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Be a Railroad Brakeman: Education and Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a railroad brakeman. Learn about the duties and read read the step-by-step process to start a career as a railroad brakeman.

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Do I Want to Be a Railroad Brakeman?

A railroad brakeman, or brake operator, operates railroad track switches and couples or uncouples freight cars. The job also involves inspecting couplings, hand brakes, air hoses and other train parts. Some brake inspectors may travel with the trains and be away from home for prolonged periods of time. Most work in adverse weather conditions and may be required to perform heavy lifting or other physically challenging tasks.

Job Requirements

Colleges and schools don't offer formal railroad brakeman classes. New railroad brakemen receive education and career training through railroad companies. Railroad brakeman jobs are unionized. The table below summarizes common requirements for railroad brakemen.

Common Requirements
Degree Level A high school diploma is standard*
Experience Employers may require six months or more experience**
Key Skills Far vision, verbal and written communication, hand-eye coordination***
Technical Skills Knowledge of railroad equipment, policies and procedures, mechanical work and quality of train cars.***

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Job postings accessed in December 2012, ***O*Net Online

Step 1: Complete Education and Physical Requirements

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) noted that the minimum education requirement for a railroad brakeman is usually a high school diploma. After graduating from high school, aspiring railroad brakemen must pass medical exams and physical abilities tests. Since railroad brakemen must repeatedly bend over and lift heavy objects, they must be physically fit and healthy. The physical abilities test measures strength, ability and endurance. This test may require applicants to lift and carry boxes or weights for certain distances, climb stairs and demonstrate movement and flexibility. The medical exam includes measurements of heart function, blood pressure and lung capacity. It also includes drug and alcohol screening.

Success Tips:

  • Build physical stamina. A railroad brakeman or switchman has a very physical job, climbing up and down ladders on train cars and operating hand brakes. Making sure one is in good physical condition can help to make this job easier.
  • Acquire knowledge of brake and switch systems. Some colleges and organizations offer classes in the use of railroad signals and braking systems, covering topics like railroad safety, operations and how the braking systems and signals work.

Step 2: Complete Job Training

Newly hired railroad brakemen are usually trained through in-house training programs. Through coursework and hands-on experience, trainees learn to throw railroad switches and couple and uncouple freight cars in rail yards and on main lines. Training also covers train timetables, signals, operating regulations and safety. New railroad brakemen gradually assume more responsibilities while working under the guidance of senior brakemen, conductors and engineers.

  • Study track length and various signal systems. Knowledge of tracks and how signals work is important to a railroad brakeman or switchman, so one should pay attention to those things during training.

Step 3: Consider Career Advancement

Railroad brakemen who receive additional training can advance to conductor and engineer positions. Since trains run seven days a week at all hours, newly-hired brakemen can work long hours. Working overtime is required. Because railroad brakeman jobs are unionized, it can take more than 20 years to land a 9-to-5 schedule. Brakemen belong to the United Transportation Union and cannot be ordered to work more than 12 hours a day without time off for rest.

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