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Rail Transportation Occupations - What They Do

How to Advance (Advancement)
Most railroad transportation workers begin as laborers, brake operators, or conductors after completing training on signals, timetables, operating rules, and related subjects. Although new employees may be hired as conductors, seniority determines whether an employee may hold a conductor position full time. Employers almost always fill engineer positions with workers who have experience in other railroad-operating occupations. Subway and streetcar operators with sufficient seniority can advance to station manager or another supervisory position.

Rail transportation workers held 130,500 jobs in 2008. Most rail transportation workers were employed in the rail transportation industry or in support activities for the industry. Rail transportation and rail transportation support activities made up 87 percent jobs in 2008. The rest worked primarily for local governments that operate subway or streetcar systems.

Job Outlook
Employment in most railroad transportation occupations is expected to grow about as fast as average through the year 2018. Opportunities are expected to be good for qualified applicants, in large part because of the number of workers expected to retire or leave these occupations through 2018.

Job Growth
Employment is expected to increase by 9 percent from 2008 through 2018, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. This will largely be the result of expected increases in the demand for freight and passenger rail transportation as fuel costs increase and rail becomes a cheaper alternative to trucks and automobiles. Despite the slowdown in the economy, in the long term freight transportation should continue to expand as global trade expands and rail freight benefits from the shipment of more goods. However, advances such as remote control locomotive technology, discussed previously, and positive train control technology, which allows for the electronic monitoring of mechanical difficulties and track problems, will allow railroads to improve productivity and consolidate duties. To some extent, this will offset the need for new employees in occupations not essential for railroad operations.

Although demand for passenger rail service is anticipated to increase with the growing population, as is demand for public transit authorities, employment growth for workers in passenger rail will be slow because the addition of new service will be limited by the lack of track, which is not expected to increase by any great extent over the 200818 period. Employment of subway and streetcar operators is expected to increase modestly because more commuter and light-rail transportation systems are being proposed around the country.

A law recently passed by the U.S. Congress may have a positive impact on employment in rail transportation occupations. The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 increases the number of hours that train crews must rest between shifts. It also requires more safety improvements to railroad crossings. This law may generate more jobs for engineers and conductors as well as signal operators.

Opportunities for rail transportation workers will be good for workers who meet basic qualifications, because a large number of older workers are expected to retire over the next decade, particularly at freight railroads. Prospects will be best for those positions that are also expected to see growth, like locomotive engineers and conductors.

Entry-level occupations such as brake operator and conductor should be plentiful for applicants with clean drug and criminal records. Opportunities for long-distance train crews are also expected to be good because many of those working in the yards prefer not to travel long distances. Subway and streetcar operators will have the best opportunities in cities where the construction of commuter or light-rail transit systems is underway.

Median hourly wages of rail transportation occupations in May 2008 are indicated in the tabulation below. These wages were relatively high compared with $13.14 per hour, the median wage for all transportation occupations.

Most railroad transportation workers are paid according to miles traveled or hours worked, whichever leads to higher earnings. Factors such as seniority, job assignments, and location affect potential earnings.

76 percent of railroad transportation workers are members of unions, compared with 12 percent for all occupations. There are many different railroad unions, and they represent various crafts on the railroads. Among the largest of the railroad employee unions are the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. Many subway operators are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, while others belong to the Transport Workers Union of North America.

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Academic Programs of Interest

Railway Car Technician
The Railway Car Technician program is designed to teach students how to inspect, repair, replace and recondition mechanical or structural components and systems of freight cars and passenger coaches. Students with a mechanical aptitude and hands on skills, who are comfortable using many different types ...more