Do train conductors still exist?
June 14, 2007 6:42 PM   Subscribe

Do trains still have human conductors? What do they do?
posted by xmutex to Work & Money (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
yes, they take your tickets and if you act up they call the police at the next stop and have you arrested, among other things
posted by caddis at 6:43 PM on June 14, 2007

Every train I've been on has.

Mostly, I think they make sure no one is in the doors when they close, but I think they also run the train (i.e. determine speed). I think they're also there in case of an emergency and to prevent the train from hitting things.
posted by JMOZ at 6:44 PM on June 14, 2007

Conductors do a lot of dangerous work with equipment, in the rail yard. It pays pretty well, but at the beginning at least you have to be prepared to work on short notice. My boyfriend's brother is a conductor for freight trains, so he (boyfriend) may be able to offer more details soon.
posted by Airhen at 6:50 PM on June 14, 2007

Depending on where you are, the role of a conductor can vary wildly.

If you're talking about an additional staff member besides a driver, on a passenger train, their most important role is handling the doors. But not all trains have these anymore—"one person operation" means the driver is taking over this role, and others such as making announcements, and revenue protection is done by roving teams of inspectors.
posted by grouse at 6:55 PM on June 14, 2007

Yes, trains still have conductors. What they do depends on whether you're talking about passenger trains or freight trains, but the important thing to note is that the conductor is the person "in charge" of the train. The engineer just moves it over the road. In the case of freight trains, the conductor is usually the one who'll get out and throw any switches that need throwing, will communicate to the engineer when and how far to move when switching cars in a yard, and gets the fun of walking the train when a brake line uncouples. In the past the conductor would probably have had one of the train's brakemen do the work, but train crews have shrunk since railroading's golden days.

On passenger trains (excepting most light rail service, which is a different category) the conductor has basically the same responsibilities, though there's a lot less switching. One thing that people often get confused about is that they call any member of the train crew they see a conductor; this is wrong, as there's only one conductor to a train, who's in charge of the train and its crew. The other crew members walking through cars, taking tickets, making announcements, etc. are just that: other members of the crew. Their titles might be "ticket collector", "brakeman", or something else, but they're not the conductor.
posted by Godbert at 6:58 PM on June 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

When I say "light rail", I also meant to include many rapid transit systems in general (including subways). In the NY area, most NYC subway lines and all PATH trains have two-man crews, but the subway is starting to experiment with one-man operation, where the motorman (subway equivalent of an engineer) is also responsible for opening and closing the doors.
posted by Godbert at 7:02 PM on June 14, 2007

London underground uses one-man operation on all trains, and some lines are totally automatic (but there's still a driver-in-the-loop).
posted by atrazine at 7:36 PM on June 14, 2007

My brother's a conductor for a freight train. His explanation of what he does is pretty much the same as what Godbert described for freight railroads.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 7:42 PM on June 14, 2007

Just to hop on to what Godbert said, most "real" trains (heavy rail?) are probably using older platforms, etc., then rapid transit (e.g. DC metro rail). I suspect the driving factor is how much it would cost to retrofit this equipment for a more automated approach (and you'd kind of have to do an entire line at once?). It is probably cheaper to keep on using actual humans.

My experience: I rode New York Metro-North Rail all the way from Poughkeepsie to Grand Central a couple of times. It's a pretty cool ride, very scenic, and the underground parts are half scary-cool. They have live human ticket checkers (they don't actually take your ticket away, they punch it and leave it on the top of the seat, and then at every stop they walk down the aisles and tell you if your stop is the next one, at which point they take the actual ticket). They also have live people on the microphone, saying station names (I believe this is the conductor)... and probably lots of other live people that I missed.
posted by anaelith at 7:47 PM on June 14, 2007

In Brisbane, for suburban trains, there's a driver and a conductor. The visible aspect of the job is that the conductor has a section in the middle of the train, comes out on to the platform at stations, watches that everyone gets on and off, then blows a whistle to tell the driver (up the front) that it's time to leave (once all old ladies, etc, are safely through the doors). I don't know what else he might be doing, but nobody checks tickets. The announcements are all recorded.
posted by jacalata at 8:12 PM on June 14, 2007

The French TGV trains have conductors. Godbert's excellent post describes what they do to some extent; they are truly in charge of the train and they say what happens (they are the ones who exchange signals with the station manager). The train's crew defer to the conductor in case of difficulty and the tickets refer to him by name as the authority to whom you present difficulties.
posted by jet_silver at 8:32 PM on June 14, 2007

One of the conductors on the D.C. area MARC train handed out candy to the afternoon commuters every day.

Besides taking tickets, the conductors would also give the go-ahead to the engineer when everyone is boarded. They're also the ones who will hold the train when they see you racing down the platform at departure time.
posted by saffry at 8:46 PM on June 14, 2007

On freight trains the conductor no longer rides in a caboose, but instead rides in the locomotive cab with the engineer. The caboose has been replaced with an electronic black box, the "End Of Train" monitor, that sits on the coupling of the last freight car. The caboose has been removed to save costs.

In the old days, one of the conductor's most important jobs was to sit in the cupola, the raised window section on top of the caboose, to observe the length of the train. This was so that he could look for signs of a smoking "hot box", a dry journal wheel bearing that could catch fire, melt the axle and cause a derailment. The introduction of roller bearings and trackside infrared detectors eliminated this threat.

Today the freight conductor is still nominally in charge of the train and takes care of the paperwork -- waybills and manifests. The trend is to eliminate the conductor altogether, but union rules make that difficult.
posted by JackFlash at 11:42 PM on June 14, 2007

On the suburban trains in Melbourne, Australia there's only one (wo)man - the driver. Occasionally there are ticket inspectors too, but they roam from train to train and station to station.
posted by PuGZ at 4:29 AM on June 15, 2007

Intercity trains in the UK tend to have them. They sell you tickets, deal with passenger queries and call the police - normally at Stratford station. They check my ticket suspiciously every day - I clearly don't look like a first class passenger.
posted by zemblamatic at 4:48 AM on June 15, 2007

All of this is off the top of my head and possibly totally wrong.

Trains used to be staffed by a crew of five: the engineer, who drove the train; the fireman, who looked after the boiler; a front brakeman; a rear brakeman; and the conductor who was in overall chage of the train.

With diesel locomotives rendering firemen obsolete and EOT devices eliminating cabeese, freight trains in North America are now down to two-man crews: an engineer, of course; and, if I'm not mistaken, the second crewmember is a brakeman.

VIA Rail, Canada's passenger service, replaced conductors with service personnel of some flavour a few years back, splitting conductors' responsibilities between the engineer (overall train things) and the staff (customer service).
posted by mcwetboy at 6:21 AM on June 15, 2007

They're also the ones who will hold the train when they see you racing down the platform at departure time.

Lol. In New York, they are the ones who will close the door in your face and laugh, or take the train out of service (ie, make everyone get out) when you hold the door. Also, the one-man/motorman-only trains in NYC run only on two lines, and one of those on the weeked, which is sad, because sometimes they are hilarious.
posted by dame at 7:02 AM on June 15, 2007

There was an article a year or two ago in either the New Yorker or Harpers where the author rode along with a coal train crew on the way up to a mine in Wyoming (I think). Lots of interesting stuff about what conductors are still expected to do and how trains are controlled these days. One of the more interesting aspects of the article was the concept of the "dead train", where the drivers have been in the cockpit for 12 hours, at which point they need to be replaced by a fresh crew. Once the clock hits 12 hours, the train has to stop and is not allowed to move again until the crew is replaced.

As other comments mention, most of the train and switch montioring is computerized now, but the article did mention that the engineer still bears responsibility for blowing the whistle at grade crossings. Curiously, the train system itself knows when a crossing is approaching and monitors whether the engineer is blowing the whistle enough or not.
posted by LionIndex at 7:56 AM on June 15, 2007

My brother is an engineer; he recently moved up from conductor. CP Rail crew members is about his railroad, although he works for CP in Indiana.

Although conductor may be "train boss", it's better to be the engineer, mostly because you don't have to get out of the train as often.

And yes, in passenger service there is a different kind of conductor, and there is a continuum from commuter systems, to "heavy rail" subway systems, to light rail, to things like trolleys, to things like buses, and buses. In all cases the conductors, however many there are and depending if they overlap with the train driver, are responsible at least for the safety of the passengers.
posted by dhartung at 1:31 PM on June 15, 2007

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