Training, Certifications, Skills, Advancement: Rail Transportation Occupations

Most railroad transportation workers begin as yard laborers; later they may have the opportunity to train for engineer or conductor jobs. Railroads require that applicants have a minimum of a high school diploma or its 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 entry-level jobs. Employers require railroad transportation job applicants to pass a physical examination, drug and alcohol screening, and a criminal background check. Federal regulation requires that the driving record of anybody applying for a job operating an engine be checked for evidence of drug or alcohol problems. Similarly, under Federal regulation, all persons licensed to operate engines are subject to random drug and alcohol testing while on duty.

Applicants for locomotive engineer jobs must be at least 21 years old. Employers almost always fill engineer positions with workers who have experience in other railroad-operating occupations. Federal regulations require beginning engineers to complete a formal engineer training program, including classroom, simulator, and hands-on instruction in locomotive operation. The instruction usually is administered by the rail company in programs approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. At the end of the training period, engineers must pass a hearing and visual acuity test, a safety conduct background check, a railroad operation knowledge test, and a skills performance test. The company issues the engineer a license after the applicant passes the examinations. Other conditions and rules may apply to entry-level engineers and usually vary with the employer.

To maintain certification, railroad companies must monitor their engineers. In addition, engineers must periodically pass an operational rules efficiency test. The test is an unannounced event requiring engineers to take active or responsive action in certain situations, such as maintaining a particular speed through a curve or yard.

engineers undergo periodic physical examinations and drug and alcohol testing to determine their fitness to operate locomotives. 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 rail transportation workers who have passed tests covering signals, timetables, operating rules, and related subjects. Seniority usually is the main factor in determining promotion to conductor. Entry-level conductors generally must be at least 21 years of age and are either trained by their employers or required to complete a formal conductor training program through a community college.

Newly trained engineers and conductors are placed on the “extra board” until permanent positions become available. Workers on the extras-board receive assignments only when the railroad needs substitutes for regular workers who are absent because of vacation, illness, or other reasons. Seniority rules 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.

For brake and signal operator jobs, railroad firms will train applicants either in a company program or—especially with smaller railroads—at an outside training facility. Typical training programs combine classroom and on-site training and last between 4 and 6 weeks for signal operators and between 10 and 18 weeks for brake operators.

For subway and streetcar operator jobs, subway transit systems prefer applicants with a high school education. Most transit systems that operate subways and streetcars also operate buses. In these systems, subway or streetcar operators usually start as bus drivers. Applicants must be in good health, have good communication skills, and be able to make quick, responsible judgments. New operators generally complete 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 manager or another supervisory position.

For yard occupations, a commercial driver’s license may be required because these workers often operate trucks and other heavy vehicles. For more information on commercial driver’s licenses, contact your State motor vehicle administration and see the Handbook statements on truck drivers and driver/sales workers or bus drivers.