Be a Rail Transportation Worker: Options and Requirements

Research the requirements to become a rail transportation worker. Learn about the job description and duties, and read the step-by-step process to start a career in railroading. View article »

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  • 0:03 Rail Transportation Workers
  • 0:26 Career Requirements
  • 1:01 Steps to Work in the Field

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Video Transcript

Rail Transportation Workers

Rail transportation workers may work for passenger railroads that transport people or freight railroads that transport goods. There are many jobs within railroading companies, including yardmasters, switch operators, conductors, and locomotive engineers. Each of these professions has unique qualifications and specialized duties.

Career Requirements

Education Level High school diploma or equivalent
Training 2-3 months of on-the-job training typically needed
Certification Federal railway certification required
Key Skills Good hearing, vision, and hand-eye coordination; mechanical, customer service, decision-making, and communication skills; physical strength and the ability to operate railroad switches, signals, and related devices
Salary* $42,912 per year (2015 median for all railroad workers)

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net OnLine, National Academy of Railroad Sciences,

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Steps to Work in the Field

Step 1: Decide Whether to Work on a Passenger or Freight Railroad

Railroad transportation job titles and duties are often dependent on whether an individual works for a railroad carrier that transports passengers or freight goods. For example, on a passenger railway, the conductor mainly checks tickets, loads riders' cargo, and makes announcements, while those who work on freight trains usually supervise the train crews, coordinate track and engine switching, and oversee the loading and unloading of train cargo. Some positions are more common to freight railroads, such as yardmasters, who perform duties like instructing other yard workers where to place rail cars and how to load freight.

Step 2: Complete On-the-Job Training

Although individuals can pursue training before getting a job, many railroad companies provide training classes and/or on-the-job training to teach workers about federal safety regulations and job-related tasks. Large companies may have an in-house training program, while smaller railroads may send workers to a community college or a central training facility.

Success Tip:

  • Take related postsecondary courses. Rail transportation workers can learn more about the field by taking college-level coursework in areas such as railroad science.

Step 3: Gain Experience in Entry-Level Roles

Individuals just starting out in the field may be hired as crew workers responsible for general train and track maintenance. This includes working as a brake or signal operator or locomotive firer. In these roles, workers perform duties like maintaining signals on the track, coupling and decoupling train cars, and checking the oil and temperature levels on trains. Over time, these workers can move up to roles that require greater responsibilities, such as yard engineer or yardmaster.

Step 4: Advance to a Locomotive Engineer Position

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, becoming a locomotive engineer is the highest level of advancement for railroad transportation workers. Typically, those who work their way up to a conductor or yardmaster title can advance to becoming a locomotive engineer. These professionals drive passenger and cargo trains, monitor train speeds, make mechanical adjustments, and communicate with railroad dispatchers.

Locomotive engineers are required to become certified by the Federal Railroad Administration. To be eligible for certification, aspiring engineers typically need to have a record of safe conduct as a motor vehicle operator and railroad employee, meet health and vision requirements, and pass a certification examination. Engineers need to recertify every two years after completing training classes and passing a recertification test.

Success Tip:

  • Obtain a commercial driver's license. Engineers may need to obtain a commercial driver's license (or CDL) before they can operate a train. Requirements for obtaining this license vary from state to state but typically include passing a driving and general knowledge test.

Hopeful railroad transportation workers should first decide whether to work on a passenger or freight train, then complete on-the-job training and work in entry-level roles before advancing to positions such as conductor, yardmaster, or locomotive engineer.

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