Railroad workers typically do the following:
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:
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:
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:
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.
Rail companies typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors.
Locomotive engineers must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The certification, conducted by the railroad that employs them, involves a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a supervisor determining that the engineer understands all physical aspects of the particular route on which he or she will be operating.
An experienced engineer who changes routes must be recertified for the new route. Even engineers who do not switch routes must be recertified every few years.
At the end of the certification process, the engineer must pass a vision and hearing test.
Conductors who operate on national, regional, or commuter railroads are also required to become certified. To receive certification, new conductors must pass a test that has been designed and administered by the railroad and approved by the FRA.