What Railroad Workers Do
Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains safely run on time. They may drive trains, coordinate the activities of the trains, or operate signals and switches in the rail yard.
Nearly all locomotive engineers; conductors and yardmasters; and brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in rail transportation and also support activities for rail.
How to Become a Railroad Worker
Railroad workers generally require a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.
The median annual wage for railroad workers was $65,020 in May 2019.
Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2019 to 2029.
Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains run on time and travel safely. Some workers drive trains, some coordinate the activities of the trains, and others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.
Railroad workers typically do the following:
- Check the mechanical condition of locomotives and make adjustments when necessary
- Document issues with a train that require further inspection
- Operate locomotive engines within or between stations
Freight trains move billions of tons of goods around the country to ports where they are shipped around the world. Passenger trains transport millions of passengers and commuters to destinations around the country. These railroad workers are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.
All workers in railroad occupations work together closely. Locomotive engineers travel with conductors and sometimes brake operators. Locomotive engineers and conductors are in constant contact and keep each other informed of any changes in the condition of the train.
Signal and switch operators communicate with both locomotive and rail yard engineers to make sure that trains end up at the correct destination. All occupations are in contact with dispatchers who give them directions on where to go and what to do.
The following are examples of types of railroad workers:
Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. Most locomotive engineers drive diesel-electric engines, although some drive locomotives powered by battery or electricity.
Engineers must be aware of the goods their train is carrying because different types of freight require different types of driving, based on the conditions of the rails. For example, a train carrying hazardous material through a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal through a mountain region.
Locomotive engineers typically do the following:
- Monitor speed, air pressure, battery use, and other instruments to ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly
- Observe track for obstructions, such as fallen tree branches
- Use a variety of controls, such as throttles and airbrakes, to operate the train
- Communicate with dispatchers over radios to get information about delays or changes in the schedule
Conductors travel on both freight and passenger trains. They coordinate activities of the train crew. On passenger trains, they ensure safety and comfort and make announcements to keep passengers informed. On freight trains they are responsible for overseeing the loading and unloading of cargo.
Conductors typically do the following:
- Check passengers’ tickets
- Take payments from passengers who did not buy tickets in advance
- Announce stations and give other announcements as needed
- Help passengers to safety when needed
- Ensure safe and orderly passenger conduct
- Oversee loading and unloading of cargo
Yardmasters do work similar to that of conductors, except that they do not travel on trains. They oversee and coordinate the activities of workers in the rail yard. They tell yard engineers where to move cars to fit the planned configuration or to load freight. Yardmasters ensure that trains are carrying the correct material before leaving the yard. Not all rail yards use yardmasters. In rail yards that do not have yardmasters, a conductor performs the duties of a yardmaster.
Yardmasters typically do the following:
- Review schedules, switching orders, and shipping records of freight trains
- Arrange for defective cars to be removed from a train for repairs
- Switch train traffic to a certain section of the line to allow other inbound and outbound trains to get around
- Break up or put together train cars according to a schedule
Rail yard engineers operate train engines within the rail yard. They move locomotives between tracks to keep the trains organized and on schedule. Some operate small locomotives called dinkeys. Sometimes, rail yard engineers are called hostlers and drive locomotives to and from maintenance shops or prepare them for the locomotive engineer. Some use remote locomotive technology to move freight cars within the rail yards.
Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators control equipment that keeps the trains running safely.
Brake operators help couple and uncouple train cars. Some travel with the train as part of the crew.
Signal operators install and maintain the signals along tracks and in the rail yard. Signals are important in preventing accidents because they allow increased communication between trains and dispatchers.
Switch operators control the track switches in rail yards. These switches allow trains to move between tracks and ensure trains are heading in the right direction.
Locomotive firers are sometimes part of a train crew and typically monitor tracks and train instruments. They look for equipment that is dragging, obstacles on the tracks, and other potential safety problems.
Few trains still use firers, because their work has been automated or is now done by a locomotive engineer or conductor.
Railroad workers held about 77,700 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up railroad workers was distributed as follows:
|Railroad conductors and yardmasters||36,000|
|Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers||9,100|
|Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers||5,200|
The largest employers of railroad workers were as follows:
|Local government, excluding education and hospitals||7|
Rail yard engineers and brake, signal, and switch operators spend most of their time working outside, regardless of weather conditions.
Conductors on passenger trains generally work in cleaner, more comfortable conditions than conductors on freight trains. However, conductors on passenger trains sometimes must respond to upset or unruly passengers when a train is delayed.
Because trains are scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, many railroad workers sometimes work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail employees work full time. Federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for train operators.
Locomotive engineers and conductors whose trains travel long routes can be away from home for long periods of time. Those who work on passenger trains with short routes generally have more predictable schedules. Workers on some freight trains have irregular schedules.
For engineers and conductors, seniority (the number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers and conductors, called extra board, are hired on a temporary basis and get an assignment only when a railroad needs an extra or substitute worker on a certain route.
This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of railroad workers.
|Occupation||Job Duties||Entry-Level Education||Median Annual Pay, May 2019|
Passenger Vehicle Drivers
Passenger vehicle drivers operate buses, taxis, and other modes of transportation to take people from place to place.
|See How to Become One||$33,300|
Delivery Truck Drivers and Driver/Sales Workers
Delivery truck drivers and driver/sales workers pick up, transport, and drop off packages and small shipments within a local region or urban area.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$32,020|
Flight attendants provide routine services and respond to emergencies to ensure the safety and comfort of airline passengers.
|High school diploma or equivalent||$56,640|
Heavy and Tractor-trailer Truck Drivers
Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers transport goods from one location to another.
|Postsecondary nondegree award||$45,260|
Material Moving Machine Operators
Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects.
|See How to Become One||$36,770|
Water transportation workers operate and maintain vessels that take cargo and people over water.
|See How to Become One||$57,330|
For more information about training programs, certifications, and job opportunities in rail transportation, visit
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Railroad Workers,
at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/railroad-occupations.htm (visited ).