The opening - a decade after the birth of the Stockton & Darlington railway - heralded the astonishing growth of our rail network, which within half a century covered 160,000 miles of track, spurring on the pace of the Industrial Revolution and changing people's lives forever.

Today Network Rail is undertaking a vast programme to restructure Britain's railways. And it is doing so with a great, and often unsung, contribution from our colleges.

Many of the people keeping your train service running - from the drivers to the track and signal engineers, from rolling-stock designers to ticketing staff, caterers to platform attendants - will have been trained in a local college.

Take York College as a prime example; the city of York has long been synonymous with the rail industry, so it seems a fitting home for the country's first Rail Academy - run by York College in partnership with the famous Railway Museum.

The academy opened in 2004 to address a growing rail skills gap by increasing new entrant training as well as improving the skills and qualifications of existing staff. It has close links with the major railway employers and is a centre of vocational excellence in Railway Engineering and Signal Engineering.

State-of-the-art facilities include an engineering laboratory and an external track training area with points, signalling and rail maintenance equipment.

Engineering aside, the academy also offers bespoke courses to meet industry demand, including information technology, electronics, customer service, team building and project management.

Six years ago the rail industry was criticised for its lack of qualifications, particularly among train drivers - London Underground found that only one of its 3,500 drivers had a relevant national vocational qualification.

In response, Barnet College, in partnership with London Underground, City & Guilds and Four Counties Training, developed a bespoke programme for all Tube staff, the biggest NVQ project ever seen in the rail industry.

It has trained more than 7,000 staff. A further 2,000 are on the programme and the success rate is 98 per cent. Barnet College and Four Counties Training were duly awarded Centre of Vocational Excellence status.

"We hope we will take this further as a result with other rail operators around the country, and use this as a model and success story in its own right," says the college.

Another hero in the regeneration of our railways is Newham College, which has been a centre of vocational excellence for railway engineering for four years. The college has a long association with the railways - many depot supervisors and managers in London trained there. Today the college offers training for traction and rolling-stock engineers - those people who maintain the whole train - for companies including Eurostar and Great North Eastern Railway. The college also offers a foundation degree in traction and rolling stock in partnership with Kingston University.

Across the capital at the Old Oak Common Lane depot near Willesden, the College of North West London last year provided bespoke on-site engineering training to operators First Great Western.

Colleges are integral to rail safety. For example, Cornwall Business School (CBS) In-Company; part of the Cornwall College group, provides health and safety and environmental management courses to companies Amey Rail, Track Rail and Bombardia.

College training extends from platform to dining car - catering staff will have come from the industry via the plethora of further education colleges which run hospitality and catering courses.

In fact, the influence of colleges reaches beyond the length of any train journey. Some foundation degree students at Sheffield College, for example, go on to study rolling-stock design at Sheffield Hallam University.

So while this year's anniversary reminds us that our rail industry truly was the marvel of the 19th century, isn't it good to see the wealth of expertise and experience in our colleges helping it to get back on track in the 21st?

John Brennan, Association of Colleges