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Nature of the Work
* The increasing efficiency of railroads should allow more goods to be shipped by rail with less employment of rail transportation workers, resulting in few job openings.
* Employment of locomotive engineers and subway and streetcar operators is projected to grow slowly.
* Many rail transportation workers have very high earnings.
Rail transportation is one of the centerpieces of the Nation's transportation network. Railroads deliver thousands of travelers and millions of tons of freight to destinations throughout the nation, while subways and streetcars provide passenger service within a single metropolitan area. Rail transportation workers make sure the goods and passengers arrive safely and on time.
Railroad transportation workers. Locomotive engineers and rail yard engineers are among the most experienced and skilled workers on the railroad. Locomotive engineers operate large trains, carrying cargo and passengers between stations, while rail yard engineers move cars within the yard to assemble or disassemble trains. In addition, some operators called dinkey operators run smaller engines that pull cars loaded with coal, rock, or supplies around industrial plants or mines.
The majority of engineers run diesel locomotives, but a few run electrically powered locomotives. Before and after each run, engineers check their locomotives for mechanical problems. Minor adjustments are made on the spot, while the engine shop supervisor handles any major problems.
Engineers use a throttle to start and accelerate the locomotive and air brakes or electric brakes to slow and stop the train. They monitor gauges and meters that measure speed, amperage, battery charge, and air pressure both in the brake lines and in the main reservoir. Both on the open road and in the yard, engineers watch for signals indicating track obstructions, other train movements, and speed limits. They must have a thorough knowledge of the signaling systems, yards, and terminals in addition to their routes. Engineers must 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.
Traditionally, freight train crews included either one or two brake operatorsone in the locomotive with the engineer and another who rode with the conductor in the rear car. In an effort to reduce costs and take advantage of new technology, most railroads are phasing out assistant engineers and brake operators. Assistant engineers help monitor locomotive instruments and signals and observe the track for obstructions. Brake operators work under the direction of conductors and did the physical work involved in adding and removing cars at railroad stations and assembling and disassembling trains in railroad yards. Now, most freight trains only use an engineer and a conductor, now stationed with the engineer, because new visual instrumentation and monitoring devices have eliminated the need for crew members located on the rear of the train.
Road conductors and yard conductors are in charge of the train and yard crews. Road conductors assigned to freight trains record each car's contents and destination, and add and remove cars at the proper points along the route. Conductors assigned to passenger trains collect tickets and fares and monitor passengers. At stops, conductors signal engineers when to pull out of the station. Most passenger trains also employ assistant conductors to help collect tickets and assist passengers.
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 or instructions to pull off at the next available stop and let another train pass. During the run, conductors use two-way radios to communicate with engineers and conductors of other trains. They pass on instructions received from dispatchers and remind engineers of stops, reported track conditions, and the presence of other trains.
Conductors receive information from the crew regarding any equipment problems on the train. 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 unload their cargo on special tracks, while other cars are moved to other tracks to await assemblage into new trains destined for different cities. Conductors tell engineers the make-up of trains and where to move the cars. Computerized switches divert the locomotive or cars to the proper track for coupling and uncoupling.
Before departure, the train is inspected to make sure all couplers and air-hoses are fastened, all hand brakes on the cars have been released, and the air brakes work properly. While underway, the crew regularly looks for smoke, sparks, and other signs of sticking brakes, overheated axle bearings, and other potentially faulty equipment. They may make minor repairs to air-hoses and couplers. In case of unexpected stops, the crew sets up signals to protect both ends of the train.
Subway and streetcar operators. Subway operators control trains that transport passengers throughout a city and its suburbs. The trains run on tracks in underground tunnels, on the surface or elevated above streets. Operators start, slow, or stop the 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 and the signaling systems used by the trains. 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 train's speed and the amount of time spent at each station. Increasingly, however, these functions are controlled by computers and not by the operator.
Streetcar operators drive electric-powered streetcars or trolleys that transport passengers in metropolitan areas. Some tracks may be recessed in city streets or have grade crossings, so operators must observe traffic signals and cope with car and truck traffic. Operators start, slow, and stop their cars so passengers may get on or off with ease. 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, operators work multiple shifts. Typically, seniority dictates who receives the more desirable shifts.
Most freight trains are unscheduled, and few workers on these trains have scheduled assignments. Instead, their names are placed on a list and they must await their turn to work. Jobs are usually handed out on short notice and often at odd hours. Because road service personnel often work on trains operating between stations that are hundreds of miles apart, they may spend several nights at a time away from home.
Freight and yard conductors spend most of their time outdoors in varying weather. The work of operators on local runs, where trains frequently stop at stations to pick up and deliver cars, is physically demanding. Climbing up and down and getting off moving cars is strenuous and can be dangerous.
Rail transportation workers held 83,000 jobs in 1996including 25,000 conductors; 21,000 locomotive engineers; 18,000 brake, signal, and switch operators; and 5,000 rail yard engineers and dinkey 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.
Most railroad transportation workers begin as yard laborers, and later may have the opportunity to be trained for engineer or conductor jobs. Railroads require that applicants have a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent. 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. Employers require applicants for railroad transportation jobs to pass a physical examination and tests that screen for drug and alcohol use. In addition, under Federal law all members of train crews are subject to random drug and alcohol testing while on duty.
On most railroads, brake operators begin by helping assemble and disassemble trains in the yard. After these operators gain experience, they may have the opportunity for road assignments, although trains now carry brake operators only when they pick up, and drop off a lot of cars en route. On most railroads, new brake operators undergo extensive on-the-job training and classroom instruction, including instruction in signaling, coupling and uncoupling cars, throwing switches, and boarding moving trains.
Railroads require that applicants for locomotive engineer jobs be at least 21 years old. Frequently, employers fill engineer positions with workers who have experience in other railroad operating occupations. Federal regulations require that beginning engineers complete a formal engineer training program, including classroom and hands-on instruction in locomotive operation. The instruction is usually administered by the rail company. At the end of the training period, they must pass qualifying tests covering locomotive equipment, air brake systems, fuel economy, train handling techniques, and operating rules and regulations. The company issues the engineer a license once the applicant successfully passes the examinations. Other conditions and rules may apply to entry-level engineers, and these rules usually vary between railroads.
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 are generally 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 to be passed within the first 2 years of employment. New conductors are put on the extra board where they substitute for experienced conductors who are absent, because of vacation, illness, or other personal reasons, until permanent positions become available. On most railroads, conductors on the 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. There is a great deal of competition for conductor positions because they are fewer in number than entry-level occupations.
Most railroads maintain separate seniority lists for road service and yard service conductors. On some railroads, conductors start in the yards, then move to freight service, and finally to passenger service. Some conductors advance to managerial or administrative positions.
Newly trained workers, including brake operators, engineers, and conductors, are placed on the "extra board." Extra board designees work only when the railroad needs substitutes for regular workers who are absent. Extra board workers frequently must wait years until they accumulate enough seniority to get a regular assignment. Seniority rules may also 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.
For subway and streetcar operator jobs, subway transit systems prefer applicants to have a high school education. Applicants must be in good health, have good communication skills, and able to make quick, responsible judgments.
New operators are generally 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 or other supervisory positions.
Competition for available opportunities is expected to be keen. Many persons 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 the year 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. Intermodalism 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 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 about $5.00 to $7.00 per hour in either direction on the high and low end. 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. 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.
To obtain information on employment opportunities for railroad transportation workers, contact 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, D.C. 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.
Association of American Railroads, 50 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001.
For information on certification and training programs, contact:
Johnson County Community College, National Association of Railroad Sciences, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, KS 66210.
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