Tell Me about Life for the Crew of a Modern Freight Train

On a modern freight train:

  1. How many crew members are on board?
  2. How long is a typical shift? A typical journey?
  3. Where are their eating/sleeping/living quarters?
  4. How are toileting needs handled? What happens to the waste?
  5. How do they bring food aboard? Do they just pack a big cooler full of sandwiches and soft drinks?

Anything else that’s interesting or unique about life on board a freight train?

I don’t know much about this, but I can tell you that, according to news reports of the recent commuter train crash in Chatsworth, California, the other train was a freight train that had only two crew members on it.

Probably freight trains these days don’t need a great many brakemen anymore, what with automation and all.

If you want some reading material, this guy is a railroad engineer, and a pretty good writer.

Here’s some relevant info from a doper who is a freight train crewman:


Cool links! Come back, Black Train Song!

For Australian freight trains:

  1. There are two crew members, the driver (engineer) and the secondman / fireman. They sit side by side up front. Additional locomotives are unmanned, and there is no longer any guard’s van (caboose).

  2. I forget off-hand, but I think the mandated maximum shift is twelve hours, but there is a lower limit for actual driving time (the rest is train preparation, etc). A typical journey ranges from a short “trip train” within a city (usually from the docks to a freight distribution centre to several hundred miles before another crew takes over.

  3. There are no “living quarters” in the locomotives. Crew were housed traditionally in railway barracks, or more usually these days, in motels. The exception to this is in some (geographically huge) states where there is a “crew car” (a converted passenger car) immediately behind the locomotives. This houses an off-duty crew.

  4. There is a somewhat uncomfortable toilet in most locomotives. In the old-fashioned streamliners, this was housed inside the “bulldog” nose. As far as I’m aware, the old units had the waste vented directly to the tracks (just like the old passenger cars did), and the modern ones have holding tanks which are emptied at the depot.

  5. Food is usually just thrown into their bag. the locomotives generally have a microwave, tea and coffee facilities, and a small refrigerator.

Generally 2, a conductor and an engineer.

Engineers are limited to 12 work hours per shift, so if they are in the middle of nowhere and 12 hours comes around they have to stop the train and wait for relief. However a shift will be longer, as you can be “off duty” and still “on shift.”

Depends. Class 1 RRs (UP, BNSF, CSX etc) will generally house them in a hotel or motel. Shortline crew will probably get to go home.

Toilets are generally in the nose of a cab. They will get emptied periodically. Full cleanings usually do not occur until 92 day FRA-mandated maintenance.

Thermos and a lunch box is another viable option

It’s rough-- ROUGH. You live, breath and sleep for the railroad. Words cannot really describe just how bad it can be. It can also be really pleasant. As you build seniority, you’ll get to “bump” lower employees off their assignment, and the retirement plan is pretty good too (kind of like social security but from a different trust fund and with better benefits)

One thing that bugs me about train crews is their thing with water bottles. They pitch them out the window. Maybe younger crew members are more ecologically conscious, but in Chicago and outlying areas, the grounds on the sides of the tracks are littered with empty plastic water bottles.

Especially if you work for the LIRR and know a couple corrupt doctors.

John McPhee’s latest book, Uncommon Carriers, includes a section on the coal trains that originate in Wyoming’s Wind River basin. He spends quite a bit of time with the crews. The book is based on two long articles from the New Yorker. Here’s the abstract for the first one.

IamNot pretty much answered it all.

There is normally only an engineer and conductor on a typical crew. Some jobs do have a brakeman if there’s a huge amount of switching going on. A brakeman is no longer required in the crew consist and the company will usually only have them if they’re necessary. A while back the conductors agreed to give up the brakeman job for a few perks only they’ll get to enjoy. They’re the ones you hear preaching about brotherhood the most.

The railroads have the technology to run a train without a crew on it at all, and thats their vision. The ever weakening unions have been able to hold of any further crew reduction. Give it time. The train & engine men are their biggest expense.

The lifestyle is ok I guess. I’ve always managed to enjoy my work and my fellow employees. My company in particular is known for their hostile management style though. They apparently are trained from the beginning that we’re the enemy and they act accordingly. It takes very little instigation for management to reveal how low they’re willing to stoop. I liken them to corrupt prison guards or something along those lines.

I was told that the railroad was modeled and run like the military. You can see it in the job titles, trainmaster…yardmaster…Chief. If you’re suspected of breaking a rule (and there are hundreds) they might bring you to investigation/trial, which is nothing more than a kangaroo court with the judge being a biased company official.

All that said, I did love it but i quit because of it. I am in a related job now and i’ll post about it.