How to Become a Railroad Worker
All train employees need mechanical ability.
Workers in railroad occupations generally need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.
Rail companies typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors.
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.
Rail yard engineers, switch operators, and signal operators can advance to become conductors or yardmasters. Some conductors or yardmasters advance to become locomotive engineers.
Communication skills. All rail employees have to be able to communicate effectively with other crewmembers and passengers to keep the trains on schedule.
Customer-service skills. Conductors 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 skills. When operating a locomotive, engineers must plan ahead and make decisions minutes or even hours in advance.
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. 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 strength. Some 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.