Ever wonder how to build skills for railroad jobs?

Railroad doule track

Like most industries, the railroad industry requires some very unique skills.  Unlike most industries, the railroads industry provides you the training you will need to be successful at your job.  Where an electrician can get training through school programs and apprenticeship programs, a railroader is mostly trained through the company that hires them.  This includes rules training on Federal Railroad Administration requirements and technical training to perform their specific craft.  This fact makes applying for a railroad position a little bit different than most jobs.

When you apply to be an automotive tech, chances are you have experience in the automotive industry.  If you are applying for an electrical position, the same thing applies, but in the railroad industry, many times the people that are hired for skilled craft positions do not have any railroad experience. If you have never worked on a railroad, don’t fret. You still have a good shot at getting hired as long as you’ve built skills for railroad jobs in other ways.

Prerequisite skills for railroad jobs

There are a few things that all companies will require, regardless of the job type.  You will need at least a high school education or equivalent.  You will have to be able to pass a strength test, drug test, physical and eye screening.  If you are color blind, you can not work in any position that will require you to read signals. Technology may change this in the future, but for now, the transportation, signal and track department will all require a color blindness test as part of your hiring physical.  If you are applying for a craft that will require a CDL, or if your seniority will allow you to hold a job with a CDL, you must be at least 21 years of age.  Otherwise the age limit is 18, with a year of work experience.

Work Ethic

This is the number one thing railroads look for when hiring new employees.  They look for consistent job history, military training and any extra training that you have picked up along the way to show that you are someone who wants to work.  If you have taken extra classes, volunteered for a local organization or volunteered for an extra assignment at work, make sure those things make it to your resume.

Safe Work Record

Railroads are  dangerous; there is really no way around it.  On June 28, 2016 4 people went to work for BNSF,  only 1 came home.  One engineer was able to jump from the train before the two engines collided in a head on collision in Panhandle, TX.  February 21, 2016 a track worker for Norfolk and Southern went to work, he was killed when he was hit by a train while working on the track.  Those are only 2 of the fatalities suffered by the railroad industry so far this year.

Make sure you highlight your safety record on your resume.  This means talking about your driving record, your injury record, and anything that you have done to create a safer work place in the past.  Railroads want to know you are contentious about your safety and the safety of those around you.

Outdoor Work Experience

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but railroads are not usually indoors. Railroads prefer people who are used to working outdoors in all weather.  The running joke on the railroad is that it is always 72 and sunny on the tracks, because no matter what the weather, you are going to be out in it.  If you have done farm work, worked on an oil platform, done road work, anything that shows you are willing to work outside in all weather conditions is a plus.

Cumberland Yard Snowy engine

It’s always 72 and sunny on the railroad!

On Call Work Experience

Railroads operate 24/7, 365 days a year.  Trains run on Christmas, they run on New Years, they run at 2 am on a Saturday.  If you have past experience in a position that required you to work on call at all hours of the day and night, the railroad looks at that as a positive.  Not all skilled trade positions will have to work on call on a consistent basis, but most do.  In the event of a major disaster, even those that don’t usually work on call may get called out.

The Learned Skills

Experience in other industries comes in handy depending on the path you take to the industry. Welders, heavy equipment operators, electricians, and telecommunications workers will all have a leg up with this type of experience.

Railroad Track Work

Railroad track workers are responsible for fixing and maintaining track conditions and rail.  Any previous welding or cutting experience is considered an asset in a track worker.  The railroad will provide additional training that is specific to the railroad industry, but previous experience will make the process smoother for you and the railroad you are hired onto.

Track workers are also responsible for the track beds under the rail so previous experience with heavy equipment is also a plus.  Track workers may be required to run dozers, back hoes or track hoes.  Any previous experience with this type of equipment will give you a leg up on the competition.

Railroad Track Workers Grinding Rail at Night


Railroad Signal Work

The signal department is responsible for installing and maintaining the train control system and all crossing equipment.  The equipment itself is very specialized and engineered specifically for railroad applications, but the theories behind it are not.  Knowledge of basic electrical theories like Ohm’s law or series and parallel circuits will help you understand how to install and maintain the equipment.

If you are interested in working on the construction side of signal work, a Class A CDL with air brake endorsement is required.  The railroad will help you get one if you are qualified in all other aspects, but having one going in will help.  Previous experience with cranes and backhoes is also a big plus

The Communications Department

The communications department is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the train control system.  In addition to the train control system, the communications department is responsible for the installation and maintenance of radios, printers and end of train devices.  To work in the communications department an FCC license or military equivalent is required.  Previous experience with fiber and CAT cable are also a plus.  To find more information about obtaining an FCC universal license, visit the FCC website.

Working for a railroad is a great career choice and previous experience isn’t required.  A few key skills for railroad jobs and a great work ethic will give you a great shot at getting hired on your railroad of choice.

The right tool for the job depends on you… and if you can use it as a hammer

Hammres 2


“The right tool for the job.” It’s a saying that my father used quite a bit.

It’s a saying, “the right tool for the job,” that’s so popular it’s been co-opted by other, non-trade industries, but I never fully appreciated it until recently.

From experience, I’ve learned it basically means “If you have the correct tool for the job, you probably won’t ruin things, and you’ll curse much less.” For my decades of putting tools to the test, it all comes down to one thing… can I use it as a hammer?

Of course, by that I mean, “Which tool will be the highest quality, most durable and the best bang for my buck?” But also, I’m probably going to use it as a hammer eventually, either because of frustration, rage or pure necessity. There are so many places to find yourself the perfect pipe wrench, drill press, or miter saw for whatever job you’re tackling, that it’s mind-boggling to think about. I’ve narrowed it down to 3 categories to help you decide not what tool is best, but what tool is best for you.

Homeowner tools

Congratulations, you just bought a house! You’ll need tools for up-keep, and repairs. Just go Craftsman, hit up Sears, or find a nice K-mart special-30 piece tool set. That’s all you really need. No need to spend a Corvette’s worth in tools for light-bulb fixtures and table leg repairs. Done.

DIY / hobbyist / garage-r tools

You’re a serious DIYer. You need a quality tool for the job but you don’t need the best tool on the market. I’ve worked on my car since I Corey's Dad-Tool Box purchased it at 14 using whatever tools my dad had. They usually weren’t the best quality, but I still use some of them to this day. Go Craftsman for hand tools or better. Their wrenches, pliers and hammers are perfect for everyone from the weekend track racer to the most Ron Swanson of us all. The higher initial price is out-weighed by the lifetime use of the tool. Just check for the warranty so you can replace it if necessary.

Full-time trade and craftsman tools

If you make a living off your tools, you’re going to want something that will pay for itself over the years. You need power, precision, and durability. The hands down consensus is that if you want the best tool that’ll last a lifetime, you want Snap-on.  If your company is paying, or if you can afford it, Snap-on is the best bang for your buck for any dedicated, daily wrench jockey. They have consistently beat any challenger for best in the business. If that isn’t a possibility, brands like SK, GearWrench, Matco Tools and Mac Tools offer replacements with warranties that are just as good with only a minor sacrifice in strength and durability.

Still not sure which tool is right for you? Start simple and build up from there. You may find that, most of the time, you need the basics but for a few specific jobs, it’s worth investing in the right tools. Like my dad always said, “The right tool… “

What is a Railroad Signalman?

Signal work on a switch at dawn

If you have never heard of this position don’t be alarmed, a railroad signalman is a very specialized jack of all trades. It didn’t start out this way, but as modern technology has changed everything else, it has also changed the role of the signalman.

A Little Railroad History

In the early part of the railroad, a signalman would use lanterns to signal trains and give them information about the track ahead.  They would sit in a tower, lean out the window and hold the lantern at a particular angle to let the train know how close the train in front of him was, or if there were any known problems with the track ahead.  If he was at a station where a train could switch from one rail to another, it was also the signalman’s job to route the train properly using long handles inside of his tower to throw the switch.

The DC Track Circuit

The invention of the DC track circuit was the beginning of big changes for the signalman.  Where previously the signalman was the one giving out information about the condition of the rails and other train traffic, the DC track circuit could do that automatically.

A DC track circuit is simply a battery at one end and a relay at the other with the tracks being used as a conductor.  When a train goes over the circuit, the electricity will pass through the train wheels instead of going down the track to the relay.  The relay drops and along with it, the position of the signal arm.  With this change the signalman went from being an active participant in controlling train traffic, to someone who maintained track circuits and electrical systems.

Old style railroad signal

As the train goes across the circuit, this old style arm falls to the down position , it will stay in this position until the train clears the block.


The Modern Signalman

As technology has advanced, so has the signalman.  Today’s signalman is split into two categories, the signal maintainer and the construction signalman.    All signalman for Class 1 railroads are members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman,  this is also true of most smaller railroads and contractors that do signal work.   Your union seniority will determine what positions you can hold, but if you stand for it, you can hold either the signal maintainer or the construction signalman position so it is best to be prepared to handle either job.


The Signal Maintainer

The signal maintainer maintains the signal system by performing required Federal Railroad Administration tests on all signals, switches and road crossings in his territory.  In addition to the tests he must perform, he is also on call 24/7  to fix any problem that occurs on his territory.  The maintainer is a troubleshooter, he must understand basic relay logic, electrical theory and circuit design.  He has to be able to show up to a location, read the prints, determine  the problem and then repair the problem.


signalman switch junction box wiring

An example of a switch junction box that was wired by a signalman

The Construction Signalman

A construction signalman is someone who builds or does major repair to the signal system on a railroad.  A construction signalman works on a gang of 5 or 6  people.  The gang will travel to their assigned location and stay in a hotel for the duration of their work period, usually 8 days on  and 6 days off or 4 days on and 3 days off.  On a construction gang you are given material and a set of plans and must do everything from operating a backhoe to dig in cable to wiring in and testing the new equipment to get it in service and working correctly before it gets handed over to the maintenance department.

signalman sets crossing platform

A CSX signal construction crew sets a flood platform to sit a crossing house on top of.


The Future of the Signalman

As long as there are railroad tracks, there will be signalman, but the evolution will continue.  Currently there is a mandate from the Federal government to install positive train control by 2018.   Positive train control is a system that will automatically stop a train before it can go past a stop signal, thus preventing head on and rear end train collisions.  Construction signalman are currently working hard to install all wayside assets and some portions of railroads are already up and running using this system.

From a guy hanging his arm out the window to a completely integrated system of controlling train traffic, the signalman has always been and will always be, an integral part of the railroad.


The Caterpillar AP 1000E Has Bells, Whistles, And Power


We’ve demo’d a couple of pavers this year: a brand new Caterpillar AP 1000E as well as and a two-year-old Vogele. After trying them both, we decided to pony up the cash and keep the CAT.

Here’s what we know: the CAT is a powerful machine. The tractor is equipped with a C7.1 Acert Caterpillar diesel engine with interim Tier 4 emission ratings. In laymen terms, it puts out a lot more power, and a lot less pollutants than previous, equivalent size machines. This CAT engine is displacing 427 cubic inches and pumping out 225 horsepower, making it completely capable of pulling the massive 22 feet wide passes we had to make. But enough with the specs, you can read those out of the book.

What I like about it is that the operators console is so customizable that you would think it’s a Lincoln Town Car. You can adjust the seat position, giving the operator many choices and views of the mix flowing in and the truck he is pushing down the highway. You can also set a personal profile that adjusts feeder controls and operating speeds for different material applications. Most impressive was the reaction of my father, who has been paving for 40 years. He started off skeptical of the fancy new operator’s console adaptations, but soon he was actually running the computerized controls and liking them! It’s definitely fun to watch a guy who started off with equipment that was cable drawn deftly working the computer controlled hydraulics and having the CAT follow his every command.

Even with a heavy spray of asphalt emulsion and a width of 22 feet, the tires never even began to slip. Front wheel assist worked like a charm. The screed is now controlled with Trimble automation. I personally learned on Top Con and Niveltronics, but was able to pick up this user-friendly interface quickly. I gave the user manual a glance and realized it was very similar to other automation controls I had used – probably closest to a top con system, if I had to say. I ran slope on my right hand side and matched the joint on my left. The mill was working hard in front of us but we managed to put down 300 tons of 19 mm binder in about an hour and a half and even beat the rain that was headed for us.

It was only my first day on this machine, and I really enjoyed it. The CAT had quick reaction from the screed, and plenty of power to move wings and augers. I’m planning on taking the auger extensions and screed extensions off tomorrow and going through the screed with a fine tooth comb to get it right. I’ll soon be putting in base and binder with this machine and top shortly after. So far two thumbs up!


Photo courtesy of: Robert Carr