Bureau of Labor Statistics

Railroad Workers

train engineers and operators image
Conductors make sure passengers board safely.
Quick Facts: Railroad Workers
2020 Median Pay $64,210 per year
$30.87 per hour
Typical 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, 2019 77,700
Job Outlook, 2019-29 -3% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2019-29 -2,600

Summary

What Railroad Workers Do

Railroad workers ensure that passenger and freight trains operate safely. They may drive trains, coordinate the activities of the trains, or control signals and switches in the rail yard.

Work Environment

Nearly all railroad workers are employed in the rail transportation industry. Most work full time, and some work more than 40 hours per week.

How to Become a Railroad Worker

Railroad workers typically need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.

Pay

The median annual wage for railroad workers was $64,210 in May 2020.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2019 to 2029.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for railroad workers.

Similar Occupations

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

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

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

What Railroad Workers Do

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

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 77,700 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up railroad workers was distributed as follows:

Railroad conductors and yardmasters 36,000
Locomotive engineers 27,400
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers 9,100
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers 5,200

The largest employers of railroad workers were as follows:

Rail transportation 82%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 7

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

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

Railroad Workers

Median annual wages, May 2020

Rail transportation workers

$64,410

Railroad workers

$64,210

Total, all occupations

$41,950

 

The median annual wage for railroad workers was $64,210 in May 2020. 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 $41,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $91,390.

Median annual wages for railroad workers in May 2020 were as follows:

Locomotive engineers $71,870
Railroad conductors and yardmasters 64,030
Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers 57,870
Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers 51,720

In May 2020, the median annual wages for railroad workers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Rail transportation $65,060
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 61,330

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

Railroad Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Total, all occupations

4%

Rail transportation workers

-2%

Railroad workers

-3%

 

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2019 to 2029. Decreasing demand for the transportation of bulk commodities, such as coal, is expected to cause some railroads to reduce 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.

However, an increase in intermodal freight—the shipment of goods through multiple transportation modes—may increase demand for some railroad workers.

Job Prospects

Despite projected employment declines, about 5,900 openings for railroad workers are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

All 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 projections data for railroad workers, 2019-29

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

Occupational Title

Railroad workers

SOC Code
Employment, 201977,700
Projected Employment, 202975,200
Percent Change, 2019-29-3
Numeric Change, 2019-29-2,600
Employment by Industry
Occupational Title

Locomotive engineers

SOC Code53-4011
Employment, 201927,400
Projected Employment, 202926,500
Percent Change, 2019-29-3
Numeric Change, 2019-29-1,000
Employment by IndustryGet data
Occupational Title

Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

SOC Code53-4013
Employment, 20195,200
Projected Employment, 20294,900
Percent Change, 2019-29-7
Numeric Change, 2019-29-400
Employment by IndustryGet data
Occupational Title

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers

SOC Code53-4022
Employment, 20199,100
Projected Employment, 20298,600
Percent Change, 2019-29-6
Numeric Change, 2019-29-500
Employment by IndustryGet data
Occupational Title

Railroad conductors and yardmasters

SOC Code53-4031
Employment, 201936,000
Projected Employment, 202935,200
Percent Change, 2019-29-2
Numeric Change, 2019-29-800
Employment by IndustryGet data

State & Area Data

Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS)

The Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics (OEWS) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

CareerOneStop

CareerOneStop includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations

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

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2020 MEDIAN PAY
Bus drivers Passenger Vehicle Drivers

Passenger vehicle drivers operate buses, taxis, and other modes of transportation to take people from place to place.

See How to Become One $34,670
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.

High school diploma or equivalent $34,340
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.

Postsecondary nondegree award $47,130
Material moving machine operators Material Moving Machine Operators

Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects.

See How to Become One $37,790
Water transportation occupations Water Transportation Workers

Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.

See How to Become One $59,250

Contacts for More Info

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

Last Modified Date: Thursday, June 10, 2021

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Railroad Workers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/railroad-occupations.htm (visited June 10, 2021).

Telephone: 1-202-691-5700 www.bls.gov/ooh Contact OOH

View this page on regular www.bls.gov

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