How to Become a Railroad Worker
All train employees need mechanical ability.
Workers in railroad occupations typically need a high school diploma or equivalent and several months of on-the-job training.
Rail companies typically require workers to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, employers may prefer to hire workers who have postsecondary education, such as coursework, a certificate, or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
Locomotive engineers typically receive 3 or more months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.
Most railroad companies have up to 12 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. Small 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.
Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, typically 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 both classroom instruction and hands-on training under the direction of an experienced employee.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors or yardmasters for several years.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Locomotive engineers and conductors must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The certifications, conducted by the railroad that employs them, involve a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a supervisor determination that the engineer or conductor understands all physical aspects of the particular route on which he or she will be operating.
Engineers who change routes must be recertified for the new route. Even engineers and conductors 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.
In addition, railroad workers must be at least 21 years of age and pass a background test. They must also pass random drug and alcohol screenings over the course of their employment.
Rail yard engineers, switch operators, and signal operators may advance to become conductors or yardmasters.
Communication skills. Railroad workers must be able to communicate with other crewmembers, dispatchers, and passengers to ensure safety and keep the trains on schedule.
Customer-service skills. Conductors on passenger trains ensure travelers’ comfort, make announcements, and answer questions. They must be courteous and patient, especially when dealing with unruly or upset passengers.
Hand-eye coordination. Locomotive engineers must operate controls based, in part, on their observations of the train’s surroundings.
Hearing ability. To ensure safety on the train and in the rail yard, railroad workers must be able to hear warning signals and communicate with other employees.
Leadership skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. In rail yards, yardmasters oversee other workers.
Mechanical skills. Railroad workers should be able to adjust equipment when it does not work properly. Some rail yard engineers spend most of their time fixing broken equipment or conducting mechanical inspections.
Physical strength. Rail yard engineers may have to lift heavy equipment.
Visual ability. To drive a train, locomotive engineers need excellent eyesight, peripheral vision, and color vision.