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Career profile Locomotive Switch Operator

Also known as Brakeman, Carman, Fireman, Locomotive Switch Operator, Railroad Brakeman, Railroad Switchman, Terminal Carman, Trainman

Locomotive Switch Operator

Also known as Brakeman, Carman, Fireman

Interests Profile
  • Realistic
  • Conventional
  • Enterprising
Pay Range
$35,430 - $73,620 (annual)
Required Skills
  • Operations Monitoring
  • Monitoring
  • Operation and Control
Knowledge Areas
  • Transportation
  • Public Safety and Security
  • Mechanical
Core tasks
  • Conduct brake tests to determine the condition of brakes on trains.
  • Observe train signals along routes and verify their meanings for engineers.
  • Signal locomotive engineers to start or stop trains when coupling or uncoupling cars, using hand signals, lanterns, or radio communication.
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What does a Locomotive Switch Operator do?

Locomotive Switch Operators operate or monitor railroad track switches or locomotive instruments.

In addition, Locomotive Switch Operators

  • may couple or uncouple rolling stock to make up or break up trains,
  • watch for and relay traffic signals,
  • may inspect couplings, air hoses, journal boxes, and hand brakes,
  • may watch for dragging equipment or obstacles on rights-of-way.

What kind of tasks does a Locomotive Switch Operator perform regularly?

Locomotive Switch Operators are often responsible for overseeing or executing some or all of the following tasks:

  • Observe train signals along routes and verify their meanings for engineers.
  • Signal locomotive engineers to start or stop trains when coupling or uncoupling cars, using hand signals, lanterns, or radio communication.
  • Pull or push track switches to reroute cars.
  • Observe signals from other crew members so that work activities can be coordinated.
  • Monitor trains as they go around curves to detect dragging equipment and smoking journal boxes.
  • Inspect couplings, air hoses, journal boxes, and handbrakes to ensure that they are securely fastened and functioning properly.
  • Observe tracks from left sides of locomotives to detect obstructions on tracks.
  • Operate locomotives in emergency situations.
  • Raise levers to couple and uncouple cars for makeup and breakup of trains.
  • Climb ladders to tops of cars to set brakes.
  • Receive oral or written instructions from yardmasters or yard conductors indicating track assignments and cars to be switched.
  • Inspect locomotives to detect damaged or worn parts.
  • Signal other workers to set brakes and to throw track switches when switching cars from trains to way stations.
  • Check to see that trains are equipped with supplies such as fuel, water, and sand.
  • Monitor oil, temperature, and pressure gauges on dashboards to determine if engines are operating safely and efficiently.
  • Set flares, flags, lanterns, or torpedoes in front and at rear of trains during emergency stops to warn oncoming trains.
  • Inspect tracks, cars, and engines for defects and to determine service needs, sending engines and cars for repairs as necessary.
  • Start diesel engines to warm engines before runs.
  • Make minor repairs to couplings, air hoses, and journal boxes, using hand tools.
  • Connect air hoses to cars, using wrenches.

The above responsibilities are specific to Locomotive Switch Operators. More generally, Locomotive Switch Operators are involved in several broader types of activities:

Getting Information
Observing, receiving, and otherwise obtaining information from all relevant sources.
Identifying Objects, Actions, and Events
Identifying information by categorizing, estimating, recognizing differences or similarities, and detecting changes in circumstances or events.
Monitoring Processes, Materials, or Surroundings
Monitoring and reviewing information from materials, events, or the environment, to detect or assess problems.
Inspecting Equipment, Structures, or Materials
Inspecting equipment, structures, or materials to identify the cause of errors or other problems or defects.
Evaluating Information to Determine Compliance with Standards
Using relevant information and individual judgment to determine whether events or processes comply with laws, regulations, or standards.

What is a Locomotive Switch Operator salary?

The median salary for a Locomotive Switch Operator is $57,870, and the average salary is $55,890. Both the median and average roughly describe the middle of the Locomotive Switch Operator salary range, but the average is more easily affected by extremely high or low salaries.

Many Locomotive Switch Operators earn significantly more or less than the average, due to several factors. About 10% of Locomotive Switch Operators earn less than $35,430 per year, 25% earn less than $45,160, 75% earn less than $65,450, and 90% earn less than $73,620.

Between the years of 2020 and 2030, the number of Locomotive Switch Operators is expected to change by 2.7%, and there should be roughly 1,000 open positions for Locomotive Switch Operators every year.

Median annual salary
Typical salary range
$35,430 - $73,620
Projected growth (2020 - 2030)

What personality traits are common among Locomotive Switch Operators?


Career interests describe a person's preferences for different types of working environments and activities. When a person's interest match the demands of an occupation, people are usually more engaged and satisfied in that role.

Compared to most occupations, those who work as a Locomotive Switch Operator are usually higher in their Realistic and Conventional interests.

Locomotive Switch Operators typically have very strong Realistic interests. Realistic occupations frequently involve work activities that include practical, hands-on problems and solutions. They often deal with plants, animals, and real-world materials like wood, tools, and machinery. Many of the occupations require working outside, and do not involve a lot of paperwork or working closely with others.

Also, Locomotive Switch Operators typically have moderate Conventional interests. Conventional occupations frequently involve following set procedures and routines. These occupations can include working with data and details more than with ideas. Usually there is a clear line of authority to follow.


People differ in their values, or what is most important to them for building job satisfaction and fulfillment.

Compared to most people, those working as a Locomotive Switch Operator tend to value Support, Relationships, and Working Conditions.

Most importantly, Locomotive Switch Operators strongly value Support. Occupations that satisfy this work value offer supportive management that stands behind employees.

Second, Locomotive Switch Operators moderately value Relationships. Occupations that satisfy this work value allow employees to provide service to others and work with co-workers in a friendly non-competitive environment.

Lastly, Locomotive Switch Operators moderately value Working Conditions. Occupations that satisfy this work value offer job security and good working conditions.

Psychological Demands

Each occupation brings its own set of psychological demands, which describe the characteristics necessary to perform the job well.

In order to perform their job successfully, people who work as Locomotive Switch Operators must consistently demonstrate qualities such as dependability, attention to detail, and stress tolerance.

Below, you'll find a list of qualities typically required of Locomotive Switch Operators, ranked by importance:

Job requires being reliable, responsible, and dependable, and fulfilling obligations.
Attention to Detail
Job requires being careful about detail and thorough in completing work tasks.
Stress Tolerance
Job requires accepting criticism and dealing calmly and effectively with high-stress situations.
Job requires maintaining composure, keeping emotions in check, controlling anger, and avoiding aggressive behavior, even in very difficult situations.
Job requires being open to change (positive or negative) and to considerable variety in the workplace.

What education and training do Locomotive Switch Operators need?

Working as a Locomotive Switch Operator usually requires a high school diploma.

Locomotive Switch Operators need anywhere from a few months to one year of working with experienced employees. A recognized apprenticeship program may be associated with this occupation.

Educational degrees among Locomotive Switch Operators

  • 3.1% did not complete high school or secondary school
  • 37.7% completed high school or secondary school
  • 33.0% completed some college coursework
  • 11.0% earned a Associate's degree
  • 12.5% earned a Bachelor's degree
  • 2.7% earned a Master's degree
  • 0.1% earned a doctorate or professional degree

Knowledge and expertise required by Locomotive Switch Operators

Locomotive Switch Operators may benefit from understanding of specialized subject areas, such as transportation, public safety and security, or mechanical knowledge.

The list below shows several areas in which most Locomotive Switch Operators might want to build proficiency, ranked by importance.

Knowledge of principles and methods for moving people or goods by air, rail, sea, or road, including the relative costs and benefits.
Public Safety and Security
Knowledge of relevant equipment, policies, procedures, and strategies to promote effective local, state, or national security operations for the protection of people, data, property, and institutions.
Knowledge of machines and tools, including their designs, uses, repair, and maintenance.
Customer and Personal Service
Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.
Law and Government
Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules, and the democratic political process.

Important Abilities needed by Locomotive Switch Operators

Locomotive Switch Operators must develop a particular set of abilities to perform their job well. Abilities are individual capacities that influence a person's information processing, sensory perception, motor coordination, and physical strength or endurance. Individuals may naturally have certain abilities without explicit training, but most abilities can be sharpened somewhat through practice.

For example, Locomotive Switch Operators need abilities such as far vision, problem sensitivity, and near vision in order to perform their job at a high level. The list below shows several important abilities for Locomotive Switch Operators, ranked by their relative importance.

Far Vision
The ability to see details at a distance.
Problem Sensitivity
The ability to tell when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong. It does not involve solving the problem, only recognizing that there is a problem.
Near Vision
The ability to see details at close range (within a few feet of the observer).
Control Precision
The ability to quickly and repeatedly adjust the controls of a machine or a vehicle to exact positions.
Reaction Time
The ability to quickly respond (with the hand, finger, or foot) to a signal (sound, light, picture) when it appears.

Critical Skills needed by Locomotive Switch Operators

Skills are developed capacities that enable people to function effectively in real-world settings. Unlike abilities, skills are typically easier to build through practice and experience. Skills influence effectiveness in areas such as learning, working with others, design, troubleshooting, and more.

Locomotive Switch Operators frequently use skills like operations monitoring, monitoring, and operation and control to perform their job effectively. The list below shows several critical skills for Locomotive Switch Operators, ranked by their relative importance.

Operations Monitoring
Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly.
Monitoring/Assessing performance of yourself, other individuals, or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.
Operation and Control
Controlling operations of equipment or systems.
Active Listening
Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
Critical Thinking
Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions, or approaches to problems.

What is the source of this information?

The information provided on this page is adapted from data and descriptions published by the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration under the CC BY 4.0 license. TraitLab has modified some information for ease of use and reading, and the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment, and Training Administration has not approved, endorsed, or tested these modifications.

If you have any questions or suggestions about this information, please send a message.