Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains run on time and travel safely. Some workers drive trains, some coordinate the activities of the trains, and others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

Duties

Railroad workers typically do the following:

  • Check the mechanical condition of locomotives and make adjustments when necessary
  • Document issues with a train that require further inspection
  • Operate locomotive engines within or between stations

Freight trains move billions of tons of goods around the country to ports where they are shipped around the world. Passenger trains transport millions of passengers and commuters to destinations around the country. These railroad workers are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.

All workers in railroad occupations work together closely. Locomotive engineers travel with conductors and sometimes brake operators. Locomotive engineers and conductors are in constant contact and keep each other informed of any changes in the condition of the train.

Signal and switch operators communicate with both locomotive and rail yard engineers to make sure that trains end up at the correct destination. All occupations are in contact with dispatchers who give them directions on where to go and what to do.

The following are examples of types of railroad workers:

Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. Most locomotive engineers drive diesel-electric engines, although some drive locomotives powered by battery or electricity.

Engineers must be aware of the goods their train is carrying because different types of freight require different types of driving, based on the conditions of the rails. For example, a train carrying hazardous material through a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal through a mountain region.

Locomotive engineers typically do the following:

  • Monitor speed, air pressure, battery use, and other instruments to ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly
  • Observe track for obstructions, such as fallen tree branches
  • Use a variety of controls, such as throttles and airbrakes, to operate the train
  • Communicate with dispatchers over radios to get information about delays or changes in the schedule

Conductors travel on both freight and passenger trains. They coordinate activities of the train crew. On passenger trains, they ensure safety and comfort and make announcements to keep passengers informed. On freight trains they are responsible for overseeing the loading and unloading of cargo.

Conductors typically do the following:

  • Check passengers’ tickets
  • Take payments from passengers who did not buy tickets in advance
  • Announce stations and give other announcements as needed
  • Help passengers to safety when needed
  • Ensure safe and orderly passenger conduct
  • Oversee loading and unloading of cargo

Yardmasters do work similar to that of conductors, except that they do not travel on trains. They oversee and coordinate the activities of workers in the rail yard. They tell yard engineers where to move cars to fit the planned configuration or to load freight. Yardmasters ensure that trains are carrying the correct material before leaving the yard. Not all rail yards use yardmasters. In rail yards that do not have yardmasters, a conductor performs the duties of a yardmaster.

Yardmasters typically do the following:

  • Review schedules, switching orders, and shipping records of freight trains
  • Arrange for defective cars to be removed from a train for repairs
  • Switch train traffic to a certain section of the line to allow other inbound and outbound trains to get around
  • Break up or put together train cars according to a schedule

Rail yard engineers operate train engines within the rail yard. They move locomotives between tracks to keep the trains organized and on schedule. Some operate small locomotives called dinkeys. Sometimes, rail yard engineers are called hostlers and drive locomotives to and from maintenance shops or prepare them for the locomotive engineer. Some use remote locomotive technology to move freight cars within the rail yards.

Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators control equipment that keeps the trains running safely.

Brake operators help couple and uncouple train cars. Some travel with the train as part of the crew.

Signal operators install and maintain the signals along tracks and in the rail yard. Signals are important in preventing accidents because they allow increased communication between trains and dispatchers.

Switch operators control the track switches in rail yards. These switches allow trains to move between tracks and ensure trains are heading in the right direction.

Locomotive firers are sometimes part of a train crew and typically monitor tracks and train instruments. They look for equipment that is dragging, obstacles on the tracks, and other potential safety problems.

Few trains still use firers, because their work has been automated or is now done by a locomotive engineer or conductor.

Is This the Right Career for You?

Not sure how to choose the best career for you? Now, you can predict which career will satisfy you in the long term by taking a scientifically validated career test. Gain the clarity and confidence that comes from understanding your strengths, talents, and preferences, and knowing which path is truly right for you.

Take The Test

 

 

 

 

 

Work Environment

Railroad workers held about 91,100 jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up railroad workers was distributed as follows:

Railroad conductors and yardmasters 39,500
Locomotive engineers 32,200
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators 13,400
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers                                                   5,500
Locomotive firers 500

The largest employers of railroad workers were as follows:

Rail transportation 87%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals                                                6

Rail yard engineers and brake, signal, and switch operators spend most of their time working outside, regardless of weather conditions.

Conductors on passenger trains generally work in cleaner, more comfortable conditions than conductors on freight trains. However, conductors on passenger trains sometimes must respond to upset or unruly passengers when a train is delayed.

Work Schedules

Because trains are scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, many railroad workers sometimes work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail employees work full time. Federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.

Locomotive engineers and conductors whose trains travel long routes can be away from home for long periods of time. Those who work on passenger trains with short routes generally have more predictable schedules. Workers on some freight trains have irregular schedules.

For engineers and conductors, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers and conductors, called extra board, are hired on a temporary basis and get an assignment only when a railroad needs an extra or substitute worker on a certain route.

Education and Training

Workers in railroad occupations generally need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.

Education

Rail companies typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors.

Training

Locomotive engineers generally receive 2 to 3 months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer who teaches them the characteristics of that particular train route.

During training, an engineer learns the track length, where the switches are, and any unusual features of the track. An experienced engineer who switches to a new route also has to spend a few months in training to learn the route with an engineer who is familiar with it. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.

Most railroad companies have 1 to 3 months of on-the-job training for conductors and yardmasters. Amtrak (the passenger train company) and some of the larger freight railroad companies operate their own training programs. Smaller and regional railroads may send conductors to a central training facility or a community college.

Yardmasters may be sent to training programs or may be trained by an experienced yardmaster. They learn how to operate remote locomotive technology and how to manage railcars in the yard.

Conductors and yardmasters working for freight railroads also learn the proper procedures for loading and unloading different types of cargo. Conductors on passenger trains learn ticketing procedures and how to handle passengers.

Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, generally through a company training program. This program may last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the company and the complexity of the job. The program may include some time in a classroom and some hands-on experience under the direction of an experienced employee.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors for several years.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Locomotive engineers must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The certification, conducted by the railroad that employs them, involves a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a supervisor determining that the engineer understands all physical aspects of the particular route on which he or she will be operating.

An experienced engineer who changes routes must be recertified for the new route. Even engineers who do not switch routes must be recertified every few years.

At the end of the certification process, the engineer must pass a vision and hearing test.

Conductors who operate on national, regional, or commuter railroads are also required to become certified. To receive certification, new conductors must pass a test that has been designed and administered by the railroad and approved by the FRA.

Advancement

Rail yard engineers, switch operators, and signal operators can advance to become conductors or yardmasters. Some conductors or yardmasters advance to become locomotive engineers.

Personality and Interests

Workers in railroad occupations typically have an interest in the Building, Persuading and Organizing interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Persuading interest area indicates a focus on influencing, motivating, and selling to other people. The Organizing interest area indicates a focus on working with information and processes to keep things arranged in orderly systems.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Persuading or Organizing interest which might fit with a career as a railroad worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Workers in railroad occupations should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. All rail employees have to be able to communicate effectively with each other to avoid accidents and keep the trains on schedule.

Customer-service skills. Conductors on passenger trains ensure customers’ comfort, make announcements, and answer any questions a passenger has. They must be courteous and patient. They may have to deal with unruly or upset passengers.

Decision-making skills. When operating a locomotive, engineers must be able to make fast decisions to avoid accidents.

Hand-eye coordination. Locomotive engineers have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.

Hearing ability. To show that they can hear warning signals and communicate with other employees, locomotive engineers have to pass a hearing test conducted by their rail company.

Leadership skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. Yardmasters oversee other rail yard workers.

Mechanical skills. All rail employees work with complex machines. Most have to be able to adjust equipment when it does not work properly. Some rail yard engineers spend most of their time fixing broken equipment.

Physical strength. Some rail yard engineers have to lift heavy equipment.

Speaking skills. Conductors on passenger trains announce stations and make other announcements. They must be able to speak clearly so passengers understand what they are saying.

Visual ability. To drive a train, locomotive engineers have to pass a vision test conducted by their rail company. Eyesight, peripheral vision, and color vision may be tested.

Pay

The median annual wage for railroad workers was $61,480 in May 2018. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $43,050, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $95,140.

Median annual wages for railroad workers in May 2018 were as follows:

Locomotive firers $63,820
Railroad conductors and yardmasters 62,930
Locomotive engineers 62,100
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators 57,260
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers                                              52,630

In May 2018, the median annual wages for railroad workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Rail transportation $62,350
Local government, excluding education and hospitals                                         59,560

Trains are scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, meaning that many railroad workers sometimes work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail employees work full time. Federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.

Locomotive engineers and conductors whose trains travel long routes can be away from home for long periods of time. Those who work on passenger trains with short routes generally have a more predictable schedule. Workers on some freight trains have irregular schedules.

For engineers and conductors, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers and conductors, called extra board, are hired on a temporary basis and get an assignment only when a railroad needs an extra or substitute worker on a certain route.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 2 percent from 2018 to 2028. Decreasing demand for the transportation of bulk commodities, such as coal and oil, may cause some railroads to reduce employment in an effort to become more efficient.

As more pipelines open up in the oil and natural gas-producing areas, the need for rail transportation in these areas may decline. In addition, more power plants are increasingly using natural gas instead of coal for electricity production, which should contribute to reduced demand for coal.

However, an increase in intermodal freight—the shipment of goods through multiple transportation modes—may increase demand for some railroad workers.

Employment of locomotive firers is projected to decline 68 percent from 2018 to 2028. Most railroads are phasing out this occupation, as their duties are typically performed by locomotive engineers and conductors.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities should be competitive for railroad workers. Job openings will primarily stem from the need to replace retiring workers.

For More Information

For more information about training programs, certifications, and job opportunities in rail transportation, visit

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)

Association of American Railroads (AAR)

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

FAQ

Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

I would like to cite this page for a report. Who is the author?

There is no published author for this page. Please use citation guidelines for webpages without an author available. 

I think I have found an error or inaccurate information on this page. Who should I contact?

This information is taken directly from the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truity does not editorialize the information, including changing information that our readers believe is inaccurate, because we consider the BLS to be the authority on occupational information. However, if you would like to correct a typo or other technical error, you can reach us at help@truity.com.

I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. On this site, you can take the Career Personality Profiler assessment, the Holland Code assessment, or the Photo Career Quiz.