Wednesday, October 15, 2008

So Ya Wanna Work for the Railroad

Are you in it for the money-- or the glory? That's what they asked my husband at his interview, and what his conductor school instructor asked on the first day of class. Whether it's your life's ambition or just another way to get a great paycheck and the best benefits around, you'll be competing with hundreds of other applicants for just a few open positions. The good news is that due the aging population of railroad workers, there's lots of positions open- for the moment. And rising gas prices are going to help with the expansion of the railroad industry.

In this blog I will share with you how my husband got his job, which resources were most helpful, and I will also share with you any resources I come across as I look to support his new career. Check back often Oh, and by the way-- the correct answer to the first question is YOU ARE IN IT FOR THE MONEY. If you're in it for the glory, the RR doesn't want you. So even if you're a lifetime subscription holder to Trains Magazine, even if you spend your freetime operating railroad simulators on your computer, keep it to yourself. As far as everyone else is concerned, you're in it for the money.

Railroad Hiring Myths

  1. You gotta know someone. We thought you had to have a close friend or family member who worked for the railroad to get your foot in the door. This is NOT TRUE. They are looking for people with a proven track record of three things: Shiftwork, Safety Awareness, and Stability. They prefer people who have had physically strenuous jobs in outdoor conditions. Also, if you have had any criminal charges in the last seven years, forget it. And if you do drugs or have an alcohol problem-- do everyone a favor and forget it. But if you have worked under difficult conditions, with a demanding schedule, and you have an excellent safety record, you have a great shot at getting hired.
  2. You need to attend a railroad academy. Also untrue. They do not care. Even if you have zero knowledge of trains-- even if you have never even BEEN on a train-- they do not care. Some have even said that they PREFER a blank slate-- because it is easier to start from scratch than to have to correct errors picked up from another training program. What they DO want is someone who they can train. Show that you are a quick study.
  3. Being a "rail fan" or showing a lifelong passion for trains will score points with the interviewer. This is NOT true. They are NOT looking for railfans or "foamers" to drive their trains. Railfans have sometimes in the past had a track record for contributing to accidents because they are sometimes distracted by being close to a novel piece of equipment. If you have had a lifelong passion for trains, keep it under wraps-- during the interview AND at work (if you are hired). People lives-- and millions of dollars of cargo and rail equipment are at stake. You must not be distracted. You must be detached and professional at all times.

Resources that Helped My Husband Get a Railroad Job

My husband, who is now a conductor-trainee with UP, had many marketable skills that any railroad would be interested in. He was a tower climber by trade and had an excellent attendance and safety record. He knew radio communications. He had been a mechanic, and had experience with automotive diesel repair. He was fit (and still is) and appears almost twenty years younger than he really is. So he had lots of hireable attributes.

Funny thing is, before we came across the right resources, we couldn't think of why he SHOULD be hired by the RR. We just knew we wanted him OFF of the towers- considering that every year several tower workers die on the job.

Then he met someone-- a former RR employee-- who was impressed with his background and skills. He mentioned to my husband that he ought to apply, because he had so many great qualifications. This was a great guy, who unfortunately left the RR on unpleasant terms, so he was NOT someone who could put in a good word for us. But HE DID open my husband's eyes to the possibilities.

The next thing that happened was that I scoured the internet for articles about how to get hired with the railroads. There were TWO resources that especially helped us:

RAILROAD EMPLOYMENT FORUM: There is a great RR employment forum. Current / experienced employees post in this forum and are generous and good-natured about providing helpful insights. Here's the link:

BOOK ABOUT GETTING A RR JOB: We bought an online "book" about getting a RR job. It was not cheap. And most of the info provided is also available for free on the above-mentioned employment forum. HOWEVER, there are a few valuable tidbits of info that we found to be unique and invaluable. One of those tidbits is a list of key words that the railroad human resources people are scanning for when they scan resumes. I wouldn't suggest just putting the key words in just to put them in- BUT the list was helpful to US because it helped my husband to reflect on his vast work experience and to pick out which experiences (indicated by the keywords would be most helpful for him to mention during the interview in order to provide the interviewers with the best possible picture of how his experience related to the RR industry. You'd be surprised to see what they're looking for. Your work experience may be more attractive to them than you'd think. We spent the money, we found the book to be very helpful. We felt it gave my husband a competitive edge. It certainly built his confidence. Other people have said that they were disappointed that the book was so short, and they felt they overpaid. Nonetheless, if you want to leave no stone unturned, this book might be for you. You can buy it and download it from this site:


Even before you interview, you should start preparing for the Physical Abilities Test. If you get as far as receiving a conditional job offer you DON'T want to flush it down the toilet by failing the PAT. Even if you are in GREAT SHAPE, you could still fail. ESPECIALLY if you are a rail fan, or if you feel that a lot is riding on you getting this job (like if you have 10 kids and one on the way and you NEED health insurance). They monitor your heart rate throughout the PAT, and if you are nervous, it could increase your heart rat to unacceptable levels, causing you to fail. This has been KNOWN TO HAPPEN. I have read about this in various RR discussion groups. DON'T LET IT HAPPEN TO YOU.
Here's a link to a great article on prepping for the PAT. It's never to soon to start.
Here's a link to a discussion on the railroad employment forum about the BNSF PAT:

Why Becoming a TOWER CLIMBER could put you in the Driver's Seat of a Locomotive

We personally know of four tower climbers who've applied for conductor training with Class One railroads. They have ALL been hired. That's a pretty good track record. I can't guarantee that becoming a tower climber will get you a RR job, but I do know that interviewers were pretty impressed with my husband's job. If you really, really want to work for a railroad and can't get their attention, working as a tower climber for a couple of years might do the trick. I've heard predictions that the current hiring trends are supposed to continue for a few more years-- so it might be worth a try to build experience in tower industry, and then re-applying.
Here's the downside:
  1. YOU COULD DIE OR BECOME MAMED FOR LIFE. This is no joke. Tower climbing is THE MOST DANGEROUS JOB in America. There are only about 8,700 in the country and yet about 10 climbers fall to their deaths every year. That's 115 deaths per 100,000 worker. It is extremely dangerous. And if you don't die, you could become paralysed or brain-injured when your body slams against the tower repeatedly as you dangle by your safety line after you fall.
  2. There is very little formal training. You have to pick up your knowledge as you go. You have to be assertive about just pitching in and helping. This is hard to do, of course, when you don't know what needs to be done.
  3. There is a culture of drugs, violence, and crime in the industry. Almost everyone at my husband's company had a criminal history-- and most of them had felony convictions. My husband had to be aggressive with some people about convincing them NOT to steal valuable copper wire or tools from work sites. He refused to participate or to allow anyone else to participate in such actions while he was on site. But is was a constant stressor. He also had to often drive his own car to worksites to avoid being in the same vehicle with people who were using drugs on the way to the worksite- not to mention the danger of being killed by a work partner who was high AND insisted on driving. You will have to be careful to take actions to keep your nose clean and your record clean.
  4. It is HARD HARD WORK. You will work at heights of at least 250 feet (often much higher) at night, in the winter, during ice storms or snowstorms or rain. You will work for HOURS AND HOURS without sleep. Once my husband worked for more than 40 hours WITHOUT SLEEP and with very few breaks (just the break he got while a supervisor drove them from site to site) repairing towers during an ICESTORM.
  5. The PAY IS NOT GOOD, considering what you have to do and the risks you have to take. My husband only got $17 per hour. Unless you get hired by one of the FEW MAJOR tower maintenance companies in the country, your chances of making more than my husband are SLIM. FORGET the $75 per hour wages you've seen mentioned on showed like Hazard Pay. That's what experienced people get when they work for BIG COMPANIES. And oh, you WON'T GET HIRED by a major company until you are experienced-- and by that time, hopefully you'll get hired by a Class 1 RR.

So that's the scoop. It's not a guarantee- after all, my husband was an ASE Certified Master Mechanic for years before he was a tower climber. That also contributed to his hireability. But it DID compensate for the several years that he stayed home to take care of our kids while I was in graduate school.

Railroad Safety Enhancement Act of 2008

Congress has passed this bill that addresses railroad safety issues. Of particular interest to railroad train service workers is the provision that prohibits workers from working more than six consecutive days without a 24 hour break, and increased rest periods between shifts from 8 hours to 10 hours. To read more, or to follow the bill's progress, click this link:
Railroad work is unpredictable and demanding. I'm not sure what it's going to be like for us, but as I come across support resources, I will post them here.
An online support group for railroad wives:

Useful Railroad Employment Links

You'll want to regularly scan the websites of Class One Railroads to see what openings they have. The easiest way to do that is to make the following link one of the pages in you Home Pages Tab:

A great website that lists railroad job openings:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Railroad Conductor Employment Outlook

This website describes what conductors do and predicts the employment outlook.

Railroad Conductor School: What It's Really Like

My husband has been in conductor school for six days now. He's a new hire with a Class One railroad, so he's getting paid to go to school. It has been a challenging but positive experience. There are about 24 people in his class. They meet from 8am until 5pm. There are homework and quizzes every day. When he gets home, he takes a break for dinner. Then he studies until about 1 a.m. He's been getting 100% on all of the quizzes and a 98% on the first test. The class is highly structured with lots of fill-in-the-blank type homework, but that is perfect for internalizing the myriad of rules that he needs to know to do his job well. My advice is this: If you get hired by a Class One RR, expect to work hard to study a lot. It's not rocket science, but it is a lot of material. If you do your work and study, you will probably pass. If you have to drive more than an hour to get to class every day, it may be worth it to get a motel room so that you can spend more time studying and less time driving. With BNSF you can't score below a 90% on any of the major tests and pass the course. I've also heard that BNSF requires a perfect score on the signals test. With UP you must get an 85% on every major test to pass. Oh, BTW, did I mention that there is random drug testing during the training phase as well?