If you decide a position as a train crewman/woman is the career
choice of interest to you in the railroad industry you will most likely
start out as a freight train conductor. This position is one of the
oldest in the industry and while technologies have vastly improved since
the early 19th century, the role of conductor has actually changed very
little over the years in terms of his or her responsibilities. As a
conductor you have full responsibility for the train, where it is
headed, what it is carrying (chemicals, merchandise, bulk products,
etc.) and that it arrives safely to its intended destination (or is in
good hands when your shift ends).
(To search for potential railroad careers directly please use the search box below from Indeed.com, one of the leading online career websites.)
A pair of BNSF Railway C44-9Ws act as DPU helpers with a long string of covered hoppers along the Mojave Subdivision near Bena, California on August 9, 2007.
The position of conductor is most often associated by the general
public with passenger trains where, in the days of yore, he could be
instantly recognized in his stately three-piece suit and accompanying
hat while going up and down the aisles punching tickets. Once departure
time arrived he would shout "All aboard!", climb on, and give the engineer
a wave that it was time to go. If this type of work interests you it
can still be found but not within the private rail industry, as only
Amtrak and tourist railroads use such conductors today (Amtrak also
employs assistant conductors).
Buffalo & Pittsburgh GP38-2 #2004 waits for a crew change at Bruceton, Pennsylvania on October 24, 2007.
However, their role was essentially the same as a freight train
conductor, as they were in complete control of the train, where it was
headed, and that it arrived safely and on time. While the engineer, on
both freight and passenger, trains usually carries a more senior
position he or she is still under the direction of the conductor and
must abide by their commands (being that the train is ultimately in
their hands). It should also be noted that if you especially hire on as a freight conductor with a Class I railroad the chances of being promoted to engineer are very likely, usually within 5 to 10 years and once offered the promotion you must accept it. So, please be prepared for this ahead of time (although it's not uncommon for a trained engineer to work as a conductor on and off as needed until he or she gains enough seniority).
A quartet of Cleveland Electric GP38-2's power a long string of loaded coal into Conway Yard at Baden, Pennsylvania on a rainy May 4, 1995. Note the Conrail power in the background.
The engineer's task aboard a train is to simply operate the train safely
and follow all wayside signs and properly read and interpret trackside
signals. Once a train is ready to depart (in this example lets say it
is located within a yard), it is the conductor's responsibility to
safely navigate the train out of a yard by keeping in contact with the
yardmaster, trainmaster, and dispatcher. Of course, before this even
occurs the conductor must have already thoroughly inspected the train
visually to make sure that everything is safe and ready to go (and that
train has the proper consist).
Once departed the conductor keeps in regular contact with the
dispatcher along the way to make sure the train safely navigates its way
through signals, interlockings, other yards, crossovers,
and any other location along the main line where another train may be
encountered. Aside from these tasks a freight train conductor may need
to do anything else needed to make sure things operate smoothly, such as
throwing switches or cleaning ice and snow from them.
As the above attests, railroading is very hard work and is not
exactly for everyone. You truly have to love this line work to make a career
out of it, as spending 12 hours a day constantly away from home makes
it very hard on family life. I have talked to and read about those who,
upon reflecting, wonder if they would do it all over again because of
this (some lost their family altogether while others missed out on many
Again, railroading and family life can certainly be attained it just takes much sacrificing. The pay and retirement
Class Is, in particular, offer is very tempting and can allow one to
earn a very nice living. So, there are great incentives to this line of
work it just all depends on whether you believe it is for you. One
last thing to keep in mind, some railroaders wait many years, sometimes
over 20, to land that "9 to 5" day when they know exactly when they will
come in to work and head home. Having said that, if you are able to hire
on with a shortline (Class III) or regional (Class II) railroad the
opportunity for a more predictable schedule is very likely although the
pay is not quite as good.
In any event, some Class Is (like CSX and Union Pacific) field their own training centers to teach you the trade of being a freight train conductor while others hire through accredited schools like the National Academy of Railroad Sciences and Modoc Railroad Academy. Many of these organizations are listed above.
Conrail B40-8 #5064 has a westbound "Road Railer" trailer train at rural Delaplane, Virginia on the evening of April 3, 1993.
As time goes on I will continue to update this list with other schools and/or related organizations. Also, if you happen to know of a school or organization which offers courses and classes for freight train conductors please let me know so that I can add it to this list. Again, if you are not even sure if a career
in railroading is right for you but would like to learn more about what
it takes to work in the industry you might want to consider the book Working on the Railroad
from noted author Brian Solomon. Solomon's book details the history of
working in the railroad industry and the difficulties and hardship employees
faced back then as well as today.