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What Railroad Workers Do About this section

Train engineers and operators
Locomotive engineers use a variety of controls to operate a train.

Railroad workers 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.

Duties

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 the goods are shipped around the world. Passenger trains transport millions of travelers to destinations around the country. Railroad workers are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.

Workers in railroad occupations frequently collaborate. Locomotive engineers travel with conductors and, sometimes, with brake operators. Locomotive engineers and conductors are in constant contact and keep each other informed of any changes in the train’s condition. Signal and switch operators communicate with both locomotive and rail yard engineers to make sure that trains arrive at the correct destination. Workers in all of these occupations are in contact with dispatchers, who direct them on where to go and what to do.

The following are examples of types of railroad workers:

Conductors travel on both freight and passenger trains and coordinate activities of the train crew. On passenger trains, they ensure travelers’ safety and comfort. They also check passengers’ tickets and make announcements to keep passengers informed. On freight trains, they oversee the secure loading and unloading of cargo.

Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. They monitor systems that measure the train’s operation, such as speed and air pressure. Locomotive engineers use a variety of controls, such as throttles and airbrakes, to operate the train and ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly. They observe the track for obstructions to ensure safety.

When driving freight trains, engineers must be aware of the goods their train is carrying.

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers maintain and monitor equipment to ensure that the trains run 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 rail yard. Signals are important in preventing accidents because they allow increased communication between trains and dispatchers.

Switch operators monitor 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.

Rail yard engineers operate train engines within the rail yard. They move locomotives between tracks to keep the trains organized and on schedule. 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.

Yardmasters manage schedules and coordinate the activities of workers in the rail yard. They review shipping records of freight trains and ensure that trains are carrying the correct material before leaving the yard. Yardmasters also switch train traffic to a certain section of the line to allow other inbound and outbound trains to get around. They tell yard engineers where to move cars to fit the planned configuration or to load freight.

Not all rail yards use yardmasters. In rail yards that do not have yardmasters, a conductor typically performs yardmaster duties.

Work Environment About this section

Train engineers and operators
Locomotive engineers who work on long routes are sometimes away from home for long periods at a time.

Railroad workers held about 76,500 jobs in 2021. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up railroad workers was distributed as follows:

Railroad conductors and yardmasters 34,300
Locomotive engineers 26,600
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers 11,800
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers 3,800

The largest employers of railroad workers were as follows:

Rail transportation 84%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 8

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.

Locomotive engineers work in climate-controlled train cabs that are generally large enough to move around in comfortably. However, engineers may need to adjust to the loud noise or frequent vibrations when the train is in motion.

Railroad operators, rail yard engineers, and related workers spend most of their time outside, regardless of the weather.

Injuries and Illnesses

Railroad conductors and yardmasters have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Common injuries include sprains, strains, and bruises.

Work Schedules

Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules may vary to include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. Federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.

Locomotive engineers and conductors whose trains travel long routes may be away from home for long periods. 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 works the most desired shifts. Some engineers and conductors, called extra-board, are hired for temporary work only when a railroad needs extra or substitute staff on a certain route.

How to Become a Railroad Worker About this section

Train engineers and operators
All train employees need mechanical ability.

Workers in railroad occupations typically need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.

Education

Rail companies typically require workers to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, employers may prefer to hire workers who have postsecondary education, such as coursework, a certificate, or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Training

Locomotive engineers typically receive 3 or more months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.

Most railroad companies have up to 12 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. Small 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.

Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, typically 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 both classroom instruction and hands-on training under the direction of an experienced employee.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors or yardmasters for several years.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Locomotive engineers and conductors must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The certifications, conducted by the railroad that employs them, involve a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a supervisor determination that the engineer or conductor understands all physical aspects of the particular route on which he or she will be operating.

Engineers who change routes must be recertified for the new route. Even engineers and conductors 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.

In addition, railroad workers 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.

Advancement

Rail yard engineers, switch operators, and signal operators may advance to become conductors or yardmasters.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Railroad workers must be able to communicate with other crewmembers, dispatchers, and passengers to ensure safety and keep the trains on schedule.

Customer-service skills. Conductors on passenger trains ensure travelers’ comfort, make announcements, and answer questions. They must be courteous and patient, especially when dealing with unruly or upset passengers.

Hand-eye coordination. Locomotive engineers must operate controls based, in part, on their observations of the train’s surroundings.

Hearing ability. To ensure safety on the train and in the rail yard, railroad workers must be able to hear warning signals and communicate with other employees.

Leadership skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. In rail yards, yardmasters oversee other workers.

Mechanical skills. Railroad workers should 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 mechanical inspections.

Physical strength. Rail yard engineers may have to lift heavy equipment.

Visual ability. To drive a train, locomotive engineers need excellent eyesight, peripheral vision, and color vision.

Pay About this section

Railroad Workers

Median annual wages, May 2021

Rail transportation workers

$64,170

Railroad workers

$64,150

Total, all occupations

$45,760

 

The median annual wage for railroad workers was $64,150 in May 2021. 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 $48,510, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $82,670.

Median annual wages for railroad workers in May 2021 were as follows:

Locomotive engineers $79,740
Railroad conductors and yardmasters 63,960
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers 63,840
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers 61,090

In May 2021, the median annual wages for railroad workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Rail transportation $64,210
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 64,170

Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, railroad workers’ schedules may vary to include nights, weekends, and holidays. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week. 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 works the most desired shifts. Some engineers and conductors, called extra-board, are hired for temporary work only when a railroad needs extra or substitute staff on a certain route.

Job Outlook About this section

Railroad Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2021-31

Total, all occupations

5%

Rail transportation workers

4%

Railroad workers

4%

 

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 7,500 openings for railroad workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Employment

Projected employment of railroad workers varies by occupation (see table). An increase in intermodal freight—the shipment of goods through multiple transportation modes—may increase demand for some railroad workers. However, decreasing demand for the transportation of bulk commodities, such as coal, is expected to cause railroads to limit employment in an effort to become more efficient.

As power plants increasingly use natural gas instead of coal for electricity production, the need for rail transportation of coal may decline.

Employment projections data for railroad workers, 2021-31
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2021 Projected Employment, 2031 Change, 2021-31 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Railroad workers

76,500 79,500 4 3,100

Locomotive engineers

53-4011 26,600 27,900 5 1,300 Get data

Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

53-4013 3,800 3,800 2 100 Get data

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers

53-4022 11,800 11,900 1 100 Get data

Railroad conductors and yardmasters

53-4031 34,300 35,900 5 1,600 Get data

Contacts for More Information About this section

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

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)

Association of American Railroads (AAR)

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

CareerOneStop

For career videos on railroad workers, visit

Locomotive Firers

Locomotive Engineers

O*NET

Locomotive Engineers

Rail Yard Engineers, Dinkey Operators, and Hostlers

Railroad Brake, Signal, and Switch Operators and Locomotive Firers

Railroad Conductors and Yardmasters

Video