A visit to a rail yard might give you some insight into the work of a yard conductor and into the operations of railroads in general. It might be possible to arrange to talk with a conductor who works on a freight train or a passenger train for further insight. It might even be possible to obtain summer or part-time work for a railroad company.
Many conductors have an engineering or mechanical background, so you may find it helpful to explore such areas in high school through vocational clubs or classes. The Technical Student Association (TSA) is a nationwide organization that provides training and competitions for students in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics. Visit the TSA Web site (https://www.tsaweb.org) for more information about joining or starting a chapter.
Railroad conductors fall into two basic categories: road conductors and yard conductors (or yardmasters). Within the category of road conductors are included conductors of both freight and passenger trains, although their duties vary somewhat. The conductor is in charge of the train in its entirety, including all equipment and the crew.
Before a freight or passenger train departs from the terminal, the road conductor receives orders from the dispatcher regarding the train's route, timetable, and cargo. He or she then confers with the engineer and other members of the train crew, if necessary. During the run, conductors may receive additional communication by radio, such as information on track conditions or the instruction to pull off at the next available stop. They then relay this information to the engineer via a two-way radio. Conductors also receive information about any operating problems while underway and may make arrangements for repairs or removal of defective cars. They use a radio or cell phone to keep dispatchers informed about the status of the trip.
Conductors on freight trains are responsible for getting bills of loading, lists of cars in their train, and written orders from the station agent and dispatcher. They keep records of each car's content and eventual destination and see to it that cars are dropped off and picked up along the route as specified. Both before and during the run, they inspect the cars to make sure everything is as it should be.
On passenger trains, conductors see to it that passenger cars are clean and that passengers are seated and comfortable. They collect tickets and cash and attend to the passengers' needs. At stops, they supervise the disembarking of the passengers and tell the engineer when it is safe to pull out of the station. If an accident occurs, conductors take charge and direct passengers and other crew members.
Yard conductors are usually stationed at a switching point or terminal where they signal the engineer and direct the work of switching crews that assemble and disassemble the trains. Based on knowledge of train schedules, the yard conductor or yard foreman is responsible for seeing that cars destined to arrive at various points along one of many routes are put together and ready to leave on time. He or she sends cars to special tracks for unloading and sends other cars to tracks to await being made into trains. Conductors tell switching crews which cars to couple or uncouple and which switches to throw to divert the locomotive or cars to the proper tracks. Today, many yards are mechanized. In this case, yard conductors supervise the movement of cars through electronic monitoring devices.
All conductors perform strenuous work outside in all weather conditions and travel extensively. Usually, conductors are required to work on-call, on an as-needed basis. Railroads expect conductors, as well as most of their other employees, to be available to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week in all weather conditions. A certain time period is allotted, usually 12 hours, from the time of call to report to work.