What do Rail Transportation Occupations Do

Rail Transportation Occupations

Rail transportation workers are employed by three types of railroads: freight, passenger, and urban transit (subway and light rail). Freight railroads transport billions of tons of goods to destinations within the United States and to ports to be shipped abroad. Passenger railroads deliver millions of passengers and long-distance commuters to destinations throughout the country. Subways and light-rail systems move passengers within metropolitan areas and their surrounding suburbs. All of these modes of rail transportation require employees to operate, oversee, and assist in rail operations. Rail transportation workers not only work on trains, but also can be found working in rail yards where railcars are inspected, repaired, coupled, and uncoupled.

Locomotive engineers operate large trains carrying cargo or passengers between stations. Most engineers run diesel-electric locomotives, although a few operate locomotives powered by battery or externally supplied electricity. Before each run, engineers check the mechanical condition of their locomotives, making any necessary minor adjustments and documenting issues that require more thorough inspection. While trains are in motion, engineers move controls such as throttles and airbrakes. They also monitor instruments that measure speed, amperage, battery charge, and air pressure, both in the brake lines and in the main reservoir. Engineers must have thorough knowledge of their routes and must be constantly aware of the condition and makeup of their train, because trains react differently to the grade and condition of the rail, the number of cars, the ratio of empty cars to loaded cars, and the amount of slack in the train.

Railroad conductors coordinate all activities of freight or passenger train crews. Conductors assigned to freight trains review schedules, switching orders, waybills, and shipping records to obtain loading and unloading information regarding their cargo. In addition, they are responsible for the distribution of tonnage in the train and the operation of freight cars within rail yards and terminals that use remote control locomotive technology. Conductors assigned to passenger trains also ensure passenger safety and comfort as they go about collecting tickets and fares, making announcements for the benefit of passengers, and coordinating the activities of the crew.

Before trains leave a terminal, the conductor and the engineer discuss any concerns regarding the train's route, timetable, and cargo. During runs and in rail yards, engineers and conductors interface with traffic-control-center personnel, dispatchers, and personnel on other trains to issue or receive information concerning stops, delays, and the locations of trains. While engineers interpret and comply with orders, signals, speed limits, and railroad rules and regulations, conductors use dispatch or electronic monitoring devices to relay information about equipment problems on the train or the rails. Conductors may arrange for the removal of defective cars from the train for repairs at the nearest station or stop, and discuss alternative routes with the engineer and dispatcher if there is a defect in, or obstruction on, the rails.

Railroad brake operators assist with the coupling and uncoupling of cars and operate some switches. In an effort to reduce costs, most railroads have phased out brake operators, and many trains use only an engineer and a conductor. Signal operators install, maintain, and repair the signals on tracks and in yards.

Yardmasters, where present, coordinate the activities of workers engaged in railroad yard operations. These activities, which are also performed by conductors, include making up or breaking up trains and switching inbound or outbound traffic to a specific section of the line. Some cars are sent to unload their cargo on special tracks, while others are moved to different tracks to await assembly into new trains on the basis of their destinations. Yardmasters tell yard engineers or other personnel where to move the cars to fit the planned train configuration. Switches—many of them operated remotely by computer—divert trains or railcars to the proper track for coupling and uncoupling.

Also included in rail transportation occupations are several less prevalent occupations. Switch operators control the track switches within a rail yard. In rail yards without remote control technology, rail yard engineers operate engines within the rail yard. Similarly, hostlers operate engines—without attached cars—within the yard, and drive them to and from maintenance shops.

In contrast to other rail transportation workers, subway and streetcar operators generally work for public transit authorities instead of railroads. Subway operators control trains that transport passengers through cities and their suburbs. The trains run in underground tunnels, on the surface, or on elevated tracks. Operators must stay alert to observe signals along the track that indicate when they must start, slow, or stop their trains. They also make announcements to riders, may open and close the doors of the train, and ensure that passengers get on and off the subway safely. Increasingly, the train's speed and the amount of time spent at each station are controlled by computers and not by the operator. During breakdowns or emergencies, operators contact their dispatcher or supervisor and may have to evacuate cars.

Streetcar operators drive electric-powered streetcars, trolleys, or light-rail vehicles that transport passengers around metropolitan areas. Some tracks may be built directly into street pavement or have grade crossings, so operators must observe traffic signals and cope with car and truck traffic. Operators start, slow, and stop their cars so that passengers may get on and off easily. Operators may collect fares and issue change and transfers. They also interact with passengers who have questions about fares, schedules, or routes.

Work Environment

Rail transportation employees work nights, weekends, and holidays to operate trains that run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Many work more than 40 hours per week, although minimum rest hours are mandated by Federal regulations. Engineers and conductors may be placed on an “extra board” on which workers receive assignments only when a railroad needs substitutes for workers who are absent because of vacation, illness, or other reasons. Seniority usually dictates who receives the more desirable shifts, as do union agreements at large unionized railroads. Working conditions also vary by the mode of rail transport. Freight trains generally are dispatched according to the needs of customers. As a result, train crews may have irregular schedules. It is common for workers to place their name on a list and wait for their turn to work. Jobs usually are assigned on short notice and often at odd hours. Working weekends is common in freight train transportation. Those who work on trains operating between points hundreds of miles apart may spend consecutive nights away from home. Because of the distances involved on some routes, many railroad employees work without direct supervision. Workers on passenger trains ordinarily have regular and reliable shifts. Also, the appearance, temperature, and accommodations of passenger trains are more comfortable than those of freight trains. Rail yard workers spend most of their time outdoors and work regardless of weather conditions. These workers climb up and down equipment, which can be strenuous and can also be dangerous if safety rules are not followed. The work of conductors and engineers on local runs, on which trains frequently stop at stations or local rail yards to pick up and deliver cars, is also physically demanding.

Education & Training Required

Railroads require that applicants have a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent, and most training is done through a company's formal training program and on-the-job training. Rail yard jobs usually require the successful completion of a company training program before workers are allowed to begin. For brake and signal operator jobs, railroad firms train applicants either in a company program or—especially with smaller railroads—at an outside training facility. Typical training programs combine classroom and on-site training lasting from a few weeks to a few months. Entry-level conductors are either trained by their employers or are required to complete a formal conductor training program through a community college.

Most transit systems that operate subways and streetcars also operate buses. In these systems, subway and streetcar operators usually gain experience by first driving buses. New operators then complete training programs that last from a few weeks to 6 months. After finishing classroom and on-the-job training, operators usually must pass qualifying examinations covering the operating system, troubleshooting, and evacuation and emergency procedures.

Certifications Needed

Locomotive engineers must be federally licensed to operate freight and passenger trains. Federal regulations require beginning engineers to complete a formal engineer training program, including classroom, simulator, and hands-on instruction in locomotive operation. At the end of the training period, candidates must pass a hearing and visual acuity test, a safety conduct background check, a railroad operation knowledge test, and a skills performance test before receiving an engineer's license. Engineers must periodically pass an operational rules efficiency test to maintain their licensure. The test is an unannounced event requiring engineers to take active or responsive action in certain situations, such as maintaining a particular speed through a curve or yard or complying with a signal.

Because of recent legislation, conductors will soon be subject to Federal licensing requirements similar to those of railroad engineers. For yard occupations, a commercial driver's license may be required because these workers often operate trucks and other heavy vehicles.

Other Skills Required

Rail transportation workers must have good hearing, eyesight, and color vision, as well as good hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, and mechanical aptitude. Physical stamina is required for most rail transportation jobs. Applicants for locomotive engineer jobs and some conductor jobs must be at least 21 years old.

All applicants must have good communication skills and be able to make quick, responsible judgments. Employers require railroad transportation job applicants to pass a physical examination, drug and alcohol screening, and a criminal background check. Under Federal regulation, all people licensed to operate engines are subject to random drug and alcohol testing while on duty; engineers also must undergo periodic physical examinations.

How to Advance

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.

Job Outlook

Employment in most railroad transportation occupations is expected to grow about as fast as average. 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.


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.

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 of power, pneumatic, and hydraulic tools or equipment, will be well suited for this job. The Railway Car Technician Program... more