Trains have been around since the 19th century, and even with all the other ways to travel today, they’re still one of the most popular choices. Many people dream of breaking into the railroad industry one day, but before they start their search, they often wonder: what is the highest paying railroad job?
Overall, a Director of Engineering will be one of the highest paid railroad employees. Other competitive on-board positions include a locomotive engineer, as well as a train conductor. If you’d rather work off-board, consider a career as a signal maintainer, carman, or yardmaster to bring in a good amount of money each year.
Below, we will discuss some of the highest paid positions in the railroad industry. Keep reading before beginning your job search!
Director of Engineering
A railroad’s Director of Engineering is responsible for leading a team of engineers, ensuring all routes are completed on schedule and within budget, as well as safely and efficiently as possible. With an average salary of $130,000-$150,000 per year, it’s one of the highest paying railroad jobs you can get.
The Director of Engineering typically manages a team of between 2-20 engineering managers, who work together to coordinate all the railroad’s engineer’s activities. Some of the job’s responsibilities include:
- Reducing unnecessary costs
- Working with executives to develop new strategies
- Ensuring the correct safety protocols are implemented
- Completing projects on time, on budget, and within the correct scope
While some railroad jobs are open to individuals with nothing more than a high school diploma or GED, a Director of Engineering will typically need a Bachelor’s degree in engineering at the very least. If you want an opportunity to move up even further in the company, a Master’s degree and a few years of solid experience are preferable.
Locomotive Engineers are the people who actually drive the train from its starting point to its final destination, planning the timing and schedule for each stop it makes. They play one of the most important roles in everyday operations, meaning they need to have the right skills to safely and efficiently carry passengers or cargo down the tracks. On average, you can expect to bring in around $80,000 per year as a locomotive engineer according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Locomotive engineers are responsible for monitoring speed, braking, steering, and controlling various instruments and dials while the train is in motion. They must also communicate with all the control centers along their route to ensure everything stays safe and learn about any important updates regarding the conditions of the railroad tracks. Because of this, locomotive engineers must be able to make quick decisions regarding safety and timing.
Driving a train requires a lot of multitasking. In addition to actually operating the locomotive, engineers must:
- Monitor weather conditions
- Stay calm in emergency situations
- Interpret radio transmissions from various control centers
- Understand the size, weight, forces, and pressures of the train
- Seek out potential issues before they become a major problem
- Routinely inspect the train and railroad tracks for damage and document their findings
A locomotive engineer also needs to be aware of the exact type of goods a train is carrying. There are different safety protocols determined by whether a train is carrying passengers or cargo, and different safety protocols based on what kind of cargo a freight train is carrying. For this reason, the engineer will have to adjust their driving techniques and schedule accordingly.
Before you can work as a locomotive engineer, it’s likely that you will need to work as a conductor for several years. You must also become certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA. This test will be administered by a chosen supervisor, and the result will be determined by a written knowledge test, a skills test, as well as a vision and hearing test. You must be recertified periodically, as well as any time your route changes.
It’s important to understand that, as a locomotive engineer, it’s likely that you will be away from your home and family for long periods of time. Engineers on passenger trains typically have more predictable schedules, while those on freight trains usually have more erratic schedules. Who gets the most desirable routes usually depends on how long a particular engineer has been with the company.
A train conductor is the person train passengers will be interacting with most during their trip. They’re responsible for overseeing each passenger’s comfort and safety, managing the crew’s activities, and alerting passengers when the train is about to stop. In the US, train conductors make an average of about $67,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, some can make up to $150,000, depending on several factors.
In addition to those mentioned above, some of a train conductor’s responsibilities on board will include:
- Ensuring the train stays on schedule
- Providing passenger support and service
- Helping passengers to safety in emergency situations
- Checking tickets and accepting payment for tickets not purchased ahead of time
- Making sure all crew members and passengers comply with government regulations
While some conductors work exclusively on passenger trains, others work on freight trains. On freight trains, the conductor is responsible for ensuring all cargo is loaded or unloaded before departing a certain station. They also coordinate all the crew’s activities on freight trains to ensure the trip stays efficient and arrives at various destinations on schedule. Overall, the main job of a Train Conductor is to ensure safety and orderly conduct.
Like locomotive engineers, train conductors may be required to be away from home for long periods of time, and passenger train conductors usually have more predictable schedules than freight train conductors. Some companies will hire conductors as “extra board.” If you’re hired as extra board, it means you’ll only work as a conductor when the railroad needs extra staff or a substitute for the regular conductor.
Also similar to locomotive engineers, all train conductors must pass the FRA certification test before they can work. This is true whether you’ll be working on a national, regional, or commuter railroad.
A signal maintainer does exactly what you would expect them to: perform tests, maintenance, and upkeep on signaling equipment along the train tracks to ensure everything remains in working order. According to Glassdoor, you can expect to make an average of $62,000 per year working as a signal maintainer.
All signal maintainers must comply with federal and local regulations, performing periodic tests to ensure all equipment along their route operates correctly. They typically drive along the track, checking each signal they come across to ensure it’s working properly and giving all the correct information. While they are performing repairs and routine upkeep, signal maintainers also:
- Clean signal glass
- Test electrical circuitry
- Replace burnt-out lightbulbs
- Make sure the sign is easy to read
- Replace damaged wires or circuits
In addition to signals along the railroad tracks, signal maintainers will also check any safety gates where tracks intersect with roads. Ensuring these gates lower before a train passes through the intersection is essential for the safety of both crew members and passengers on a train, as well as anyone driving down the road. So, signal maintainers regularly check to make sure the arms come down any time a train is approaching to prevent traffic from crossing.
As a signal maintainer, your main job is to ensure signals are giving the correct information at all times. It’s absolutely necessary that engineers understand when it is and isn’t safe to enter an intersection, so a broken signal is always considered an emergency that needs to be remedied quickly.
Because this is such an important job, signal maintainers need to be prepared to work overtime and answer calls in the middle of the night to come out and repair a broken signal. They must also keep meticulous records of everything they check, repair, or replace along a railroad. To become a signal maintainer, you need a high level of knowledge regarding electrical and railroad signaling systems. However, some railroads will prefer to hire applicants with a degree in electrical engineering.
A carman is a mechanic who has a specialization in servicing the freight cars on trains. On average, you can expect to make an average salary of between $45,000-$60,000 working as a carman.
Most of a carman’s responsibilities will include using their technical skills to inspect and perform repairs and periodic maintenance on freight train cars. It’s a very physically-demanding job, often requiring a lot of lifting and working at elevated heights. In addition to mechanical knowledge and physical fitness, a carman should be knowledgeable in the following areas:
- Reading blueprints
- Operating heavy equipment
- Fabricating new or existing parts
Carmen are responsible for thoroughly inspecting and repairing all types of rail car parts, including:
- Air hoses
- Air brakes
- Tie-down devices
- End-of-train devices
- Load restraining equipment
The primary duty of a carman is to follow company, industry, and government safety regulations to ensure safe operation and protect both passengers and cargo, depending on the type of train they work on. They will identify any problems with the car, then remove the defective parts and add new ones to make the correct repairs. As they work, carmen are also required to regularly update their maintenance records.
Yardmasters supervise all the activities that occur at a rail yard, or the area where locomotives and train cars are organized and stored. According to Glassdoor, the average annual salary for a Yardmaster is around $52,000, although some make up to $70,000 depending on the company they work for and the number of years of experience they have.
Yardmasters are in charge of coordinating all the activities that occur in the rail yard on behalf of the company they work for. They work with carmen to inspect trains before they leave the rail yard to pick up passengers or cargo, as well as inspect the conditions of the train tracks. Some yardmasters will work with other railroad workers as a team, while others choose to work alone and have their employees come to them with important reports and information.
As is the case with most railroad employees, safety and efficiency are a yardmaster’s two main concerns. They work closely with the yardmasters at other rail yards to share important information related to their trains or the tracks, and always keep accurate logs and tracking records for future reference. Attention to detail is essential in this position to minimize delays and ensure safety.
Being a yardmaster is another physically-demanding railroad job. People in this position are often required to stand on their feet for long periods of time, and much of the work is done outside in the rail yard. In some cases, they might also need to perform minor repairs along with the carmen.
Is Working in the Railroad Industry Beneficial?
According to Statista, the railroad industry employed over 135,000 as of 2020. Most of these employees make excellent money doing so, with salaries ranging from $50,000 to over $150,000 per year. Competitive pay is one of the biggest benefits of working in this industry.
In addition, many railroad employees enjoy the amount of travel they get to do in their industry. If you work on a cross-country passenger train, you will get to see new parts of the world every time you go to work. However, make sure to note that trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days per year. For this reason, you might be required to work nights, weekends, and holidays on a fairly regular basis.
While being away from home for days or weeks at a time is part of the job, most railroad employees are protected by unions. This helps dictate mandatory rest hours for all employees, ensuring you get vacation benefits in addition to health insurance and retirement plans.
Most railroad companies will also offer comprehensive training programs prior to employment to provide you with the skills you’ll need to do your job well. While you will still need to demonstrate a basic understanding of certain skills for most positions, there’s no need to worry about specifics for this reason.
Overall, working in the railroad industry is seen as a great paying job with tons of benefits. If you can deal with the long periods away from home, there are very few downsides involved.
Important Skills for Railroad Workers
There are many technical skills required for railroad workers to be successful in their positions. While the hard skills, or “teachable” skills, you’ll need will vary based on your specific job description, there are some skills that are beneficial for all railroad workers to have, no matter their position on the team. These include:
- Customer service
- Attention to detail
- Quick decision making
- Hand-eye coordination
- Mechanical knowledge
- Effective communication
Many of the top-paying railroad jobs will require you to direct or oversee other railroad workers or train crew members. For this reason, you need to have a certain level of leadership skills. These may include:
- Scheduling employees for shifts
- Assigning tasks to crew members
- Asking railroad workers for information regarding tracks and signals
- Enforcing both company and government-regulated safety protocols
If you want to work in some of the highest paid positions on the railroad, having the skills required to effectively manage a team is crucial.
While conductors will be the members of a train’s crew that passengers interact with most often, it’s important for all the highest paid railroad workers to have great customer service skills. Whether you’re working on a passenger train or a freight train, you’re likely to interact with several members of the public throughout your shifts.
As anyone who has worked in customer service in the past knows, dealing with the general public can be stressful and frustrating at times. Whatever situation you run into, it’s important to leave a good impression on the company by remaining patient and courteous at all times.
As a railroad employee, you may be required to answer questions and make announcements related to the train’s schedule or operation. Passengers will expect fast, friendly service from any railroad employee they interact with, and it’s essential that you provide this.
Attention to Detail
Any accidents on a railroad can lead to disaster. In order to mitigate the risk of something going wrong, every component on the train and each particular car must be in good working order at all times. For this reason, paying close attention to any irregularities in the train’s operation and on the tracks is essential.
This is a particularly important skill for anyone who is required to inspect or repair parts of a train as part of their job description. Each component must be thoroughly inspected before the train is sent on its way, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem.
Quick Decision Making
No matter your job on the railroad, it’s crucial that you’re able to think on your feet. The entire nature of the railroad industry is incredibly fast-paced, so you may have to make important decisions without taking much time to think about them.
Trains move at very fast speeds, meaning anything could happen in a relatively short period of time. If you are ever faced with an emergency situation while you are at work, you need to know how to make the best decision as quickly as possible.
In addition to making decisions quickly, it’s also important to plan ahead. Go in with the mindset that anything that could go wrong may go wrong, and have a plan in mind for all possible scenarios in case you need to take action quickly.
Many railroad jobs involve careful coordination between what your hands are doing and what your eyes are doing. No matter which job you’re working on, hand-eye coordination is essential.
If you’re the engineer, you’ll need to watch the tracks while also handling the speed, braking, and various instrument dials needed to safely drive a train. Any mechanical job will require you to be good with your hands, so it’s also important to have great hand-eye coordination if you’ll be working as a signal maintainer, yardmaster, or carman.
While your particular job may not require you to perform mechanical inspections, repairs, or upgrades, it’s good for all railroad employees to have a basic understanding of the mechanical workings of a train. No matter what your job may be, all railroad employees will work with some kind of complex machine while on the clock.
In some positions, the vast majority of your time will be spent fixing equipment or conducting inspections. If anything is not working properly, it will need to be adjusted promptly before the train can leave the station.
There are very few railroad employees who will not have to coordinate with other employees to perform their daily tasks. Since safety and staying on schedule is essential in this industry, you must be able to communicate problems or issues with other crew members in a way that’s easy to understand and ensures everyone’s safety on board.
If you’re a conductor or in another customer service-related position, you’ll also need to communicate regularly with the train’s passengers. You must be able to understand and work to solve whatever concerns they may have to be sure they’re both safe and comfortable while riding on your train.
The Bottom Line
Generally, working in any type of railroad position will come with great benefits and competitive pay. If you’re looking to secure one of the highest paying railroad jobs out there, considering a career as a train conductor or carman is a great place to start.
Once you have a bit more experience, you could even apply for a position as a yardmaster or locomotive engineer. But, the highest paying railroad job of all is the Director of Engineering, who oversees a team of engineers for their company.