Rail Transportation

There are three types of rail transportation: freight, passenger, and urban transit (subway and light-rail). Not only do workers in these systems work on trains, many are employed in rail yards where cars are maintained, coupled, and uncoupled.

Locomotive engineers operate trains carrying cargo or passengers between stations. An engineer must know his routes very well and also monitor the makeup and condition of his train, as many factors may affect overall safety.

Railroad conductors oversee the work of the crew on a freight or passenger train. A freight conductor must keep abreast of the loading and unloading of cargo and oversee the operation of freight cars in terminals and rail yards that use remote control. Passenger train conductors must collect tickets and fares and see to the comfort of passengers, as well as overseeing the activities of the crew.

The engineer and conductor discuss any issues regarding route, timetable, and cargo before the train leaves the terminal. They both must be in touch with traffic-control and personnel on other trains to receive information about delays or locations of other trains. The conductor relays, often electronically, problems on the train or rails.
Some rail yards employ a yardmaster who directs the making up and breaking up of trains and directs workers where to move cars to fit the new train configuration. Much of the switching in rail yards is now done remotely by computer.

Unlike other rail transportation workers, subway and streetcar operators are usually employed by public transit authorities. Subways may run underground, on the surface, or on elevated tracks serving cities and their suburbs. Operators must observe signals along the way, make announcement to riders, and may open and close the train doors, although more and more, the amount of time stopped at each station and the train’s speed are controlled by computers.

Streetcar operators operate electric-powered streetcars, trolleys, or light-rail vehicles around large cities. They operate within regular street traffic and must observe traffic signals. Besides stopping their cars for passengers, streetcar operators may collect fares and usually interact with passengers.

Rail transportation workers work nights, weekends, and holidays because trains run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Overtime is common, although there are now federal regulations requiring minimum rest time. Freight train crews have irregular schedules, are usually assigned on short notice, and may have to work at odd hours. Workers on passenger trains usually have regular schedules. Rail-yard workers work mostly outdoors in all kinds of weather.


All railroad applicants must have a minimum of a high school diploma or its equivalent. Those who apply for engineer positions and some conductor positions must be at least twenty-one years of age. Most applicants must pass a drug screening, background check, and physical exam before being employed. Railroads usually require a training program including classroom and on-site practice, as well as on-the-job training. New urban-transit rail operators usually begin by driving buses, then they have formal training and must pass qualifying examinations.

Locomotive engineers must be federally licensed. They go through a rigorous initial training program and must pass a battery of exams to qualify. To maintain that license, they must pass unannounced periodic operational rules tests. All those licensed to operate engines are subject to random drug and alcohol testing on duty and also must undergo periodic physical exams. Generally, a new applicant must train as a conductor before being considered for an engineer position. Sometimes new conductors are required to take a conductor training course at a community college. Conductors will soon have to be licensed as well. Rail-yard workers usually require a commercial driver’s license.

Rail transportation workers must have good hearing, eyesight, color vision, hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, and mechanical aptitude. Most jobs require physical stamina. Workers must be able to communicate and make quick, responsible decisions.


In the near future, a large number of older rail employees will be retiring, so opportunities are expected to be good for qualified applicants, especially at freight railroads and on long-distance train crews. However, the growing use of technology may reduce the need for new personnel in nonessential positions. While the demand for passenger travel will be high, growth here will be slow because there is not enough track to support more travel. Subway and streetcar operators will do best in places where commuter train construction is going on.

Fully three-quarters of railroad transportation workers belong to unions, which keep benefits good and wages relatively high. Recently, when the median wage for all transportation occupations was $13.14 per hour, rail workers earned $20.00 or more per hour. They are usually paid according to miles traveled or hours worked, whichever earnings are higher.