A field trip to a rail yard can give you a firsthand idea of the work involved in this occupation. For a personalized view of the work, consider arranging an information interview with a railroad employee who is involved in maintaining communications or control equipment. You or your school counselor may be able to find such a professional through local railroad company offices or local branches of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Go to the interview prepared to ask questions about the job. You will find that most people are pleased to talk about their work with those who show a sincere interest.
Signal mechanics install, maintain, and repair signal equipment. Today's signal equipment includes computerized and electronic equipment detection devices and electronic grade crossing protection. To install signals, workers travel with road crews to designated areas. They place electrical wires, create circuits, and construct railway-highway crossing signals, such as flashers and gates. When signal mechanics install new signals or signal equipment, they or other crew members may have to dig holes and pour concrete foundations for the new equipment, or they may install precast concrete foundations. Because railroad signal systems are sometimes installed in the same areas as underground fiber-optic cables, signal mechanics must be familiar with marking systems and take great care in digging.
Signal mechanics who perform routine maintenance are generally responsible for a specified length of track. They are often part of a team of several signal mechanics, called a signal construction gang. They drive a truck along the track route, stopping to inspect and test crossings, signal lights, interlock equipment, and detection devices. When servicing battery-operated equipment, they check batteries, refilling them with water or replacing them with fresh ones if necessary. They use standard electrical testing devices to check signal circuits and wiring connections, and they replace any defective wiring, burned-out light bulbs, or broken colored lenses on light signals. They clean the lenses with a cloth and cleaning solution and lubricate moving parts on swinging signal arms and crossing gates. They tighten loose bolts, and open and close crossing gates to verify that the circuits and connections in the gates are working.
Signal mechanics are often required to travel long distances as repairs are needed. Many are assigned to a large region by their employer, such as the entire Midwest, or may even be on call to work anywhere in the nation. Generally, employees are responsible for providing their own transportation from their home to the work location. The railroad company pays the cost of hotel rooms and provides a meal allowance. When signal mechanics are required to travel, their workweek may begin on Sunday, when they travel to the work site so they can start early Monday. The workweek may then include four 10-hour days, or may be longer, depending on the urgency of the job.
Sometimes signal mechanics are dispatched to perform repairs at specific locations along the track in response to reports from other rail workers about damaged or malfunctioning equipment. In these cases, the worker analyzes the problem, repairs it, and checks to make sure that the equipment is functioning properly.
Signal mechanics also compile written reports that detail their inspection and repair activities, noting the mileage of the track that they have traveled and the locations where they have done work. Some mechanics may use hand-held computers to prepare reports and record data.