What Does a Train Conductor Do?

Salary, Career Outlook and Job Requirements

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 also 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 the 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 the surrounding areas and any suspicious activities there and makes decisions accordingly
  • Operates locomotive equipment, typically through the use of a 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 some additional form of training. This training can be either on-the-job or in community college classes. 

This is typically a full-time job with varying hours because of atypical freight schedules.

Although a lot of the job is conducted on the train, a railroad conductor nonetheless needs to be able to work in all types of weather.

It's a very physical job, requiring that the conductor be able to lift, push, and pull various weights and be able to readily sit, stand, and climb. It's also important that the conductor can distinguish colors. He or she must be fluent in speaking, reading, and writing English, and he must have a valid driver's license.

Salary

As of 2017, the median railroad conductor salary was $63,337 annually with a range from $42,152 to $100,162, according to Payscale. Some conductors are paid hourly and not all companies offer benefits. Others are salaried employees or paid by the number of miles they travel in a given time period rather than the number of hours they've worked. Seniority, the railroad line, and job location can all affect job availability and salary. 

Career Outlook

Although the demand for freight transportation appears to be growing, the job outlook for railroad conductors is not promising. Many companies are double-stacking cars, creating longer trains, or using other transportation methods like trucking to cut down on expenses. Demand for railroad workers is declining as these other methods grow in popularity. 

The most recent figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014 indicate that 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 throughout their entire careers so it can be difficult to climb up in the hierarchy. Positions often do not become available until the predecessor retires, so openings are extremely limited.

Advancement to locomotive engineers is sometimes possible. Learning new technologies and skills will be necessary to continue in the business as the industry evolves.