Railroad Workers


Quick Facts: Railroad Workers
2017 Median Pay $59,780 per year 
$28.74 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation  
On-the-job Training Moderate-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2016 105,500
Job Outlook, 2016-26 -3% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2016-26 -3,000

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Railroad Workers Career, Salary and Education Information

What Railroad Workers Do

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.

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Railroad Workers

Duties of railroad workers

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.


Work Environment for railroad workers

Railroad workers held about 105,500 jobs in 2016. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up railroad workers was distributed as follows:

Railroad conductors and yardmasters: 41,800

Locomotive engineers: 38,800

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators: 19,300

Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers: 4,400

Locomotive firers: 1,200

The largest employers of railroad workers were as follows:

Rail transportation: 90%

Local government, excluding education and hospitals: 4%

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.


How to Become a Railroad Worker

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.

Important Qualities

Communication skillsAll rail employees have to be able to communicate effectively with other crewmembers and passengers to keep the trains on schedule.

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

Decisionmaking skillsWhen operating a locomotive, engineers must plan ahead and make decisions minutes or even hours in advance.

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

Hearing abilityTo 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 skillsOn some trains, a conductor directs a crew. In rail yards, yardmasters oversee other 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 or conducting daily mechanical inspections.

Physical strengthSome rail yard engineers have to lift heavy equipment.

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.

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.


salaries for Railroad workers

The median annual wage for railroad workers was $59,780 in May 2017. 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 $41,690, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $92,280.

Median annual wages for railroad workers in May 2017 were as follows:

Locomotive engineers: $60,990

Locomotive firers: $60,360

Railroad conductors and yardmasters: $60,300

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators: $57,260

Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers: $50,150

In May 2017, the median annual wages for railroad workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Rail transportation: $61,000

Local government, excluding education and hospitals: $55,630

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.

Union Membership

Most railroad workers belonged to a union in 2016.


Job Outlook for railroad workers

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2016 to 2026. 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 79 percent from 2016 to 2026. 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.

Employment projections data for Railroad Workers, 2016-26

Employment, 2016: 105,500

Projected Employment, 2026: 102,500

Change, 2016-2026: -3%, -3,000


Careers Related to railroad drivers

Bus Drivers

Bus drivers transport people between various places—including work, school, and shopping centers—and across state or national borders. Some drive regular routes, and others transport passengers on chartered trips or sightseeing tours.

Delivery Truck Drivers and Driver/Sales Workers

Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers pick up, transport, and drop off packages and small shipments within a local region or urban area. They drive trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW)—the combined weight of the vehicle, passengers, and cargo—of 26,000 pounds or less. Most of the time, delivery truck drivers transport merchandise from a distribution center to businesses and households.

Flight Attendants

Flight attendants provide routine services and respond to emergencies to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers while aboard planes.

Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another. Most tractor-trailer drivers are long-haul drivers and operate trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) capacity—that is, the combined weight of the vehicle, passengers, and cargo—exceeding 26,000 pounds. These drivers deliver goods over intercity routes, sometimes spanning several states.

Material Moving Machine Operators

Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects. Some operators move construction materials around building sites or excavate earth from a mine. Others move goods around a warehouse or onto container ships.

Taxi Drivers, Ride-Hailing Drivers, and Chauffeurs

Taxi drivers, ride-hailing drivers, and chauffeurs transport people to and from the places they need to go, such as airports, homes, shopping centers, and workplaces. These drivers must know their way around a city to take passengers to their destinations.

Water Transportation Workers

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water. The vessels travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean and to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.

OccupationENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION2017 MEDIAN PAY
Bus DriversHigh school diploma or equivalent$33,010
Delivery Truck Drivers and Driver/Sales WorkersHigh school diploma or equivalent$29,250
Flight AttendantsHigh school diploma or equivalent$50,500
Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck DriversPostsecondary nondegree award$42,480
Material Moving Machine Operators$34,830
Taxi Drivers, Ride-Hailing Drivers, and ChauffeursNo formal educational credential$24,880
Water Transportation Workers$55,590

Citation:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Railroad Workers, 
on the Internet at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/railroad-occupations.htm