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Rail transportation workers operate our Nation's trains, subways, and streetcars to facilitate the movement of passengers and cargo. Railroad transportation workers deliver travelers and freight to destinations throughout the nation while subway and streetcar operators provide passenger service within a single metropolitan area.
Railroad transportation workers. Locomotive engineers and rail yard engineers are among the most highly skilled workers on the railroad. They operate locomotives in yards, stations, and over the track between distant stations and yards. Locomotive engineers operate trains carrying cargo and passengers between stations, while rail yard engineers move cars within yards to assemble or disassemble trains. In addition to those engineers who work for railroads, some engineers called dinkey operators work at industrial plants or mines operating smaller engines that pull cars loaded with coal, rock, or supplies around the site.
Engineers operate the throttle to start and accelerate the train and use air brakes or dynamic brakes to slow and stop it. They monitor gauges and meters that measure speed, fuel, temperature, battery charge, and air pressure in the brake lines. Both on the road and in the yard, they watch for signals that indicate track obstructions, other train movements, and speed limits. They must have a thorough knowledge of the signal systems, yards, and terminals along their routes and be constantly aware of the condition and makeup of their train. This is extremely important because trains react differently to acceleration, braking, and curves, depending on the number of cars, the ratio of empty to loaded cars, and the amount of slack in the train.
Most engineers run diesel locomotives; a few run electric locomotives. Before and after each run, engineers check locomotives for mechanical problems. Minor adjustments are made on the spot, but major problems are reported to the engine shop supervisor. In an effort to reduce costs, most railroads are phasing out assistant engineers, also known as firers, who monitor locomotive instruments and signals and observe the track for obstructions. Most of these duties are now performed by brake operators.
Road conductors and yard conductors are in charge of the train and yard crews. Conductors assigned to freight trains record each car's contents and destination and make sure that cars are added and removed at the proper points along the route. Conductors assigned to passenger trains collect tickets and fares and assist passengers. At stops, they signal engineers when to pull out of the station.
Before a train leaves the terminal, the road conductor and engineer discuss instructions received from the dispatcher concerning the train's route, timetable, and cargo. While underway, conductors receive additional information by radio. This may include information about track conditions ahead or instructions to pull off at the next available stop to let another train pass. During the run, conductors use two-way radios to contact engineers. They pass on instructions received from dispatchers and remind engineers of stops, reported track conditions, and the presence of other trains.
While underway, conductors receive information from brake operators regarding any equipment problems, and they may arrange for defective cars to be removed from the train for repairs at the nearest station or stop. They inform dispatchers of any problems using a radio or wayside telephone.
Yard conductors supervise the crews that assemble and disassemble trains. Some cars are sent to special tracks for unloading, while the rest are moved to other tracks to await assemblage into trains destined for different cities. Conductors tell engineers where to move cars. They tell brake operators which cars to couple and uncouple and which switches to throw to divert the locomotive or cars to the proper track. In yards that have automatic classification systems, conductors use electrical remote controls to operate the track switches that route cars to the correct track.
Brake operators play a pivotal role in making locomotives and cars into trains. Working under the direction of conductors, they do the physical work involved in adding and removing cars at railroad stations and assembling and disassembling trains in railroad yards.
Freight train crews include either one or two brake operatorsone in the locomotive with the engineer and another in the rear car. An increasing number of freight trains use only one brake operator because new visual instrumentation and monitoring devices have eliminated the need for operators outside the locomotive. Before departure, brake operators inspect the train to make sure that all couplers and airhoses are fastened, that handbrakes on all the cars are released, and that the air brakes are functioning properly. While underway, they regularly look for smoke, sparks, and other signs of sticking brakes, overheated axle bearings, and other potentially faulty equipment. They may make minor repairs to airhoses and couplers. In case of unexpected stops, brake operators set up signals to protect both ends of the train.
When freight trains approach an industrial site, the brake operator in the locomotive gets off the train and runs ahead to switch the train to the proper track. They uncouple the cars and throw track switches to route them to certain tracks if they are to be unloaded, or to an outgoing train if their final destination is further down the line. They also set hand brakes to secure cars.
Many smaller railroads operate with only two crew membersan engineer and a conductor. Most passenger trains no longer employ brake operators but employ assistant conductors to help conductors collect tickets and assist passengers.
Subway and streetcar operators. Subway operators control trains that transport passengers throughout a city and its suburbs. The trains usually run on tracks in underground tunnels, but some systems have lines that run in part on tracks on the surface or elevated above streets. Observing the system's signals, operators start, slow, or stop the subway train. They make announcements to riders, open and close the doors, and ensure that passengers get on and off the subway safely. Operators should have a basic understanding of the operating system and be able to recognize common equipment problems. When breakdowns or emergencies occur, operators contact their dispatcher or supervisor and may have to evacuate cars. To meet predetermined schedules, operators must control the amount of time spent at each station.
Streetcar operators drive electric-powered streetcars or trolleys that transport passengers. Streetcars run on tracks that may be recessed in city streets, so operators must observe traffic signals and cope with car and truck traffic. Operators start, slow, and stop their cars so passengers may board or alight. They collect fares, and issue change and transfers. They also answer questions from passengers concerning fares, schedules, and routes.
Because trains operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, many rail transportation employees often work nights, weekends, and holidays. On some days subway operators may work multiple shifts. Undesirable shifts are assigned to persons who have the least seniority.
Most freight trains are unscheduled, and few workers on these trains have scheduled assignments. Instead, their names are placed on a list, and when their turn comes they are assigned to the next train, usually on short notice and often at odd hours. Because road service personnel often work on trains that operate between stations that are hundreds of miles apart, they may spend several nights a week away from home.
Freight and yard conductors and brake operators spend most of their time outdoors in all kinds of weather. The work of brake operators on local runswhere trains frequently stop at stations to pick up and deliver carsis physically demanding. Climbing up and down and getting off moving cars is strenuous and can be dangerous.
Rail transportation workers held about 86,000 jobs in 1994including 26,000 conductors, 22,000 locomotive engineers, 19,000 brake operators, and 6,000 rail yard engineers and dinkey operators. Subway and streetcar operators accounted for over 12,000 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 that operate their own locomotives and rail cars to move ore, coal, and other bulk materials.
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 21 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 6-month training program, 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, 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 greater 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 physical and conduct standards are restricted to yard service; 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 conductor 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 busdrivers 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 6 months. At the end of the period of classroom and on-the-job training, operators usually must pass qualifying examinations covering the operating system, troubleshooting, and evacuation and emergency procedures. Some operators with sufficient seniority can advance to station managers.
Competition for available opportunities is expected to be keen. Many persons qualify for rail transportation occupations because education beyond high school generally is not required and many more desire employment than can be hired because the pay is good and the work steady. While employment of railroad transportation workers is expected to decline for all occupations through the year 2005, employment of subway and streetcar operators is expected to grow faster than the average. The total number of new jobs, however, is not large. Also, relatively few opportunities resulting from replacement needs will occur because the attractive pay and job security results in relatively few rail transportation workers leaving their jobs.
Demand for railroad freight service will grow as the economy expands, but opportunities for railroad transportation workers will be limited because of ongoing reductions in the size of operating crews and improvements in the efficiency of railroad operations. Railroad freight service is expected to increase as the population and economy grow in size, and as intermodal freight transportation continues to 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. Productivity and efficiency improvements cutting the time railroads need to deliver cargoes are also increasing shippers' use of railroads. 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 be affected by innovations such as larger, faster, more fuel-efficient trains and computerized classification yards that make it possible to move passengers and 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, eliminating the need for brake operators in the rear car. Also, new work rules that allow trains to operate with two- or three-person crews instead of the traditional five-person crews are now becoming widespread. Many positions will not be filled as people leave the occupations, or the work will be restructured so that it can be done by other railroad employees. Employment opportunities for locomotive and yard engineers should be slightly better than other rail occupations because they should be less affected by technological changes and reductions in crew size. On the other hand, employment of brake operators should be the most adversely affected as visual instrumentation and monitoring devices eliminate the need for rear brake operators.
Subway and streetcar operator employment is expected to grow as cities build new rail systems and add new lines to existing systems. New construction is spurred by population growth in metropolitan areas that increases automobile traffic and makes streets and highways more congested. Improved rail systems offer an alternative to automobile transportation that can reduce road congestion and, by reducing automobile use, also contribute to government mandated improvements in air quality.
Earnings of railroad transportation workers vary by occupation, size of the train, and type of service. According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, in 1993, passenger engineers averaged about $63,900 a year, through-freight engineers about $62,900, local way freight engineers about $60,800, and yard engineers about $47,700 a year.
According to the Association of American Railroads, in 1994, annual earnings of conductors averaged $41,000 for through-freight and $39,200 for local and way freight. Brake operators averaged about $28,300 for through-freight and $31,000 for local and way freight. Yard brake operators averaged about $24,800 in 1994, while passenger brake operators averaged $21,600.
According to the American Public Transit Association, in 1994, operators for commuter rail had hourly earnings of about $19.20; operators for heavy rail about $17.30; and operators for light rail, about $15.90.
Most rail transportation employees in yards work 40 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, but 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.
Information on employment opportunities for railroad transportation workers may be obtained from the employment offices of the various railroads and rail transit systems, or State employment service offices.
For general information about career opportunities in passenger transportation, contact:
American Public Transit Association, 1201 New York Ave. NW., Suite 400, Washington, DC 20005.
General information on rail transportation occupations and career opportunities as a locomotive engineer is available from:
Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 1370 Ontario Ave., Cleveland, OH 44113-1702.
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