What Do Rail Transportation Workers Do?

Find out about the types of jobs you could pursue in railroad transportation. Read on to learn more about career options along with job duties and education requirements information. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What is a Rail Transportation Worker?

Rail transportation workers can be found in every aspect of railroad and rail yard operations and may include conductors, operators, yardmasters or engineers. Railroad conductors are often in charge of managing the passengers and cargo of a train. They take tickets or receive payment from boarding passengers and oversee the loading and unloading of cargo. They also have the responsibility to help passengers get to safety in dangerous situations, take care of unruly passengers, and announce stations as they get to them.

As a yard master you would be put in charge of managing the operations of a rail yard. This involves keeping track of documentation such as schedules, switching orders and shipping records. You would also be in charge of switching malfunctioning cars out of trains for repair, as well as breaking up and assembling trains in an order that will ensure shipments are made according to schedule. Anther big responsibility you would have would be managing train traffic in and out of the yard.

Brake operators simply couple and uncouple train cars. As a break operator you may travel with the train, or work at the rail yard.

A locomotive engineer is the person who drives the train. They are responsible for monitoring the condition of the train, such as air pressure and battery use, to ensure the train operates as it should. Some of the controls they have to operate include throttles that increase and maintain speed and airbrakes that slow the train. When running a train they need to communicate with dispatchers for information about delays and schedule changes.

The table below outlines the general requirements for these career options.

Railroad Conductor Yardmaster Brake Operator Locomotive Engineer
Education Required High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED High school diploma or GED
Other Requirements On-the-job training On-the-job training On-the-job training On-the-job training common, certification required
Key Responsibilities Coordinate all rail travel, assign freight, set schedules, maintain records of all of the trains Coordinate traffic, ensure a smooth loading and unloading pattern, direct car movement and operate switches Connect and disconnect rail cars and operate switches, travel with the train as crew member Operate train while transporting passengers and freight, stay alert for any problems that could occur, monitor the train's control panel
Job Growth (2014-2024) -2% (for all railroad conductors and yardmasters)* -2% (for all railroad conductors and yardmasters)* -2% (for all railroad brake, signal, and switch operators)* -2% (for all locomotive engineers)*
Median Salary (2015) $55,930 (for all railroad conductors and yardmasters)* $55,930 (for all railroad conductors and yardmasters)* $54,020 (for all railroad brake, signal, and switch operators)* $56,240 (for all locomotive engineers)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Are the Different Types of Rail Transportation Workers?

The railroad transportation industry employs several types of skilled laborers. If you'd like to operate a train and be responsible for the transport of passengers and freight, you could choose to become an engineer. You'd need to manage the train as it travels through different weather conditions and stay alert for any problems that could occur during travel. You'd need to monitor the train's control panel, watching your speed, air pressure and other vital measurements.

If you're more interested in the coordination of rail travel, you could elect to become a conductor. As a conductor, you'd assign freight, set schedules and maintain records of all the trains under your watch. You'd be responsible for ensuring the train is not overloaded, routes are planned out and terminals are ready for the departure and arrival of trains. On passenger routes, you'd be in charge of ensuring passengers get on and off trains safely, luggage is properly loaded and unloaded and announcements are made to keep passengers informed.

If you'd like to work in the rail yard, you could become a brake operator, signal operator or yardmaster. As a brake operator, you'd connect and disconnect rail cars and operate switches, typically with the help of yard engineers. You'll perform electrical duties as a switch operator, installing, repairing and ensuring all switches are in working order. You could manage the entire rail yard as a yardmaster. You'd need to manage the yard crews while coordinating traffic, ensuring a smooth loading and unloading pattern, directing car movement and operating switches.

From a local perspective, you could operate a subway, light rail or streetcar within a city or urban region. As an operator, you need to know the meaning of rail and tunnel signals, make passenger announcements, provide calm emergency response to passenger and traffic situations and work with dispatch during breakdowns or operating issues.

What Education or Training Would I Need?

Almost all positions in rail transportation require some formal training. This may be through a college program or an employer training program. Training typically includes classroom and hands-on work. You'd likely start out as a brake or signal operator, working your way into a yardmaster or conductor position with additional training and yard experience. Some rail yard jobs that include driving large equipment or loading vehicles might require that you obtain a commercial driver's license or other state-issued operator's license.

Significant experience in the railroad is required to become an engineer. If this is your goal, you must meet Federal licensing regulations that include a formal training program and passing knowledge and skills tests, as well as a physical. If you want to operate a subway or streetcar, you might consider first working as a bus driver to become familiar with the operation of large vehicles. You can then complete classroom and on-the-job training programs to advance to a railway or light rail train operator position.

What Can I Earn?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that locomotive engineers earned a median annual wage of $56,240 and rail yard engineers that move engines in the yard earned a median salary of $45,780 in 2015 (www.bls.gov). The BLS further reported that railroad conductors and yardmasters made approximately $55,930, while railroad brake, signal and switch operators took home a median of $54,020.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Bus drivers transport people to various places, or along sight seeing tours over the road. Delivery truck drivers are in charge of delivering packages or loads with a gross vehicle weight of 26,000 pounds or less. Tractor-trailer truck drivers may deliver loads with gross vehicle weights over 26,000 pounds. All of these professionals drive commercial vehicles on the road and thus need a commercial license in addition to a high school diploma or non-degree post-secondary award.

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