How Do I Become a Railroad Brakeman?

Research what it takes to become a railroad brakeman. Learn about the training requirements, job duties, qualifications and potential salaries to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Railroad Brakeman?

A railroad brakeman is in charge of the coupling and uncoupling of freight or passenger train cars. Some work as part of train crews, which means they travel from station to station. However, other railroad brakemen are confined to a single station. In addition to their coupling and uncoupling duties, some workers are qualified to control other railroad equipment, such as railroad track switches.

The following table provides useful information on this career.

Degree Required High school diploma
Key Responsibilities Set brakes; inspect & make repairs to air hoses, journal boxes and couplings; signal when coupling or uncoupling train cars; throw track switches
Certification Background check, drug test, physical exam
Job Growth (2014-24) -2% (for railroad brake, signal, and switch operators)*
Median Salary (2015) $54,020 (for railroad brake, signal, and switch operators)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education and Training Do I Need To Become a Railroad Brakeman?

You'll generally need a high school diploma to become a railroad brakeman. You can receive on-the-job training through a railroad-sponsored program or at a partner facility if you work for a small railroad company. Classroom instruction and hands-on experience focus on operational rules, timetables and signaling. Company training can last up to a few months.

What Job Duties Will I Perform?

Your duties as a railroad brakeman might entail climbing atop train cars to set brakes and inspecting and making repairs to air hoses, journal boxes and couplings. Another aspect of your job will involve signaling train engineers to start or stop when coupling or uncoupling is occurring to increase or decrease the number of cars. You'll also throw track switches in order to reroute train cars. Yard conductors will issue instructions to you as to which cars need to be switched. In the event of emergency stops, you may signal oncoming trains with flares, flags or radio communications.

What Other Qualifications Must I Fulfill?

As a railroad brakeman, you'll need mechanical aptitude and good communication skills. Railroad companies might require potential employees to pass vision, hearing and overall health examinations, and you'll have to submit to background investigations and screenings for drug and alcohol use.

Stamina is helpful because the job of a railroad brakeman can be physically and mentally taxing. Work may take place in outdoor rail yards during inclement weather conditions. You'll probably work long and irregular hours. Steady schedules tend to go to union members and workers who have seniority.

What Salary Could I Expect to Earn?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), railroad brake, signal and switch operators who worked for the federal government earned average annual wages of $50,530 in 2015 (www.bls.gov). Salaries depend upon job locations and seniority. Advanced technology and the advent of automatic brakes have reduced the need for railroad brakemen. Such positions are expected to decline by 2% from 2014-2024, according to the BLS.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of working as a railroad brakeman, you could consider a different job in the railroad industry. For example, as a locomotive engineer, you would drive long-distance trains from one location to another, carrying either freight or passengers. Another option is a position as a conductor. They oversee the loading and unloading of cargo and passengers, and they supervise the train's crew over the course of a journey. On passenger trains, they may also make announcements to let passengers know about upcoming stops and schedule changes. For either of these railroad jobs, you need to have at least a high school diploma.

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