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, while others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.


Railroad occupations 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 occupations 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.

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 though a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal though 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
  • 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 oversee, and are ultimately responsible for, 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
  • Deal with unruly passengers when needed
  • 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
  • Operate freight cars within rail yards that use remote locomotive technology
  • 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.

Locomotive firers are 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.

Firers also monitor oil, temperature, and pressure gauges on train dashboards to determine if engines are operating safely and efficiently. Firers relay traffic signals from yard workers to engineers in a railroad yard.

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

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

Brake operators help couple and decouple 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 yards.

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.

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Work Environment

Workers in railroad occupations held about 113,800 jobs in 2012.

Nearly all locomotive engineers; conductors and yardmasters; and brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in rail transportation and support activities for rail transportation.

Rail yard engineers 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.

Injuries and Illnesses

Rail yard engineers and conductors and yardmasters have higher rates of work-related injuries than most occupations. Rail yard workers must move heavy equipment around and climb up and down equipment, which can be dangerous.

Work Schedules

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, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers, 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 and several months of on-the-job training.


Some rail companies require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors. Other positions may not have any formal education requirements.


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 nuances 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.

Recent legislation will soon require conductors who operate on national, regional, or commuter railroads to become certified. New conductors will have to pass a test that has been designed and administered by the railroad and approved by the FRA. Existing conductors will be granted automatic certification.


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

In addition, locomotive operators must be at least 21 years of age and pass a background test. They must also pass random drug and alcohol screenings over the course of their employment.

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.


The median annual wage for all railroad occupations was $52,400 in May 2012. 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 $35,400, and the top 10 percent earned more than $76,220.

Median wages for specific railroad occupations in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $54,700 for conductors and yardmasters
  • $52,280 for locomotive engineers
  • $51,340 for brake, signal, and switch operators
  • $44,920 for locomotive firers
  • $41,230 for rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

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, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers, 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.

Union Membership

Most railroad workers belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of railroad occupations is projected to decline 3 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Employment of locomotive engineers is projected to decline 4 percent. Employment of conductors and yardmasters is projected to decline 3 percent. Employment of rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers is projected to experience little or no change. Employment of brake, signal, and switch operators is projected to decline 3 percent.

Employment growth in these occupations will depend on demand for rail transportation. Demand for rail is driven by population growth and an increase in global trade. Although demand for rail transportation may grow, an increase in productivity may hold back employment growth in rail occupations. Because building new tracks is expensive, freight companies have found other ways to increase capacity, such as double-stacking (stacking one railcar on top of another) or running longer trains. With both of these approaches, passenger rail can also add more cars to existing trains to increase capacity without increasing either the number of locomotives or the number of conductors on these trains.

Some employment growth may occur as rising gas prices may lead some travelers to use passenger rail and some shipping companies to use freight rail. In addition, an increase in intermodal freight—the shipment of goods through multiple transportation modes—may shift some goods from trucks to freight rail.

Employment of locomotive firers is projected to decline 42 percent from 2012 to 2022. Most railroads are phasing out this occupation, as their duties are typically performed by locomotive engineers and conductors.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities should be favorable for railroad occupations. Although growth is projected to be slower than other occupations, more railroad workers are nearing retirement than are workers in most occupations. When these workers begin to retire, many jobs should open up, except for locomotive firers, as railroad companies will continue to phase them out of the workforce.

For More Information

For more information about commuter rail, visit

American Public Transportation Association

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

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)

For information about railroad occupation career opportunities, visit

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen

United Transportation Union


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.

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