Railroad Occupations

Summary

train engineers and operators image
Some operators drive locomotives around a rail yard.
Quick Facts: Railroad Workers
2012 Median Pay $52,400 per year
$25.19 per hour
Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation See How to Become One
On-the-job Training Moderate-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2012 113,800
Job Outlook, 2012-22 -3% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2012-22 -4,000

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, while others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

Work Environment

Nearly all locomotive engineers; conductors and yardmasters; and brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in rail transportation and also support activities for rail.

How to Become a Railroad Worker

Railroad occupations generally require a high school diploma and several months of on-the-job training.

Pay

The median annual wage for all railroad occupations was $52,400 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of railroad occupations is projected to decline 3 percent from 2012 to 2022. Although demand for rail transportation may grow, an increase in productivity may hold back employment growth in rail occupations.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of railroad occupations with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about railroad occupations by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Railroad Workers Do

Train engineers and operators
Rail yard engineers make mechanical adjustments to trains.

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, while others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

Duties

Railroad occupations 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 occupations 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.

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 though a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal though 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
  • 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 oversee, and are ultimately responsible for, 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
  • Deal with unruly passengers when needed
  • 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
  • Operate freight cars within rail yards that use remote locomotive technology
  • 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.

Locomotive firers are 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.

Firers also monitor oil, temperature, and pressure gauges on train dashboards to determine if engines are operating safely and efficiently. Firers relay traffic signals from yard workers to engineers in a railroad yard.

Few trains still use firers, because their work has been automated or is now done by a locomotive engineer or conductor.

Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators control equipment that keeps the trains running safely.

Brake operators help couple and decouple 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 yards.

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.

Work Environment

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

Workers in railroad occupations held about 113,800 jobs in 2012.

Nearly all locomotive engineers; conductors and yardmasters; and brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in rail transportation and support activities for rail transportation.

Rail yard engineers 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.

Injuries and Illnesses

Rail yard engineers and conductors and yardmasters have higher rates of work-related injuries than most occupations. Rail yard workers must move heavy equipment around and climb up and down equipment, which can be dangerous.

Work Schedules

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, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers, 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

Train engineers and operators
All train employees need mechanical ability.

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

Education

Some rail companies require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors. Other positions may not have any formal education requirements.

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 nuances 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.

Recent legislation will soon require conductors who operate on national, regional, or commuter railroads to become certified. New conductors will have to pass a test that has been designed and administered by the railroad and approved by the FRA. Existing conductors will be granted automatic certification.

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 skills. All rail employees have to be able to communicate effectively with each other to avoid accidents and keep the trains on schedule.

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

Decision-making skills. When operating a locomotive, engineers must be able to make fast decisions to avoid accidents.

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

Hearing ability. To 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 skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. Yardmasters oversee other rail yard 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.

Physical strength. Some rail yard engineers have to lift heavy equipment.

Speaking skills. Conductors on passenger trains announce stations and make other announcements. They must be able to speak clearly so passengers understand what they are saying.

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.

Pay

Railroad Workers

Median annual wages, May 2012

Railroad occupations

$52,400

Total, all occupations

$34,750

Transportation and material moving occupations

$28,960

 

The median annual wage for all railroad occupations was $52,400 in May 2012. 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 $35,400, and the top 10 percent earned more than $76,220.

Median wages for specific railroad occupations in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $54,700 for conductors and yardmasters
  • $52,280 for locomotive engineers
  • $51,340 for brake, signal, and switch operators
  • $44,920 for locomotive firers
  • $41,230 for rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

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, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers, 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 2012.

Job Outlook

Railroad Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Transportation and material moving occupations

9%

Railroad occupations

-3%

 

Employment of railroad occupations is projected to decline 3 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Employment of locomotive engineers is projected to decline 4 percent. Employment of conductors and yardmasters is projected to decline 3 percent. Employment of rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers is projected to experience little or no change. Employment of brake, signal, and switch operators is projected to decline 3 percent.

Employment growth in these occupations will depend on demand for rail transportation. Demand for rail is driven by population growth and an increase in global trade. Although demand for rail transportation may grow, an increase in productivity may hold back employment growth in rail occupations. Because building new tracks is expensive, freight companies have found other ways to increase capacity, such as double-stacking (stacking one railcar on top of another) or running longer trains. With both of these approaches, passenger rail can also add more cars to existing trains to increase capacity without increasing either the number of locomotives or the number of conductors on these trains.

Some employment growth may occur as rising gas prices may lead some travelers to use passenger rail and some shipping companies to use freight rail. In addition, an increase in intermodal freight—the shipment of goods through multiple transportation modes—may shift some goods from trucks to freight rail.

Employment of locomotive firers is projected to decline 42 percent from 2012 to 2022. Most railroads are phasing out this occupation, as their duties are typically performed by locomotive engineers and conductors.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities should be favorable for railroad occupations. Although growth is projected to be slower than other occupations, more railroad workers are nearing retirement than are workers in most occupations. When these workers begin to retire, many jobs should open up, except for locomotive firers, as railroad companies will continue to phase them out of the workforce.

Employment projections data for Railroad Workers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Railroad occupations

113,800 109,800 -3 -4,000

Locomotive engineers

53-4011 38,000 36,500 -4 -1,500 [XLS]

Locomotive firers

53-4012 1,600 900 -42 -700 [XLS]

Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

53-4013 5,300 5,400 2 100 [XLS]

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators

53-4021 25,000 24,400 -3 -700 [XLS]

Railroad conductors and yardmasters

53-4031 43,800 42,500 -3 -1,300 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of railroad occupations.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Bus drivers

Bus Drivers

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

High school diploma or equivalent $29,550
Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers

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.

High school diploma or equivalent $27,530
Flight attendants

Flight Attendants

Flight attendants provide personal services to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers.

High school diploma or equivalent $37,240
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers

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 whose gross vehicle weight (GVW) capacity—that is, the combined weight of the vehicle, passengers, and cargo—exceeds 26,000 pounds. These drivers deliver goods over intercity routes, sometimes spanning several states.

Postsecondary non-degree award $38,200
Material moving machine operators

Material Moving Machine Operators

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

See How to Become One $31,530
Taxi drivers and chauffeurs

Taxi Drivers and Chauffeurs

Taxi drivers and chauffeurs drive people to and from the places they need to go, such as airports, homes, shopping centers, and workplaces. They must know their way around a city in order to take both residents and visitors to their destinations.

Less than high school $22,820
Water transportation occupations

Water Transportation Occupations

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

See How to Become One $48,980

Contacts for More Information

For more information about commuter rail, visit

American Public Transportation Association

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

National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak)

For information about railroad occupation career opportunities, visit

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen

United Transportation Union

O*NET

Locomotive Engineers

Locomotive Firers

Rail Yard Engineers, Dinkey Operators, and Hostlers

Railroad Brake, Signal, and Switch Operators

Railroad Conductors and Yardmasters

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Railroad Occupations,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/railroad-occupations.htm (visited October 22, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014