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Rail transportation workers.

"I've been working on the railroad" is still a fitting song for more than 100,000 Americans. Rail transportation workers facilitate the movement of passengers and cargo by our Nation's trains, subways, and streetcars. They include locomotive engineers, rail yard engineers, road conductors, assistant conductors, yard conductors, brake operators, freight train crew members, subway operators, and streetcar operators.

Railroad Engineers

Locomotive engineers and rail yard engineers are among the most highly skilled workers on the railroad. They must have a thorough knowledge of the signal systems, yards, and terminals along their route and be constantly aware of the condition and makeup of the train, because trains react differently to acceleration, braking, and curves, depending on the number of cars, the ratio of empty cars to loaded ones, and the amount of slack in the train.

Engineers are distinguished by the kinds of engines they operate and where they operate them. Most engineers run diesel locomotives; a few run electric locomotives. Locomotive engineers operate trains between stations, while rail yard engineers move cars within yards to assemble or disassemble trains. Some engineers, called dinkey operators, work at industrial sites or mines operating engines that help transport coal, rock, or supplies.

Operating a train safely requires constant attention. Engineers move the throttle to start and accelerate the train and use airbrakes or dynamic brakes to slow and stop it. They also watch gauges and meters that measure speed, fuel, temperature, battery charge, and air pressure in the brake lines. Both on the road and in the yard, they watch for signals that indicate blocked tracks, the movements of other trains, and speed limits. Before and after each run, engineers check locomotives for mechanical problems. Minor adjustments are made on the spot, but major defects are reported to the engine shop supervisor.

Currently, only a few railroads employ assistant engineers, also known as firers, They monitor locomotice instruments and signals and observe the track for obstructions.


Road conductors and yard conductors are in charge of train and yard crews. Conductors assigned to freight trains keep records of each car's contents and destination and make sure that cars are added and removed at the proper points along the route. Conductors assigned to passenger trains collect tickets and fares and answer passengers' questions about schedules and operating rules. At stops, they signal engineers when to pull out of the station. On some passenger trains, assistant conductors help conductors collect tickets and assist passengers.

Conductors on freight trains receive instructions on the train's route, timetable, and cargo from the dispatcher and discuss these with the engineer before the train leaves the terminal. On many trains, conductors receive additional information by radio while underway This may include information about track conditions or instructions to pull off at the next available stop or siding to let another train pass. During the run, conductors use two-way radios to contact engineers. They pass on instructions received from dispatchers and remind engineers of stops, reported track conditions, and the presence of other trains. They regularly receive information from brake operators regarding repairs that should be made while underway or defective cars that should be removed at the nearest stop. They inform dispatchers of problems by radio or wayside telephone.

Yard conductors supervise the crews that assemble and disassemble trains. Some cars are sent to special tracks for unloading, while the rest are moved to other tracks to await being made into trains destined for different cities. Conductors tell engineers where to move cars and tell brake operators which cars to couple and uncouple and which switches to throw to divert the locomotive or cars to the proper track. In yards that have automatic classification systems, conductors use electrical controls to operate the track switches.

Freight Train Crews

Although some smaller short-line, or regional, trains operate with only two crew members-an engineer and a conductor-most require more workers. The crews on freight trains include either one or two brake, signal, and switch operators--one in the locomotive with the engineer and another in the rear car, known as the caboose. Some freight trains use only one operator in the locomotive because new instruments have eliminated the need for rear brake operators and cabooses.

Brake operators play a pivotal role in linking locomotives and cars into trains. Working under the direction of conductors, they add and remove cars at stations and assemble and disassemble trains in railroad yards. Before departure, brake operators inspect the train to make sure that all couplers and airhoses are fastened, that handbrakes on all the cars are released, and that the airbrakes are functioning properly While underway, they regularly look for smoke, sparks, and other signs of sticking brakes, overheated axle bearings, and other faulty equipment. They may make minor repairs to airhoses and couplers. In case of unexpected stops, brake operators set up signals to prevent collisions.

When freight trains approach a freight. yard, the brake operator in the locomotive jumps off the train and runs ahead to switch it to the proper track. Brake operators uncouple the cars and throw track switches to route the cars to tracks where they can be unloaded or added to an outgoing train, if their final destination is further down the line. They also set hand brakes to secure cars.

Subway and Streetcar Operators

Subway operators start, slow, or stop subway trains on signal. They also make announcements, open and close doors, and ensure that passengers get on and off the train safely. Operators should have a basic understanding of the operating system and be able to diagnose the causes of minor problems. When emergencies occur, operators contact the appropriate officials and may have to assist passengers in evacuating the cars. Operators also ensure that trains stay on schedule.

Streetcar operators drive electricpowered streetcars to transport passengers, collect fares from passengers, and issues change and transfers. They also answer questions from passengers concerning fares, schedules, and routes.

Earnings and Working Conditions

The earnings and working conditions of railroad transportation workers vary by occupation and type of service-yard, passenger, freight, or subway.

Union data for several occupations are shown in the following tabulation:

Annual earnings,

Occupation 1987

Brake operators, freight $36,700

Brake operators, yard 31,100

Conductors, freight 46,800

Conductors, passenger 36,200

Engineers, freight 47,900

Engineers, passenger 39,600

Engineers, yard 39,600

Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rail transportation employees often work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail transportation employees in yards work 40 hours a week and receive extra pay for overtime. Undesirable shifts are assigned to persons who have the least seniority

Most freight trains are unscheduled, so few workers on these trains have scheduled assignments. Instead, they are assigned to trains in turn, usually on short notice and often at odd hours. Because road service personnel often work on trains that operate between stations hundreds of miles apart, they may spend several nights a week away from home. They are paid according to miles traveled or hours worked, whichever leads to higher earnings.

Freight and yard conductors and brake operators spend most of their time outdoors in all kinds of weather. The work of brake operators on local runs-during which trains frequently stop to pick up and deliver cars-is physically demanding. Climbing up and down and getting off moving cars is strenuous and can be dangerous.

Sub way operators eam ed from $26,000 to $30,000 in 1987, based on limited information. Some subway operators work multiple shifts some days, but most have more regular hours than do other railroad transportation workers.

Qualifications and Advancement

Most railroad transportation workers begin as trainees for either engineer or brake operator jobs. Railroads prefer that applicants have a high school education. Applicants must have good hearing, eyesight, color vision, eye-hand coordination, manual dexterity, and mechanical aptitude. Physical stamina is required for brake operator jobs. Most employers require that applicants pass a physical examination. Railroads prefer that applicants for engineering jobs be at least 21 years old. Engineers must pass periodic physical examinations that determine their fitness to operate locomotives. In some cases, engineers who fail to meet the physical standards are restricted to yard service or discharged. Drug testing is increasingly common and may become mandatory for some occupations, such as engineer and conductor.

Most beginning engineers undergo 6to 8-month training programs. These programs include classroom and on-thejob instruction in locomotive operation. At the end of the training period, aspiring engineers take qualifying tests covering locomotive equipment, airbrake systems, fuel economy, train handling techniques, and operating rules and regulations.

Newly trained workers are placed on the "extra board," a list of employees available for work when the regular engineers and brake operators are absent because of vacation, illness, or other personal reasons. Seniority determines a worker's position on the extra board. Once a worker accumulates enough seniority, which frequently takes years, the worker is given a regular assignment. With additional seniority, a worker may transfer from one type of service to another; for instance, an engineer may move from an initial regular assignment in yard service to road service.

On most railroads, beginning brake operators receive little formal training, although they take several trips with conductors and experienced operators tobecome familiar with the job. On some railroads, however, new brake operators undergo extensive training, including instruction in signaling, coupling and uncoupling cars, throwing switches, and boarding moving trains.

Jobs as conductors are generally filled by experienced brake operators who have passed tests covering signals, timetables, operating rules, and related subjects. Some companies require that these tests be passed within the first few years of employment. Until permanent positions become available, new conductors-like new engineers and brake operators-are put on the extra board. On most railroads, conductors on the extra board continue to work as brake operators when they are not needed as conductors. Seniority usually is the main factor in determining promotion from brake operator to conductor and from the extra board to a permanent position. Advancement to conductor jobs is limited because there are many more brake operators than conductors.

Most railroads maintain separate seniority lists for road service and yard service conductors. Conductors usually remain in one type of service for their entire career. On some railroads, however, conductors start in the yards, then move to freight service, and finally to passenger service. Some conductors advance to managerial or administrative positions.

Subway transit systems prefer applicants with a high school education for subway operator jobs. Applicants must be in good health, articulate, and able to make quick, responsible judgments.

New operators are generally trained in classrooms and on the job for a few weeks to several months. At the end of the training period, most operators must pass qualifying examinations covering the operating system, troubleshooting, and evacuation and emergency procedures. Some operators with sufficient seniority advance to station managers.

Employment and Outlook

Rail transportation workers held about 117,000 jobs in 1986. The total included 42,000 brake operators, 29,000 conductors, 17,000 locomotive engineers, and 11,000 rail yard engineers and dinkey operators. The remaining 18,000 workers were subway and streetcar operators and other rail vehicle workers. Railroads employ about 90 percent of all rail transportation workers. State and local governments and mining and manufacturing establishments that operate their own railroad cars to carry freight employ the remainder.

Job opportunities for railroad transportation workers are expected to be limited because the steady decline in railroad industry employment since World War II is expected to continue through the year 2000. The decline in employment stems in part from decreasing demand for railroad freight and passenger services, primarily due to competition from other modes of transportation, such as trucking, shipping, and airlines. While railroad operating costs were rising-resulting in increased costs to users-operating costs of competing modes of transportation were falling. As a result, businesses increasingly used other means of transportation to carry their goods. Also, there has been a slowdown in the rate of growth of heavy goods industries-such as coal, grain, food products, and lumber-which are major users of railroad freight services.

The decline in the number of railroad transportation workers has also resulted from such innovations as larger, faster, more fuel-efficient trains and computerized classification yards. Computers are used to keep track of freight cars, match empty cars with the closest loads, and dispatch trains. Also, computer-assisted devices alert engineers to train malfunctions, eliminating the need for brake operators in the caboose. Employment is expected to continue to decline due to these innovations and new work rules that allow trains to operate with two- or three-person crews instead of the traditional five-person crews.

Employment opportunities for railroad transportation workers will continue to be extremely limited. Many positions will not be filled as people leave the occupation or will be filled by persons already employed in the industry. Employment opportunities should be best for locomotive and yard engineers, who should be less affected than other workers by technological changes and reductions in crew size. On the other hand, the employment of brake operators should be the most adversely affected because visual instrumentation and monitoring devices have eliminated the need for rear brake operators.

Intracity rail systems, unlike railroads, have grown rapidly as cities have built new subway systems and have added new lines to existing systems. This trend is expected to continue, creating more job openings for subway operators.

Because subway operator is a wellpaying occupation for which many high school graduates can qualify, applicants can expect to face considerable competition.

Sources of Additional Information

Information on employment opportunities for railroad transportation workers may be obtained from

Association of American Railroads 50 F Street NW Washington, DC 20001.

For additional information on employment opportunities in rail transportation, contact local offices of rail transit systems and the State employment service.
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Author:Dillon, Hall
Publication:Occupational Outlook Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1989
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