The job of a train conductor is a unique job that is often overlooked. We only seem to pay attention to trains when they are holding up traffic, or when blaring horns wake us up at night.
Many don’t realize that the freight railroads are alive and well in the United States. In fact, they are actually booming. They are fuel efficient, cost effective, environmentally friendly. An of course, they employ over 170,000 of some of the nation’s highest paid workers.
In 2014, the average train conductor salary was $88,200 in regular wages and $33,400 in benefits. That’s a total compensation package of $119,600!
That’s almost twice as much as the average American. Not only is a train conductor salary extremely attractive, but railroad conductors get to participate in a system called Railroad Retirement.
In short, railroad retirement is an alternative system to Social Security that is specifically for railroad workers. It’s well funded, provides a better benefit upon retirement, and is just an all around better option.
As unionized workers, train conductors receive many more benefits than the average American. Low cost health coverage and generous paid vacation are just a few.
Railroad Conductor Wage Growth
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the median weekly train conductor salary has grown by over 50% since 2000. In the age of stagnant wage increases and constant layoffs, railroads conductors just keep earning more.
Train conductor salary wage variance
Now, there are some differences in wages across the industry. Generally, the Class 1 Railroad Conductors are the highest paid. Furthermore, Western railroads usually pay a bit more as well. It’s not uncommon for the average train conductor salary out west to be well over $100,000 annually.
The pay also varies greatly based on seniority, and type of assignment a conductor works. When first hired on as a train conductor, you may not stand for work all year round. When you do work, it will be the less lucrative assignments that usually pay less. This is just like any unionized position. You just have to “pay your dues”.
That also means that your earnings will vary week to week, and you may even go a week without getting paid (if you don’t work). This all evens out, and in the end you’ll make some good money. You just need to be sure to manage it well for weeks that you may not earn as much.
That being said, I earned $72,000 in my first 12 months as a fully qualified railroad conductor.
When you first get a railroad job, you’ll probably start out at a lower wage than the “top rate”. For most conductors, this will be 80%. It’s usually a five year progression moving up in increments of 5% each year. So how much does a train conductor make at the full wage?
When you look at my first year earnings of $72,000 and account for them being at the 80% wage rate, you’ll see that I would have earned $90,000 at the full conductor wage.
Realistically, it would probably be six figures because of seniority. My first year, I didn’t always work consistently and I would often go 3 or 4 days without working. By the time you make it to the full 100% conductor rate, you’ll probably have enough seniority to at least work consistently throughout the year.
The way that railroad conductors get paid is a bit different than most get used to. Actually, it will probably take you a few years to fully grasp it. It dates back a hundred years, and there are hundreds of little factors that go into your “daily rate”.
In short, when working a yard assignment, you’ll have a daily rate. The daily rate is what you get for showing up, regardless if you work 5 hours or if your work 8. After 8 hours, you start to get overtime pay. To calculate what your overtime rate is per hour, you just simply divide your daily rate by 8, then multiply it by 1.5.
If your working a road assignment, which would be running a train from one terminal to another, you’ll have a trip rate that is different (usually a bit lower). There is a mileage component factored into the trip rate, so it can vary widely. Overtime doesn’t begin after 8 hours. The mileage of the run is factored into it, and you usually won’t get overtime until well after 8 hours. On my particular territory, is 9 hours and 40 minutes until you start to get overtime.
This all sounds confusing, and it is. What you will most likely do as a new conductor is learn what the wage is supposed to be for each particular job and that is enough. If you see anything different on your paycheck (which you probably will), your union rep is there to help.
Train Conductor Pay Frequency
Railroads pay their conductors bi-weekly in most cases. There are cases where paychecks are cut weekly, but they are much less common. It is usually because of certain state laws or regulations. For
I won’t go into too much more detail about pay structure, because its so complex that it doesn’t even really make sense to railroaders that have been out there for fifteen years. What you should know, is that you’ll make some real money if you stick it out as a new conductor.