Job Description

Diagnose, adjust, repair, or overhaul railroad rolling stock, mine cars, or mass transit rail cars.

Similar Titles

Freight Maintenance Specialist, Locomotive Repairman, Rail Car Maintenance Mechanic, Rail Car Mechanic, Rail Car Repairer, Rail Car Repairman, Rail Car Sandblaster, Rail Car Welder, Railroad Car Repairman, Train Car Repairman

Job Responsibilities

Rail Car Repairers typically do the following:

  • Check the mechanical condition of locomotives and make adjustments when necessary
  • Document issues with a train that require further inspection
  • Operate locomotive engines within or between stations

Freight trains move billions of tons of goods around the country to ports, where the goods are shipped around the world. Passenger trains transport millions of travelers to destinations around the country. Railroad workers are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.

Workers in railroad occupations frequently collaborate. Locomotive engineers travel with conductors and, sometimes, with brake operators. Locomotive engineers and conductors are in constant contact and keep each other informed of any changes in the train’s condition. Signal and switch operators communicate with both locomotive and rail yard engineers to make sure that trains arrive at the correct destination. Workers in all of these occupations are in contact with dispatchers, who direct them on where to go and what to do.

The following are examples of types of railroad workers:

Conductors travel on both freight and passenger trains and coordinate the activities of the train crew. Passenger trains, ensure travelers’ safety and comfort. They also check passengers’ tickets and make announcements to keep passengers informed. On freight trains, they oversee the secure loading and unloading of cargo.

Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. They monitor systems that measure the train’s operation, such as speed and air pressure. Locomotive engineers use a variety of controls, such as throttles and airbrakes, to operate the train and ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly. They observe the track for obstructions to ensure safety.

When driving freight trains, engineers must be aware of the goods their train is carrying.

Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers maintain and monitor equipment to ensure that the trains run safely.

Brake operators help the couple and uncouple train cars. Some travel by train as part of the crew.

Signal operators install and maintain the signals along tracks and in a rail yard. Signals are important in preventing accidents because they allow increased communication between trains and dispatchers.

Switch operators monitor the track switches in rail yards. These switches allow trains to move between tracks and ensure trains are heading in the right direction.

Locomotive firers are sometimes part of a train crew and typically monitor tracks and train instruments. They look for equipment that is dragging, obstacles on the tracks, and other potential safety problems. Few trains still use firers, because their work has been automated or is now done by a locomotive engineer or conductor.

Rail yard engineers operate train engines within the rail yard. They move locomotives between tracks to keep the trains organized and on schedule. Sometimes, rail yard engineers are called hostlers and drive locomotives to and from maintenance shops or prepare them for the locomotive engineer. Some use remote locomotive technology to move freight cars within the rail yards.

Yardmasters manage schedules and coordinate the activities of workers in the rail yard. They review the shipping records of freight trains and ensure that trains are carrying the correct material before leaving the yard. Yardmasters also switch train traffic to a certain section of the line to allow other inbound and outbound trains to get around. They tell yard engineers were to move cars to fit the planned configuration or to load freight.

Not all rail yards use yardmasters. In rail yards that do not have yardmasters, a conductor typically performs yardmaster duties.


Skills Needed on the Job

Communication skills. Railroad workers must be able to communicate with other crewmembers, dispatchers, and passengers to ensure safety and keep the trains on schedule.

Customer-service skills. Conductors on passenger trains ensure travelers’ comfort, make announcements, and answer questions. They must be courteous and patient, especially when dealing with unruly or upset passengers.

Hand-eye coordination. Locomotive engineers must operate controls based, in part, on their observations of the train’s surroundings.

Hearing ability. To ensure safety on the train and in the rail yard, railroad workers must be able to hear warning signals and communicate with other employees.

Leadership skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. In rail yards, yardmasters oversee other workers.

Mechanical skills. Railroad workers should be able to adjust equipment when it does not work properly. Some rail yard engineers spend most of their time fixing broken equipment or conducting mechanical inspections.

Physical strength. Rail yard engineers may have to lift heavy equipment.

Visual ability. To drive a train, locomotive engineers need excellent eyesight, peripheral vision, and color vision.


Organization Types
  • Railroad conductors and yardmasters    
  • Locomotive engineers    
  • Railroad brake, signal, and switch operators and locomotive firers    
  • Rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers
2020 Employment
2030 Projected Employment
Education and Training Needed

Rail companies typically require workers to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. However, employers may prefer to hire workers who have postsecondary education, such as coursework, a certificate, or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

Locomotive engineers typically receive 3 or more months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.

Most railroad companies have up to 12 months of on-the-job training for conductors and yardmasters. Amtrak (the passenger train company) and some of the larger freight railroad companies operate their own training programs. Small and regional railroads may send conductors to a central training facility or a community college. Yardmasters may be sent to training programs or may be trained by an experienced yardmaster.

Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, typically through a company training program. This program may last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the company and the complexity of the job. The program may include both classroom instruction and hands-on training under the direction of an experienced employee.


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