What is it like working on the railroad in the new millenium?
September 11, 2008 9:50 AM   Subscribe

What is it like working on the railroad in the new millenium?

I am interested in railroad work, but understand that it is quite different than it was 50 years ago. I am looking for insight into what the current day experience of a conductor or switchman or etc. is.

I am having a hard time finding information from real people about real experience in this industry. Anyone know any good resources?
posted by doomtop to Work & Money (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotal, but a guy in the neighborhood is an engineer. He's gone for a week (I fix his truck while he's gone) and home for a week. He absolutely loves it.
posted by notsnot at 10:27 AM on September 11, 2008

Although not too much detail, that is the kind of information I'm looking for. Do you know what he does?
posted by doomtop at 10:29 AM on September 11, 2008

I know that train operators have strict limits on the amount of time they work per day and per week, to the point that a train will stop when its crew reaches its limit. I learned this from the excellent article on coal trains a few years ago by John McPhee. The piece is in his book Uncommon Carriers and was originally published in the New Yorker.
posted by neuron at 10:31 AM on September 11, 2008

Have a buddy that worked on the railroads as an operator. The thing he liked is that he's home a lot, as he would have climbed the payscale it gets fairly lucrative, and there's really no overtime.

However, the big thing that he was his undoing is that sometimes he'll get paged to take over for a crew that stopped in town since their limit was up, and it can be at awkward times. One such awkward time happened to be when he was out drinking and he wasn't supposed to be out since he was on call that night. He had no choice but to phone his supervisor and tell him that he was intoxicated, and he got fired. (And then he got a DUI when he was driving home all pissed off.)
posted by SpecialK at 10:53 AM on September 11, 2008

I worked on some utility projects that crossed CSX railroads, so I had some contact with their right-of-way and roadmasters. I can't say it was a very positive experience. They mostly ignore you and do things whenever they get around to it since they own the property. I had one guy that only returned calls between 10 and 1 on Tuesdays and another that threatened to cancel a meeting because a city inspector dared to smoke a cigarette in his presence (outside, downwind). Just a strange group of people, all in all.
posted by electroboy at 11:20 AM on September 11, 2008

My father just retired from 30 years of work as a conductor for the largest freight railroad in the US. Entry-level workers get paid very well and sit around most of the time, however you will be working in one of the most heavily federally regulated and unionized industries, so expect constant struggle between management and representation. By federal law, crews can only work 8 hours with 8 hours rest, so expect to be called at any time to report to work. Also, learn to love crappy motels in the middle of nowhere, because you'll be put in one almost every trip to rest up and be sent back down the line when a another train is in the yard. Secondly SpecialK, it is very difficult to have a personal life when you are constantly under threat of going into work at any time. Contact the United Transportation Union, they may have resources for prospective employees.
posted by rabbitsnake at 12:04 PM on September 11, 2008

I work for a large railroad as a construction/maintenance engineer, and I have to say I love my job and the railroad. But the railroading business is its own world. Our locomotive crews get paid very well but their schedules are kinda whack as they are (almost) constantly on call awaiting their next shift, and being on call they cannot imbue any alcohol. Class 1 railroads cover huge amounts of territory and operate 24h/day, 365 days/year, so you end up travelling a lot and sometimes being called in during Christmas dinner (it happened once to my boss). However if you don't mind being away from home a lot and you are a smart employee you can do very well, there are almost no boundaries for moving up the ranks.

Also, I'd like to mention that the railroad has lots of rules, and you absolutely need to follow every one or the consequences can be dire; on average 12 people per year are killed on the job and almost every time it is because of a cardinal rules violation, so if you are serious about working as a railroader then you need to understand that your life and those of your co-workers is always at risk.

Here are a few railroading resources you may want to check out:

Most major railroads are always looking out for more conductors and/or technicians, so get your stuff together and start applying. Good luck!
posted by Vindaloo at 12:09 PM on September 11, 2008

A day on an Illinois freight train

posted by MsMolly at 12:13 PM on September 11, 2008

I am am a switchman-conductor. I work yard jobs now (31+ years). I have seen a big change in that time. As a newbie you will be on a extra board, on call 24/7.
We can legally work 12 hours and then stay on the clock until we tie up. afters 12 hours you are entitled to 10 hours rest. factor in time to get home and the two hour call and it can be not much rest. anything less than 12 will be 8 hours rest.
I don't know where you are, but in San Antonio the UP overhired big time and about 200 brothers and sisters are cut off.
One last thing, this is like no ther job. RULES and more RULES. they spend a fortune training you and then they spend your whole career trying to fire you.
More info, email in profile.
posted by raildr at 12:14 PM on September 11, 2008

Hit post too soon. Derailed also links to other train blogs that link to even more. You should be able to find quite a bit of stuff by following links.
posted by MsMolly at 12:15 PM on September 11, 2008

If you broaden your definition of "railroad" to include light rail/commuter rail--you could work for a system like the one I do, BART in the SF Bay Area. We have train operators, train contollers (like air traffic control), yard and line maintenance workers, rolling stock maintenance, etc. The jobs are all Union and well-paid.

Our train operators work 8-hour shifts. Since we operate between 4 am and approximately midnight, the shifts are placed during those hours. The nice thing is you go home at the end of your shift which is more conducive to a life than 24/7 travelling. New Operators are extra board which in our agency means part-time or split shift work initially. But most people go full time within 6 months. There are great benefits, generous retirement and overtime, shift differential pay, etc.

There is a lot of training--a lot of rules--a 10-car train carries 1,000 people so safety is a huge issue.

Most of the Train Operators I've spoken to love their work. They don't have to deal with the public as much as our Station Agents, who are often more stressed.

BART is a very diverse organization which is fun. Our T.O.s come from a variety of backgrounds, some obvious like the military or other transportation companies, and some were school teachers, business people, etc.

The jobs don't open up that frequently--usually there is an open call and some testing the will put folks into a pool from which classes are formed. Then there is training for a number of months during which a percentage of the class washes out. The train controllers go through even tougher training and there is an even higher percentage of wash outs. I consider myself a bright person, but I don't think I could be a train controller.

BARTrage is a blog that would give you some insight into some of the inner workings of our system (and some of the craziness).
posted by agatha_magatha at 2:44 PM on September 11, 2008

Seconding raildr, this is like no other job. Railroads built this county and now they are the infrastructure that keep it running. When my father started 30 years ago, his life expectancy as a switchmen/conductor was around 7 years. Nowadays, the industry is right or wrong a clusterfuck of rules and regulations that you will be required to follow and negotiate at all times. These rules saved his life, but boy can he pontificate on how management tried to fire him innumerable times for the mistakes of others. Likewise, my father's stories of hitting cars and suicidal people are absolutely horrible, so be prepared for that. One last thing, he loved his job and has life-long friends from his employment days.
posted by rabbitsnake at 2:57 PM on September 11, 2008

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