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
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
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,
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
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,
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
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
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
Railroad conductors and yardmasters
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators
Subway and streetcar operators
Rail transportation workers, all other
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.
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
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
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
Subway and streetcar operators
Railroad conductors and yardmasters
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators
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