriva and First Group, offer graduate programmes.

How far can I get?

Career progression is good throughout the industry. Most transport managers are expected to spend time in front-line operations, and equally there are good opportunities for front-line staff to become managers.

How much will I earn?

Expect to earn from £18,000 to £23,000 to begin with, with middle managers moving from £30,000 to £40,000 and the very best on around £100,000.

How do I apply?

Applications are usually through the big groups that control the industry: Arriva, Stagecoach, Go Ahead, and First Group. To find out more visit their websites.