Cliff is an ex-CN conductor/locomotive engineer for CN in Winnipeg, MB Canada. He also worked for a short-line railroad in Nashville.
So You Want to Be a Conductor on the Railroad?
There are many reasons a person chooses the railroad as their career. The "running" trades, in which conductors and engineers work, are one of the highest paying trades in the railroad industry. Most of the time, you don't need any prior experience or schooling. All you need is to apply, get selected as a candidate, go through all the pre-employment testing, pass the interview, and go to the railroad's in-house training camp.
Now all of this may seem like the normal procedure for any job. Well, long story short, it's not. There's a saying all railroaders know all too well—hurry up and wait. If you decide to become a conductor or engineer, you will learn what this phrase means inside and out.
Let's get a few questions out of the way before we get into the meat and potatoes of this article.
- Is the money good? Yes. The money is good. There's a reason the money is good, though. We will talk about it.
- Will I have time off? Yes and no. You will probably work much more than you have off. This goes hand in hand with the money.
- Is there a good retirement? Yes. Retirement for railroad employees can be very good. It also depends on how smart you are with your money.
- What is the work/life balance like? It's garbage. Plain and simple. The way things are set up, you will not really have much time off to spend with your family and friends.
- Is it easy to get fired? Yes. This is one of those rumors that is very, very true. We will talk about it soon.
- Is the railroad a unionized job? All class 1 railroads are unionized. Some short lines are, but many are not.
What's the Money Like as a Conductor on the Railroad?
I'm going to go into depth, but for those of you who do not care to read that far into it, I will sum it up right now.
The money is great. Think anywhere from $80,000 to $120,000 per year. Now, some factors determine how much you will make. But that is about where you can expect to be as a conductor/engineer. Now let's deep dive a little bit.
Training: How Long Does It Last and What Does It Pay?
When you are in training, you will make money. Probably better money than you are making now in a factory or fast food/low-income service industry. That being said, don't even think about the money when in training. Focus on your training if this is what you want to do and hit the big cash. Training, depending on the hiring railroad, can go anywhere from a few weeks to 13 weeks or more. Once you get out of training, you will probably do some on-the-job training for a while.
When I was hired out, I spent about 6-8 months of on-the-job training with a conductor I was assigned to. Listen to what they say. Follow their instructions. And for the love of God, do not question everything they say just because you heard in training that blah blah blah. Once you are done with OTJ training, you are now a fully qualified conductor. Let's make some cash.
So, depending on where you are at in seniority and what you can hold, and whether you are paid by the hour or by the mile can greatly determine what your tie-up tickets will pay. I worked for CN in Canada, and we were paid by the mile, whether in the yard or on the road. The hourly rate would be converted to the equivalent in miles for our pay.
Pay Depends on Location and Job-Type
Also, depending on whether you had worked on the road, like pickups or drop-offs, you would claim that and get an extra $20 or so on your ticket. Those add up over the span of your trip. When I would do a 139-mile trip, I would make anywhere from $350 - $400 or so one way. So each tour of duty, I'd make anywhere from around $700 - $800 in a 24 - 36 hour period. There are different road jobs or subdivisions, you can work that are all different miles, and you'd make more or less money. It's whatever you can hold, really, with your seniority.
Next, yard jobs typically make less money, but you often have a set schedule and are home every night. Depending on your terminal and the guys there, the yard will either be high seniority guys holding it or low seniority guys forced to the yard. You make less but have a better lifestyle. For the most part.
Next up, how much time are you going to book off sick? This is a double-edged sword. Yes, booking off sick will get you some time off, but check your collective agreement as to what disciplinary action can be taken against you, and always, always have a sick note. The more you book off sick, the less money you will make. That's a given.
So to wrap this section up, yes, the money is amazing for not having a degree in something, and quite possibly even if you do have a degree. But it's a give-and-take relationship.
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Will You Ever Get Time Off?
This is a subject that has been touched on by railroaders since, well, forever. I'm sure if you have talked to any railroaders or looked into the job at all before applying, you've seen somewhere that you will sell your soul and work and be gone all the time. Yeah, that's true.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you. If you want to work for the railroad, I believe in giving it to you straight. For those guys that take time off all the time by booking personal days (if those exist anymore) or booking sick, you are essentially screwing over your brothers and sisters you work with.
Rest Between Trips
You do get rest, which isn't much. After every trip, you go on rest. Different agreements and governments have different work rest rules for transport industry employees. Some are governed by the collective agreement, and some are enacted upon on the federal level. When I worked at CN as a conductor, you could do something called mile out. This means that once you got the maximum of 4,300 miles in your mile reset period, you would be able to take off until your miles reset.
This is typically a 30-day period or so. So if you worked and got your miles in 3 weeks, you could have a week off before you had to take another trip. In the yard, things are usually scheduled to where you get your miles and only get your standard days off. On the road, you can mile out if you are a balls-to-the-wall type of person.
Do expect, though, to work birthdays, holidays, family get-togethers, and any other important dates. Be prepared to miss your family events, like even the birth of your first child (yes, it does happen).
Is Railroad Retirement any Good?
This will be a short section. Yeah, it's pretty good, actually. In Canada, your pension is usually controlled by the railroad you work for. In the USA, it's called a railroad retirement fund or something. Either way, the retirement pension is pretty good.
You will probably draw more each month than people working full-time jobs. On top of that, If you were smart with your 6 figure income and didn't go blow it all on booze, expensive vehicles, etc., and invested some of your money or hired a financial advisor, you should have zero worry about money after retirement. And that's that. But hey! It's your money. Do what you want with it; you don't have to take my advice *wink*.
P.S. You should be saving some rainy day money anyways, especially since you may find yourself without a job one day. If it's one thing railroads love, it's to fire their employees (or furlough them).
Work/Life Balance on the Railroad
It doesn't exist. Simple as that. Unless you are holding a scheduled yard job, you will always be on call. Forever. And ever.
When you are first starting out—unless there is a huge retirement going on and you move up in seniority really fast—you will start off on an extra board or spare board (they are the same thing, some people just call them different things). The spare board is an on-call board for when there are not enough guys on pool jobs or when someone books off.
You really never know when you are going to work or where you'll be going on a spare board. It's really hell on earth. You may be just sitting down for a night out with your partner or family, and you get a call to get to work for a train. You have to go or risk getting fired.
The lifestyle weighs heavily on many families. There is no work-life balance. Sometimes divorces happen because of it. Or infidelity. Stress levels get very high for everyone in the family. Sadly, the divorce rate in the railroad industry is pretty high as a whole. I don't have exact numbers, but it's above average.
If you are the type of person who likes to take time off quite often to do things you enjoy or hobbies, the only advice I can give is either make your hobby being on a train or don't apply.
Is It Easy to Get Fired on the Railroad?
Yeah, despite what you may have heard from fanboys or company officials, it's actually pretty easy to get fired. The easiest way is to not follow the rules and do something that results in something catastrophic . . . Or just get on a hot-headed train master's radar. They both work to get yourself unemployed.
I would say all jokes aside, but that actually wasn't a joke. As a conductor or engineer, you have something called a rule book. It's your soul, your life, your bible. Every rule in that book is relevant to your job, and anything you do wrong will result in a direct referencing of a specific rule that you may have broken. Even if you didn't break the rule, an investigating train master would twist the rule, so you broke it. So just accept you will always be wrong in the company's eyes.
Most railroads have something called cardinal rules. That means that if you break these, it can result in immediate suspension or loss of your job, no questions asked. Other broken rules may result in demerits, brownies, peepee slaps, whatever you want to call them. Accrue enough of them, and you get demoted to civilian waiting for a train at a crossing.
There are literally hundreds of rules, and you have to memorize the major ones and be able to pull up a rule fast in your rule book when in doubt about what you should do in a given situation.
All in all, it can be easy to get fired. OK, who am I kidding? It's pretty easy if you aren't the smartest crayon in the box. There are conductors and engineers from all different walks of life. Some are really smart and have great common sense. Others, you don't know how they dress in the morning. Those ones "usually" don't last very long. But some make it through their whole career without even a single investigation . . . Incredible.
Take the Leap!
I hope you learned a little bit about what it's like to work as a conductor or engineer on the railroad. Every person's experience is different, as we are all different people with our own personalities. But there are still many things we all share in common when we work on the railroad, and the things I listed here are examples of them.
There are also things you just have to experience to understand. Many things on the railroad you can tell people, but they just won't get it because they haven't lived it.
If you want to take the chance and find out what it's like and potentially really love your job and make some major bank, give it a shot. Make sure to check out my article about how to get a job on the railroad for tips and tricks to winning over your recruiter's heart. If you have any questions, drop me a comment below. I do my best to answer them all.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2020 Cliff Beaver