Railroad Worker Career Description

railroad worker career description


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.

What they do

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.


Work Environment

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.


How to become a Railroad Worker

Workers in railroad occupations generally need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.

Rail companies typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors.

Locomotive engineers generally receive 2 to 3 months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer who teaches them the characteristics of that particular train route.

During training, an engineer learns the track length, where the switches are, and any unusual features of the track. An experienced engineer who switches to a new route also has to spend a few months in training to learn the route with an engineer who is familiar with it. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.

Most railroad companies have 1 to 3 months of on-the-job training for conductors and yardmasters. Amtrak (the passenger train company) and some of the larger freight railroad companies operate their own training programs. Smaller and regional railroads may send conductors to a central training facility or a community college.

Yardmasters may be sent to training programs or may be trained by an experienced yardmaster. They learn how to operate remote locomotive technology and how to manage railcars in the yard.

Conductors and yardmasters working for freight railroads also learn the proper procedures for loading and unloading different types of cargo. Conductors on passenger trains learn ticketing procedures and how to handle passengers.

Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, generally through a company training program. This program may last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the company and the complexity of the job. The program may include some time in a classroom and some hands-on experience under the direction of an experienced employee.

Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors for several years.

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.



The median annual wage for railroad workers was $65,020 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $43,740, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $98,990.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2019 to 2029. Decreasing demand for the transportation of bulk commodities, such as coal and oil, is expected to cause some railroads to reduce employment in an effort to become more efficient.


Similar Job Titles

Locomotive Engineer:

Locomotive Engineer, Passenger Locomotive Engineer, Railroad Engineer, Through Freight Engineer, Train Engineer, Trainmaster, Transportation Specialist

Conductor and Yardmaster:

Agent; Conductor; Conductor and Engineer; Conductor, Freight; Conductor/Brakeman; Freight Conductor; Railroad Conductor; Train Master; Trainman; Yardmaster

Railyard Engineer:

Car Repairman, Conductor, Engineer, Equipment Operator, Railcar Switcher, Railroad Engineer, Switch Crew Supervisor, Switchman, Transportation Specialist, Yard Engineer

Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators:

Brakeman, Carman, Locomotive Switch Operator, Railroad Brakeman, Railroad Switchman, Switch Foreman, Terminal Carman, Trainman, Trains Service Conductor, Transportation Specialist

Locomotive firers:

Assistant Engineer, Assistant Passenger Locomotive Engineer, Fireman, Locomotive Engineer, Passenger Locomotive Engineer


Related Occupations

Locomotive Engineer:

Locomotive Firer; Rail Yard Engineer, Dinkey Operator and Hostlers; Railroad Brake, Signal and Switch Operator; Railroad Conductor and Yardmaster; Subway and Streetcar Operator

Conductor and Yardmaster:

Shipping, Receiving and Traffic Clerk; Locomotive Engineer; Locomotive Firer; Rail Yard Engineer, Dinkey Operator and Hostler; Railroad Brake, Signal and Switch Operator

Railyard Engineer:

Highway Maintenance Worker; Rail-Track Laying and Maintenance Equipment Operator; Locomotive Engineer; Locomotive Firer; Railroad Brake, Signal and Switch Operator

Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators:

Rail-Track Laying and Maintenance Equipment Operator; Service Unit Operator, Oil, Gas and Mining; Locomotive Engineer; Rail Yard Engineer, Dinkey Operator and Hostler; Railroad Conductor and Yardmaster

Locomotive firers:

Locomotive Engineer; Rail Yard Engineer, Dinkey Operator and Hostler; Railroad Brake, Signal and Switch Operator; Subway and Streetcar Operator; Excavating and Loading Machine and Dragline Operator


More Information

The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field.  Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas.  As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.


Magazines and Publications



Video Transcript

Commuter trains gliding between stations… freight trains chugging across the heartland…. Every kind of train needs a steady, experienced locomotive engineer at the controls, and railroad conductors and yardmasters to keep track of passengers and cargo. Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They alter their methods and speed based on the type of freight they carry, weather conditions, and the quality of the rails themselves. These engineers monitor speed, air pressure, battery use, and other instruments to ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly. Keeping in contact with dispatchers over the radio helps them stay informed of delays and schedule changes. Railroad conductors help travelers onto the train, take tickets, make announcements, and stand by while the train is in the station. It’s their job to make sure people are safely aboard before signaling to the engineer to proceed. Conductors also coordinate the activities of the train’s crew, and on freight trains, if a yardmaster is not available, they oversee loading and unloading of cargo. Yardmasters stay at the station to oversee the activities of workers in the rail yard; moving cars for the right configuration of a train, loading freight, and making sure all equipment is safe. Especially before they gain seniority, these railroad workers work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most jobs require a high school diploma, along with several months of simulations and on-the-job training to get “on track” for a career on the rails.


Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org