What Does a Train Conductor Do?

Freight train on Los Angeles River mainline
Hal Bergman Photography/Moment/Getty Images

A railroad conductor works aboard the train and coordinates the daily activities of train crews. A freight train conductor oversees the loading and unloading of cargo.

Responsibilities of a Conductor

  • Makes sure that the train is in compliance with all orders, signals, rules and regulations.
  • Inspects equipment on cars before departure to make sure everything is in good working order.
  • Receives and transmits information via the radio or telephone to other conductors or stations.
  • Assists and instructs train crews to connect cars, operate switches and make repairs.
  • Maintains compliance with all train orders, signals, and railroad rules and regulations.
  • Plays a pivotal role in the safety of both passengers and bystanders.
  • Is aware of surrounding areas and suspicious activities and acts accordingly. 
  • Operates locomotive equipment through the use of remote control device.

Necessary Training and Skills

A railroad conductor's job requires a high school diploma and on-the-job training. Some lines send prospective railroad conductors to a six-week training program before assigning them to on-the-job training. Typically, this is a full-time job with varying hours because of atypical freight schedules. The training can either be on-the-job or via community college classes. Advancement to locomotive engineers is possible.

While a good deal of the job is conducted on the train, that is not all-inclusive.

A railroad conductor needs to be able to work in all types of weather. It is a very physical job, requiring the conductor to be able to lift, push and pull various weights and also able to sit, stand and climb. It is also important that the conductor can distinguish colors. A conductor must be fluent in English (speaking, reading and writing) and have a valid driver's license.

Salary

As of 2016, the average railroad conductor salary was about $62,000 annually, according to PayScale.com. Some are paid hourly and are not offered benefits. Others are salaried employees or paid by the number of miles traveled rather than hours worked. Seniority, the railroad line, and job location affects both the possibility of being hired and the salary. 

Career Outlook

While the demand for freight transportation is growing, the job outlook for railroad conductors is not promising. To cut down on expenses, many companies are double-stacking cars, creating longer trains or using other transportation methods like trucking.

As these other methods grow in popularity, demand for railroad workers is declining. As of 2014, the latest figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for railroad employees is expected to decline by 3 percent by 2024. Many railroad companies are cutting their workforce rather than hiring.  

Most railroad workers remain in their roles for their whole careers, so it is difficult to climb in the hierarchy. Positions often do not become available until the predecessor retires, so openings are extremely limited. 

A job as a railroad conductor can be a life-long position, but the industry is expected to decline over the next decade.

Learning new technologies and skills will be necessary to continue in the business as the industry evolves. 

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