Railroad Signal or Switch Operator

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Railroad Signal or Switch Operator

Education and Training High school and training

Salary Median—$21.46 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Railroad signal operators install and maintain the signaling devices used by dispatchers to communicate with train crews. Switch operators control the track switches, usually two sections of rail, that divert the locomotive or cars from one track to another for coupling and uncoupling.

Signals are lights or other markers along the track that are controlled by train dispatchers, who work in the central railroad station. During construction of new signals, operators may mix and pour concrete tower bases and cut and weld the metal towers used to support the signals. Many of their duties have been taken over by technicians, who install and repair fiber-optic communication systems. Both signal operators and technicians check and repair lights, fiberoptic cables, or electrical lines.

Some railroads still use battery-powered and mechanical signals. Signal operators check the battery charge and moving parts of the older systems. After operators make inspections, they must complete written records of what they have seen and done.

Switch operators may have to push or pull the switch tracks into place so that train cars can be diverted. Once the cars have moved into the switches, operators use brakes to stop them. They raise or lower levers to couple or uncouple cars and signal the engineer to move the locomotive into place to uncouple or couple other cars. Many of their duties have been mechanized or computerized.

Education and Training Requirements

A high school education is required. Courses in shop, mechanics, and math are helpful. Most railroads prefer to hire people who have training in electrical engineering from vocational or technical schools. Applicants must be between eighteen and thirty-five years old and in good health.

New workers undergo four- to 6-week training programs that combine classroom and on-site training. They also work under the supervision of experienced workers for some time. After about a year they become assistants in their departments. With more experience, they advance to jobs as signal or switch operators.

Getting the Job

Job seekers can apply directly to the personnel offices of railroad companies. State employment offices sometimes list railroad job openings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Signal operators may become lead operators if they show leadership ability. They may also advance to gang supervisors, testers, inspectors, or railroad engineers. Switch operators may advance to supervisory or administrative positions.

Employment of signal and switch operators is expected to decline through 2014. Technical advances have led to increased productivity, so fewer operators are needed. Some positions become available when experienced workers retire, transfer to other railroad jobs, or leave the field.

Working Conditions

Once workers get jobs as signal or switch operators, their work is fairly steady. Signal installations and repairs are made outdoors in all kinds of weather and whenever and wherever equipment breaks. Signal operators travel to new construction sites, so they may be away from home frequently. Switch operators work in shifts in rail yards. Both jobs can be dangerous because of rolling machinery and electrical wiring.

Where to Go for More Information

Association of American Railroads
50 F St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-1564
(202) 639-2100

Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen
917 Shenandoah Shores Rd.
Front Royal, VA 22630-6418
(540) 622-6522

United Transportation Union
14600 Detroit Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44107-4250
(216) 228-9400

Earnings and Benefits

In 2004 the median wage of signal and switch operators was $21.46 per hour. Benefits included health insurance, paid vacations and holidays, and pension plans. Many received passes entitling them to free travel on their rail lines.

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Railroad Signal or Switch Operator

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