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Rail Transportation Occupations

Significant Points
  • Opportunities are expected to be good for qualified applicants, mainly because of the large number of workers expected to retire or leave these occupations in the next decade.
  • Employment is expected to decline due to productivity increases.
  • Most workers begin as yard laborers and later may have the opportunity to train for engineer or conductor jobs.
  • Eight out of 10 workers are members of unions, and earnings are relatively high.
Nature of the Work

More than a century ago, freight and passenger railroads were the ties binding the Nation together and the engine driving the economy. Today, rail transportation remains a vital link in our Nation’s transportation network and economy. Railroads deliver billions of tons of freight and millions of travelers per year to destinations throughout the country, while subways and light-rail systems transport millions of passengers around metropolitan areas.

Locomotive engineers are among the most experienced and skilled workers on the railroad. They operate large trains carrying cargo and passengers between stations. Most engineers run diesel-electric locomotives, although a few operate locomotives powered electrically.

Before and after each run, engineers check the mechanical condition of their locomotives, making any minor adjustments necessary. engineers receive starting instructions from conductors. They move controls such as throttles and airbrakes to drive the locomotive. They monitor instruments that measure speed, amperage, battery charge, and air pressure, both in the brake lines and in the main reservoir.

On the open rail and in the yard, engineers confer with conductors and traffic control center personnel via two-way radio or mobile telephone to issue or receive information concerning stops, delays, and the locations of trains. They interpret and comply with orders, signals, speed limits, and railroad rules and regulations. They must have a thorough knowledge of the signaling systems, yards, and terminals on the routes over which they travel. Engineers must be constantly aware of the condition and makeup of their train, because trains react differently to acceleration, braking, and curves, depending on the grade and condition of the rail, the number of cars, the ratio of empty cars to loaded cars, and the amount of slack in the train.

Rail yard engineers operate engines within the rail yard. Dinkey operators drive smaller engines, mainly within industrial plants, mines and quarries, or construction projects. Hostlers operate engines—without attached cars—within the yard, as well as driving them to maintenance shops.

Railroad conductors coordinate the activities of freight and passenger train crews. Railroad conductors assigned to freight trains review schedules, switching orders, waybills, and shipping records to obtain loading and unloading information regarding their cargo. In switching operations, conductors may move engines using radio control devices. Conductors assigned to passenger trains also ensure passenger safety and comfort as they go about collecting tickets and fares, making announcements for the benefit of passengers, and coordinating activities of the crew to provide passenger services.

Before a train leaves the terminal, the conductor and the engineer discuss instructions received from the dispatcher concerning the train’s route, timetable, and cargo. During the run, conductors use two-way radios and mobile telephones to communicate with dispatchers, engineers, and conductors of other trains. Conductors use dispatch or electronic monitoring devices that relay information about equipment problems on the train or the rails. They may arrange for the removal of defective cars from the train for repairs at the nearest station or stop. In addition, conductors may discuss alternative routes if there is a defect in, or obstruction on, the rails.

Yardmasters coordinate the activities of workers engaged in railroad traffic operations. These activities include making up or breaking up trains and switching inbound or outbound traffic to a specific section of the line. Some cars are sent to unload their cargo on special tracks, while others s are moved to different tracks to await assembly into new trains, based on their destinations. Yardmasters tell engineers where to move the cars to fit the planned train configuration. Switches—many of them operated remotely by computer—divert the locomotive or cars to the proper track for coupling and uncoupling.

Railroad brake operators act as assistants to engineers, handling the coupling and uncoupling of cars as well as operating some switches. Signal operators install, maintain, and repair the signals on tracks and in yards. Switch operators control the track switches within a rail yard.

Traditionally, freight train crews included either one or two brake operators—one in the locomotive with the engineer and another who rode with the conductor in the rear car. Brake operators worked under the direction of conductors and did the physical work involved in adding and removing cars at railroad stations and assembling and disassembling trains in railroad yards. In an effort to reduce costs, most railroads have phased out brake operators. Many modern freight trains use only an engineer and a conductor. New visual instrumentation and monitoring devices have eliminated the need for crewmembers located at the rear of the train, so the conductor is now stationed with the engineer.

In contrast to other rail transportation workers, subway and streetcar operators generally work for public transit authorities instead of railroads. Subway operators control trains that transport passengers through cities and their suburbs. The trains run in underground tunnels, on the surface, or on elevated tracks. Operators must stay alert to observe signals along the track that indicate when they must start, slow, or stop their train. They also make announcements to riders, may open and close the doors of the train, and ensure that passengers get on and off the subway safely.

To meet predetermined schedules, operators must control the train’s speed and the amount of time spent at each station. Increasingly, however, these functions are controlled by computers and not by the operator. During breakdowns or emergencies, operators contact their dispatcher or supervisor and may have to evacuate cars.

Streetcar operators drive electric-powered streetcars, trolleys, or light-rail vehicles that transport passengers around metropolitan areas. Some tracks may be recessed in city streets or have grade crossings, so operators must observe traffic signals and cope with car and truck traffic. Operators start, slow, and stop their cars so that passengers may get on and off with ease. Operators may collect fares and issue change and transfers. They also answer questions from passengers concerning fares, schedules, and routes.

Working Conditions

Many rail transportation employees work nights, weekends, and holidays, because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many work more than a 40-hour workweek. Seniority usually dictates who receives the more desirable shifts.

Many freight trains are dispatched according to the needs of customers; as a result many train crews have irregular schedules. Many workers place their names on a list and wait for their turn to work. Jobs usually are assigned on short notice and often at odd hours; working weekends is common. Those who work on trains operating between points hundreds of miles apart may spend several nights at a time away from home.

Workers on passenger trains ordinarily have regular and reliable shifts. Also, the appearance, temperature, and accommodations of passenger trains are more comfortable than those of freight trains.

Rail yard workers spend most of their time outdoors and work regardless of weather conditions. The work of conductors and engineers on local runs, on which trains frequently stop at stations to pick up and deliver cars, is physically demanding. Climbing up and down and getting off moving cars is strenuous and can be dangerous.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most railroad transportation workers begin as yard laborers; later they may have the opportunity to train for engineer or conductor jobs. Railroads require that applicants have a minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent. Applicants must have good hearing, eyesight, and color vision, as well as good hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, and mechanical aptitude. Physical stamina is required for entry-level jobs. Employers require railroad transportation job applicants to pass a physical examination, drug and alcohol screening, and a criminal background check. Federal regulation requires that the driving record of anybody applying for a job operating an engine be checked for evidence of drug or alcohol problems. Similarly, under Federal regulation, all persons licensed to operate engines are subject to random drug and alcohol testing while on duty.

Applicants for locomotive engineer jobs must be at least 21 years old. Employers almost always fill engineer positions with workers who have experience in other railroad-operating occupations. Federal regulations require beginning engineers to complete a formal engineer training program, including classroom, simulator, and hands-on instruction in locomotive operation. The instruction usually is administered by the rail company in programs approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. At the end of the training period, engineers must pass a hearing and visual acuity test, a safety conduct background check, a railroad operation knowledge test, and a skills performance test. The company issues the engineer a license after the applicant passes the examinations. Other conditions and rules may apply to entry-level engineers and usually vary with the employer.

To maintain certification, railroad companies must monitor their engineers. In addition, engineers must periodically pass an operational rules efficiency test. The test is an unannounced event requiring engineers to take active or responsive action in certain situations, such as maintaining a particular speed through a curve or yard.

engineers undergo periodic physical examinations and drug and alcohol testing to determine their fitness to operate locomotives. In some cases, engineers who fail to meet these physical and conduct standards are restricted to yard service; in other instances, they may be disciplined, trained to perform other work, or discharged.

Conductor jobs generally are filled from the ranks of experienced rail transportation workers who have passed tests covering signals, timetables, operating rules, and related subjects. Seniority usually is the main factor in determining promotion to conductor. Entry-level conductors generally must be at least 21 years of age and are either trained by their employers or required to complete a formal conductor training program through a community college.

Newly trained engineers and conductors are placed on the “extra board” until permanent positions become available. Workers on the extras-board receive assignments only when the railroad needs substitutes for regular workers who are absent because of vacation, illness, or other reasons. Seniority rules may allow workers with greater seniority to select their type of assignment. For example, an engineer may move from an initial regular assignment in yard service to road service.

For brake and signal operator jobs, railroad firms will train applicants either in a company program or—especially with smaller railroads—at an outside training facility. Typical training programs combine classroom and on-site training and last between 4 and 6 weeks for signal operators and between 10 and 18 weeks for brake operators.

For subway and streetcar operator jobs, subway transit systems prefer applicants with a high school education. Most transit systems that operate subways and streetcars also operate buses. In these systems, subway or streetcar operators usually start as bus drivers. Applicants must be in good health, have good communication skills, and be able to make quick, responsible judgments. New operators generally complete training programs that last from a few weeks to 6 months. At the end of the period of classroom and on-the-job training, operators usually must pass qualifying examinations covering the operating system, troubleshooting, and evacuation and emergency procedures. Some operators with sufficient seniority can advance to station manager or another supervisory position.

For yard occupations, a commercial driver’s license may be required because these workers often operate trucks and other heavy vehicles. For more information on commercial driver’s licenses, contact your State motor vehicle administration and see the Handbook statements on truck drivers and driver/sales workers or bus drivers.


Rail transportation workers held 112,000 jobs in 2004, distributed among the detailed occupations as follows:

Locomotive engineers and operators 40,000
Railroad conductors and yardmasters 38,000
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators 17,000
Subway and streetcar operators 9,200
Rail transportation workers, all other 8,100

Most rail transportation workers are employed in either the rail transportation industry or support activities for the industry. The rest work primarily for local governments as subway and streetcar operators and for mining and manufacturing establishments that operate their own locomotives and dinkey engines to move railcars containing ore, coal, and other bulk materials.

Job Outlook

Even though employment in most railroad transportation occupations is expected to decline through the year 2014, opportunities are expected to be good for qualified applicants, due mainly to the large number of workers expected to retire or leave these occupations in the next decade. Employment is expected to decline, despite expected increases in the amount of freight carried, due to productivity increases.

Opportunities for long-distance train crews are expected to be better than those for yard jobs, because yard occupations generally require little education beyond high school and do not require as much travel. Employment of subway and streetcar operators will grow about as fast as the average for all occupations, due to increased demand for light-rail transportation systems around the country.

Demand for railroad freight service will grow as the economy and the intermodal transportation of goods expand. Intermodal systems use trucks to move shippers’ sealed trailers or containers to and from terminals and employ trains—which are more fuel-efficient than trucks—to transport them over the long distances between terminals. Railroads are improving delivery times and ontime service, while reducing shipping rates, in order to compete with other modes of transportation, such as trucks, ships, and aircraft.

Growth in the number of railroad transportation workers will be adversely affected by innovations such as larger, faster, more fuel-efficient trains and computerized classification yards that make it possible to move freight more efficiently. Computers help to keep track of freight cars, match empty cars with the closest loads, and dispatch and control trains. Computer-assisted devices alert engineers to malfunctions, and work rules now allow trains to operate with two-person crews instead of the traditional three- to five-person crews.


Median hourly earnings of rail transportation occupations in May of 2004 were relatively high, as indicated in the following tabulation:

Locomotive engineers $24.30
Subway and streetcar operators 23.70
Railroad conductors and yardmasters 22.28
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators 21.46

Most railroad workers are paid according to miles traveled or hours worked, whichever leads to higher earnings. Full-time employees have steadier work, more regular hours, increased opportunities for overtime work, and higher earnings than do those assigned to the extra board.

Eight out of 10 railroad transportation workers are members of unions. Many different railroad unions represent various crafts on the railroads. Most railroad engineers are members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, while most other railroad transportation workers are members of the United Transportation Union. Many subway operators are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, while others belong to the Transport Workers Union of North America.

Related Occupations

Other related transportation workers include bus drivers, truck drivers and driver/sales workers, and those working in water transportation occupations.

Sources of Additional Information

To obtain information on employment opportunities, contact either the employment offices of railroads and rail transit systems or State employment service offices.

General information about the rail transportation industry is available from:

  • Association of American Railroads, 50 F St. N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Internet: http://www.aar.org/

General information about career opportunities in passenger transportation is available from:

  • American Public Transportation Association, 1666 K Street N.W., Washington, DC 20006.

General information on career opportunities as a locomotive engineer is available from:

  • Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, 1370 Ontario St. Mezzanine, Cleveland, OH 44113. Internet: http://www.ble.org/

General information on career opportunities as a conductor, yardmaster, or brake operator is available from:

  • United Transportation Union, 14600 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, OH 44107. Internet: http://www.utu.org/
      • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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