Job Descriptions, Definitions Roles, Responsibility: Rail Transportation Occupations

More than a century ago, freight and passenger railroads were the ties binding the Nation together and the engine driving the economy. Today, rail transportation remains a vital link in our Nationís transportation network and economy. Railroads deliver billions of tons of freight and millions of travelers per year to destinations throughout the country, while subways and light-rail systems transport millions of passengers around metropolitan areas.

Locomotive engineers are among the most experienced and skilled workers on the railroad. They operate large trains carrying cargo and passengers between stations. Most engineers run diesel-electric locomotives, although a few operate locomotives powered electrically.

Before and after each run, engineers check the mechanical condition of their locomotives, making any minor adjustments necessary. Engineers receive starting instructions from conductors. They move controls such as throttles and airbrakes to drive the locomotive. They monitor instruments that measure speed, amperage, battery charge, and air pressure, both in the brake lines and in the main reservoir.

On the open rail and in the yard, engineers confer with conductors and traffic control center personnel via two-way radio or mobile telephone to issue or receive information concerning stops, delays, and the locations of trains. They interpret and comply with orders, signals, speed limits, and railroad rules and regulations. They must have a thorough knowledge of the signaling systems, yards, and terminals on the routes over which they travel. Engineers must be constantly aware of the condition and makeup of their train, because trains react differently to acceleration, braking, and curves, depending on the grade and condition of the rail, the number of cars, the ratio of empty cars to loaded cars, and the amount of slack in the train.

Rail yard engineers operate engines within the rail yard. Dinkey operators drive smaller engines, mainly within industrial plants, mines and quarries, or construction projects. Hostlers operate engines—without attached cars—within the yard, as well as driving them to maintenance shops.

Railroad conductors coordinate the activities of freight and passenger train crews. Railroad conductors assigned to freight trains review schedules, switching orders, waybills, and shipping records to obtain loading and unloading information regarding their cargo. In switching operations, conductors may move engines using radio control devices. Conductors assigned to passenger trains also ensure passenger safety and comfort as they go about collecting tickets and fares, making announcements for the benefit of passengers, and coordinating activities of the crew to provide passenger services.

Before a train leaves the terminal, the conductor and the engineer discuss instructions received from the dispatcher concerning the trainís route, timetable, and cargo. During the run, conductors use two-way radios and mobile telephones to communicate with dispatchers, engineers, and conductors of other trains. Conductors use dispatch or electronic monitoring devices that relay information about equipment problems on the train or the rails. They may arrange for the removal of defective cars from the train for repairs at the nearest station or stop. In addition, conductors may discuss alternative routes if there is a defect in, or obstruction on, the rails.

Yardmasters coordinate the activities of workers engaged in railroad traffic operations. These activities include making up or breaking up trains and switching inbound or outbound traffic to a specific section of the line. Some cars are sent to unload their cargo on special tracks, while others s are moved to different tracks to await assembly into new trains, based on their destinations. Yardmasters tell engineers where to move the cars to fit the planned train configuration. Switches—many of them operated remotely by computer—divert the locomotive or cars to the proper track for coupling and uncoupling.

Railroad brake operators act as assistants to engineers, handling the coupling and uncoupling of cars as well as operating some switches. Signal operators install, maintain, and repair the signals on tracks and in yards. Switch operators control the track switches within a rail yard.

Traditionally, freight train crews included either one or two brake operators—one in the locomotive with the engineer and another who rode with the conductor in the rear car. Brake operators worked 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. In an effort to reduce costs, most railroads have phased out brake operators. Many modern freight trains use only an engineer and a conductor. New visual instrumentation and monitoring devices have eliminated the need for crewmembers located at the rear of the train, so the conductor is now stationed with the engineer.

In contrast to other rail transportation workers, subway and streetcar operators generally work for public transit authorities instead of railroads. Subway operators control trains that transport passengers through cities and their suburbs. The trains run in underground tunnels, on the surface, or on elevated tracks. Operators must stay alert to observe signals along the track that indicate when they must start, slow, or stop their train. They also make announcements to riders, may open and close the doors of the train, and ensure that passengers get on and off the subway safely.

To meet predetermined schedules, operators must control the trainís speed and the amount of time spent at each station. Increasingly, however, these functions are controlled by computers and not by the operator. During breakdowns or emergencies, operators contact their dispatcher or supervisor and may have to evacuate cars.

Streetcar operators drive electric-powered streetcars, trolleys, or light-rail vehicles that transport passengers around 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 that passengers may get on and off with ease. Operators may collect fares and issue change and transfers. They also answer questions from passengers concerning fares, schedules, and routes.