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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, and color vision, as well as good hand-eye coordination, manual dexterity, and mechanical aptitude. Physical stamina is required for brake operator jobs. Most employers require that applicants for railroad transportation jobs pass a physical examination and tests that screen for drug and alcohol use.

Railroads prefer that applicants for locomotive engineer jobs be at least twenty-one years old. Engineer jobs are frequently filled by workers with experience in other railroad operating occupations, such as brake operators or conductors. Most beginning engineers undergo a six-month training pro-gram, which includes classroom and hands-on instruction in locomotive operation. At the end of the training period, aspiring engineers must pass qualifying tests covering locomotive equipment, air brake systems, fuel economy, train handling techniques, and operating rules and regulations.

On most railroads, brake operators begin by making several trips with conductors and experienced operators to become 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.

As railroads need new engineers and brake operators, the newly trained workers who have the most seniority are placed on the "extra board". Extra board engineers and brake operators work only when the railroad needs substitutes for regular workers who are absent because of vacation, illness, or other personal reasons. Extra board engineers and brake operators frequently must wait years until they accumulate enough seniority to get a regular assignment. Seniority rules also may allow workers with seniority to select their type of assignment. For example, an engineer may move from an initial regular assignment in yard service to road service.

Engineers undergo periodic physical examinations and drug and alcohol testing to determine their fitness to operate locomotives. Unannounced safety and efficiency tests are also given to judge their overall conduct of operations. In some cases, engineers who fail to meet these physicals and pass these tests are restricted to yard service, or, in other instances, they may be disciplined, trained to perform other work, or discharged.

Conductor jobs generally are filled from the ranks of experienced brake operators who have passed tests covering signals, timetables, operating rules, and related subjects. Some companies require these tests be passed within the first few years of employment. Until permanent positions become available, new conductors are put on the extra board, where they substitute for experienced conductors who are absent. On most railroads, conductors on extra board may work as brake operators if there are not enough conductors' runs available that month. Seniority usually is the main factor in determining promotion from brake operator to conductor and from 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.

For subway and streetcar operator jobs, subway transit systems prefer applicants to have a high school education. Some systems require subway operators to work as bus drivers for a specified period of time. Applicants must be in good health, articulate, and able to make quick, responsible judgments.

New operators generally are placed in training programs that last from a few weeks to six months. At the end of the period of classroom and on-the-job training, operators usually must pass qualifying examinations covering the operating sys-tem, troubleshooting, and evacuation and emergency procedures. Some operators with sufficient seniority can advance to station managers.


Rail transportation workers held 83,000 jobs in 1996-including 25,000 conductors; 21,000 locomotive engineers; 18,000 brakes, signal, and switch operators; and 5,000 rail yard engineers and dinky operators. Subway and streetcar operators accounted for nearly 13,000 jobs. Railroads employ about 82 percent of all rail transportation workers. The rest, work for state and local governments as subway and streetcar operators, and for mining and manufacturing establishments operating their own locomotives and rail cars to move ore, coal, and other bulk materials.

Competition for available opportunities is expected to be keen. Many people qualify for rail transportation occupations because education beyond high school is generally not required. Many more desire employment than can be hired because the pay is good and the work steady.

Employment for a majority of railroad transportation workers is expected to decline through 2006, with only locomotive engineers and subway and streetcar operators expected to grow. The total number of new jobs, however, will not be large. Also, relatively few opportunities resulting from replacement needs will occur because the attractive pay, tenure, and job security results in relatively few rail transportation workers leaving their jobs. In addition, the industry continues to reduce the workforce by eliminating positions left vacant by employees who retire from the rail industry or leave for other reasons. Mergers and divestiture-related cutbacks are also responsible for the reduction of rail occupation employment.

Demand for railroad freight service will grow as the economy and the intermodal transportation of goods expand and railroads become more efficient. Intermodal systems use trucks to pick up and deliver the shippers' sealed trailers or containers, and trains to transport them long distance. This saves customers time and money by efficiently carrying goods across country. Inter-modalism is the fastest growing type of railroad transportation. For railroads, the benefit has been the increased efficiency of equipment use, allowing increases in the number of runs each train makes in a year. In order to compete with other modes of transportation such as trucks, ships and barges, and aircraft, railroads are improving delivery times and on-time service while reducing shipping rates. As a result, businesses are expected to increasingly use railroads to carry their goods.

However, growth in the number of railroad transportation workers will generally be adversely affected by innovations such as larger, faster, more fuel-efficient trains and computerized classification yards that make it possible to move freight more economically. Computers are used to keep track of freight cars, match empty cars with the closest loads, and dispatch trains. Computer assisted devices alert engineers to train malfunctions and new work rules have become widespread, allowing trains to operate with two- or three-person crews instead of the traditional five-person crews.

Employment of locomotive and yard engineers should grow as the industry expands and more trains are in operation, and because they will be less affected by technological changes and reductions in crew size.

Subway and streetcar operator employment is expected to grow as metropolitan areas build new rail systems and add new lines to existing systems. State and local governments support new construction because population growth in metropolitan areas has increased automobile traffic, making streets and highways more congested. Improved rail systems offer an alternative to automobile transportation that can reduce road congestion and, by reducing automobile use, contribute to government-mandated improvements in air quality.


According to the National Railroad Labor Conference (NRLC) in early 1997, the annual earnings for engineers ranged from an average of $52,903 for yard-freight engineers, to $65,374 for passenger engineers.

For conductors, earnings ranged from an average of $48,991 for yard-freight conductors, up to $62,169 for local-freight conductors.

The NRLC reports that brake operators averaged from $41,968 for yard-freight operators, up to $54,448 for local-freight operators.

According to mid-1997 American Public Transit Association data, hourly earnings of operators for commuter rail averaged $21.44; operators for heavy rail $18.70; and operators for light rail, $17.04. Wages generally varied from about $5 to $7 per hour in either direction on the high and low end.

Most rail transportation employees in yards work forty hours a week and receive extra pay for overtime. Most railroad workers in road service are paid according to miles traveled or hours worked, whichever leads to higher earnings. Full-time employees have steadier work, more regular hours, and higher earnings than those assigned to the extra board.

Most railroad transportation workers are members of unions. Many different railroad unions represent various crafts on the railroads. Most railroad engineers are members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, while most other railroad transportation workers are members of the United Transportation Union.

Many subway operators are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, while others belong to the Transport Workers Union of North America.
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