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Railroad and Locomotive Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Railroad and Locomotive Career and Job Highlights

  • Workers generally start as yard laborers, with the eventual possibility of obtaining engineer and conductor positions.
  • The job market for jobs in rail transportation is on the decline, but average growth is expected for the subway and streetcar industries.
  • High competition is anticipated within the job market.
  • Close to 75 percent of workers belong to unions, and wages are comparatively high.

Railroad and Locomotive Career and Job Description

During the 19th century, the railroad transportation system was the unifying force of the United States and the key to the nation’s economic strength. Rail transportation continues to play a very important role in the transportation and economic systems of the U.S. Passenger and freight trains provide massive transportation services throughout the nation, and light-rail systems and subways form the basis of mass passenger transport in many large cities.

Locomotive engineers are some of the rail industry’s most able and experienced workers. Their work involves the inter-station operation of large passenger and freight trains. Although some engineers operate electrically powered locomotives, the majority run diesel locomotives.

Engineers verify the proper working condition of their locomotive and immediately make any necessary minor adjustments at the beginning and end of each trip. Conductors provide engineers with starting instructions, who then drive the locomotive by operating controls such as throttles and airbrakes. Engineers also monitor special instruments that measure brake line and main reservoir air pressure, train velocity, battery charge and amperage.

Engineers maintain two-way radio or mobile telephone communication with conductors and traffic control center personnel at all times, whether in the yard or on the rail. They are thus able to receive and issue information about train locations, as well as expected stops or delays. Engineers must understand and follow all railroad signals, speed limits, orders and general regulations. Engineers must also know the ins and outs of their route’s yards, terminals and signaling systems. They must always be attentive to their train’s specific makeup and condition, since certain factors—such as a train’s number of cars, the rail’s condition and grade, the amount of slack in the train and the proportion of loaded to unloaded cars—significantly affect the train’s ability to accelerate, brake and maneuver curves.

In places such as railroad yards, construction areas, industrial plants, mines and quarries, small “dinkey” engines are operated by rail yard engineers, dinkey operators and hostlers.

The activities of passenger and freight train crews are coordinated by railroad conductors. Freight train conductors obtain cargo loading and unloading information by examining schedules, waybills, shipping records and switching orders. Passenger train conductors collect tickets and fares, make announcements and coordinate crew activities to ensure the comfort and safety of passengers.

Prior to departure, a train’s engineer and conductor converse about instructions sent by the dispatcher regarding the train’s cargo, route and timetable. Conductors maintain two-way radio or mobile telephone communication with engineers, dispatchers and conductors of other trains throughout each run. Special monitoring and dispatch devices allow conductors to quickly relay any mechanical difficulties encountered during a run. In the case of damaged cars, conductors may arrange for repairs at approaching stops or stations. If there is a mechanical problem or hazard blocking the rail, conductors may arrange for a route change.

Yardmasters are responsible for coordinating the activities of workers involved in railroad traffic operations. This includes coordinating the making up and breaking up of trains, as well as switching inbound and outbound traffic to a particular segment of the line. Yardmasters instruct engineers about where to move their train, according to the train’s needs (for example, a train may need to unload in a certain area or receive new cars for the train’s next destination). The locomotive or its cars are guided to the appropriate track—for coupling and uncoupling—by switches that are often remote computer operated.

Many yard activities are performed by railroad brake, signal and switch operators. For example, these workers may operate switches that guide cars through the yard, perform coupling and uncoupling operations, inspect equipment (such as airhoses, couplings and handbrakes), and set warning and other signals for engineers.

In the past, either one or two brake operators formed part of a freight train crew. One would ride with the engineer in the locomotive; the other would ride in the rear car with the conductor. Under the supervision of the conductor, brake operators performed the physical labor associated with train assembly and disassembly and the removal and addition of new cars at rail yards. Cost-reducing new technology has generally eliminated the need for brake operators. With the advent of effective monitoring equipment (both visual and otherwise), modern freight trains generally do not require rear-car crewmembers. Nowadays, freight trains normally operate with one engineer and one conductor who ride together in the locomotive.

Unlike railroad-employed rail transportation workers, streetcar and subway operators are normally employed by public transit authorities. Subway operators operate underground, street-level and elevated trains that provide suburban and metropolitan mass passenger transport. Subway operators must pay attention to signals that indicate when they should start, slow or stop the train. Other subway operator tasks include opening and closing train doors, ensuring safe passenger boarding and making necessary announcements.

Although operators must be aware of the train’s speed and the duration of station stops in order to meet schedule requirements, these functions are becoming more and more frequently performed by computers. Operators are responsible for contacting a dispatcher or supervisor and for carrying out evacuation procedures in times of emergency or breakdown.

Streetcar operators operate trolleys, light-rail vehicles and streetcars that are powered by electricity. Because some streetcar tracks are located on or cross city streets, drivers must often deal with regular street traffic and traffic signals. Operators provide convenient passenger transportation by starting, slowing and stopping the vehicle when necessary. Drivers also respond to passenger questions about schedules, routes and fares.

Railroad Employee Training and Job Qualifications

Railroad transportation workers normally start as yard laborers, with the possibility of eventually training to become engineers or conductors. A high school diploma or its equivalent is required of all prospective railroad workers. Physical qualifications include good eyesight (including color vision) and hearing, good hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity, high physical stamina—especially for entry-level positions—and an aptitude for working with mechanical devices. Prospective railroad workers must pass a criminal background check, drug and alcohol screening and physical exam. Federal law also requires employers to perform random drug and alcohol tests for all on-duty crewmembers.

The minimum age requirement for locomotive engineers is 22 years. Engineer positions are filled almost exclusively by persons who already have railroad work experience. New engineers must complete a federally required training program that includes classroom instruction, as well as simulator and hands-on training for operating locomotives. Employers generally provide this instruction through programs authorized by the Federal Railroad Administration. Upon successful completion of training, engineers must pass exams that test applicants’ skill performance, visual acuity and knowledge of railroad operations. A safety conduct background check is also performed. Upon successful completion of all required examinations, the trainee receives a company-issued engineer’s license. Requirements for beginning engineers vary from employer to employer, and may be more stringent than those outlined here.

Railroad companies must monitor their engineers to remain certified. Engineers are also subject to periodic operational rules efficiency tests. These tests occur without advance notice, and require engineers to take specific actions given particular circumstances, such as manipulating a curve at a consistent speed.

Engineers’ ability to safely operate locomotives is monitored by periodic physical exams and drug and alcohol tests. Depending on circumstances, engineers who fail these tests may be disciplined, discharged or transferred to different railroad positions.

Conductor jobs are normally filled by experienced rail workers who have successfully completed tests covering timetables, operating rules, signals, and other topics. Promotions to conductor positions are generally based primarily on seniority. The normal minimum age requirement for conductors is 21 years. Conductors generally receive training from either their employer or a community college program.

If permanent positions are not immediately available, new conductors and engineers receive “extra board” assignments. In this capacity, new engineers and conductors work only as substitutes for unavailable (due to sickness, vacation, etc.) regular workers. In some cases, seniority allows workers to choose preferred assignments. For instance, an engineer may transfer from yard service to road service.

Subway transit systems favor high school graduates when hiring subway and streetcar operators. The majority of subway and streetcar transit systems also run a bus system. When this is true, prospective subway or streetcar operators are normally required to begin as bus drivers. Good health, effective communication skills and sound decision-making abilities are required attributes of prospective subway and streetcar operators. Training programs for new operators may last as little as several weeks and as much as six months, and include both classroom and on-the-job instruction. Upon completing the training program, operators are generally required to pass qualifying examinations that cover troubleshooting, evacuation and emergency procedures and operating systems. In some cases, operators with seniority are able to progress to supervisory positions, such as station manager.

Job and Employment Opportunities

High competition is anticipated for rail transportation positions. Because post-high school education is not required of applicants, many people qualify for work in this field. Relatively high pay and job security attract more applicants than there are job openings.

The railroad transportation job market is expected to experience negative growth through 2012. The primary source for new job opportunities will be the replacement of retiring and other departing workers. Employment decline will be further affected by the consolidation of many railroad occupations and duties. Competition within the transportation industry continues to force railroads to cut labor costs by assigning engineers and conductors to duties normally performed by other workers. Conversely, national increases in demand for light-rail transportation systems suggest that employment of subway and streetcar operators will grow at a rate equal to the average for all occupations through 2012.

As the economy grows and the intermodal transportation of goods expands, demand for railroad freight services will increase as well. Intermodal systems provide a cost-effective and time-efficient means of transporting goods by utilizing trucks for direct pickup and delivery of goods and trains for their long-distance transport. These systems have improved railroads’ equipment use efficiency, thus allowing for increased annual per-train runs. Railroads are working to reduce shipping rates and provide faster, more consistently on-time transportation services in an effort to successfully compete with other forms of transport, including trucks, airplanes and ships.

Still, as technological advances offer railroads computerized equipment and more economically efficient trains, the need for railroad transportation workers will decrease. Computers are now able to perform dispatch services, monitor freight cars, match empty cars with the nearest loads and inform engineers about mechanical problems. With these advancements, the traditional requirement of three- to five-person person crews has been decreased to allow two-person crews to operate a train.

Historical Earnings Information

In 2002, median hourly wages for rail transportation workers were comparatively high, as revealed by the following chart:

  • Locomotive engineers and locomotive firers – $23.26
  • Subway/streetcar operators and all other rail transportation workers – $21.48
  • Yardmasters and railroad conductors – $21.39
  • Railroad signal, switch and brake operators – $20.93

Compensation for railroad workers is generally based on either hours worked or miles traveled, depending on which system yields higher wages. Persons assigned to extra board have fewer regular hours, lower job security, less opportunities for overtime work and lower wages than fulltime workers.

Nearly 75 percent of railroad transportation workers belong to unions. Different railroad occupations are represented by different unions. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers provides union services to the majority of engineers. The United Transportation Union provides union services for most other railroad employees. The majority of subway operators belong to one of two unions: either the Amalgamated Transit Union or the Transport Workers Union of North America.