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A freight train conductor (seated at desk) on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad between Chicago and Clinton, Iowa in 1943. The caboose is the conductor's second home and he always uses the same one. Many conductors cook and sleep there while waiting for trains to take back from division points.   Jack Delano, Library of Congress.

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In the United States and Canada a conductor is a train crew member responsible for operational and safety duties that do not involve actual operation of the train. The conductor title is most common in North American railway operations, but the role is common worldwide under various job titles.

The responsibilities of a conductor typically include the following:

Making sure the train stays on schedule
Ensuring that any cars and cargo are picked up and dropped off properly
Completing en-route paperwork
Ensuring the train follows applicable safety rules and practices
Controlling the train's movement while operating in reverse
Coupling or uncoupling cars
Assisting with setting out or picking up of rolling stock
Carrying out running repairs
Ticket collection and other customer service duties

Opening and closing train doors

Some rapid transit systems employ conductors to make announcements and open and close doors—as opposed to a train operator performing those duties. The conductor often stays in the center of the train where they can best view the platform. While advances in automation allow most transit systems to use one person train operation (OPTO), a few, such as the New York City Subway and Toronto Transit Commission continue to employ conductors.

A conductor is also a crew member in some bus, trolleybus or streetcar operations.

Conductors in North America
In North America, the conductor manages a freight, passenger, or other types of train, and directly supervises the train crew, which can include a brakeman, flagman, ticket collector, assistant conductor, and on board service personnel. All crew members work under the conductor. The conductor, engineer, and additional engine crew members (fireman, pilot engineer) share responsibility for safe and efficient train operation and adherence to railway rules and procedures. On some railroads, union contracts specify that conductors must progress to engineer.

Other conductors duties may include:

Jointly coordinate with the engineer and dispatcher the train's movement authority, and verifying this authority is not exceeded
Communicate and coordinating with other parties—yardmasters, trainmasters, dispatchers, on board service personnel, etc.
Be alert to wayside signals, switch position, and other conditions that affect safe train movement
Mechanically inspect rolling stock
Assist the engineer in testing the train's air brakes
Signal the engineer when to start or stop moving
Keep a log of the journey
Check tickets and collect fares on passenger trains
Attend to passenger needs
Keep records of consignment notes and waybills
Direct, coordinate, and usually manually perform switching

Passenger trains may employ one or more assistant conductors who assist the conductor and engineer in the safe and prompt movement of the train, to share the workload, and accept delegated responsibility. If a train crew's route, or tour of duty, exceeds a single shift, or conflicts with a legal or contractual limit on the number of work hours, more than one crew may be assigned, each with its own conductor. Onboard service crew members on passenger trains normally remain on duty for the entire run, including assigned meal and sleep breaks.

Since nearly the beginning of railroading in North America, the conductor on freight trains rode aboard a caboose, along with the rear flagman and the rear brakeman, and performed duties from there. Advances in technology and pressure to reduce operating costs made cabooses redundant, and in most cases they have been eliminated. This relocated the conductor from the rear of the train to the locomotive (or locomotives) at the head of the train. In most cases, these same conditions gradually eliminated members of the train crew under the conductor—head and rear brakemen, flagmen, and others.

Most freight trains on most railroads today have a crew of two: one conductor and one engineer. Railroad companies continue to press for reduced operating and labor costs and this threatens to eliminate conductors. Railroads rationalize that since the engineer is already qualified as a conductor, he can easily assume the duties of a conductor. In fact, on most railroads, engineers begin as brakemen/assistant conductors, then become conductors, and finally engineers. Some railroads already implement such a strategy, notably the Montana Rail Link, and operate with an engineer, and an assistant engineer. However, most railroads are contractually obligated to employ at least one conductor in addition to the engineer, via crew consist agreements negotiated with the major rail unions, primarily the United Transportation Union (UTU). Therefore, eliminating the conductor position would require that the railroads and unions negotiate a new agreement. If the railroads were successful, conductors already trained and certified as engineers would theoretically be able to work as engineers. Those that have not yet progressed to engineer would have to be trained as engineers as positions became available. Others would have to accept other positions or possibly lose their jobs. The primary union for engineers, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers does not support this movement, claiming that requiring its members to operate trains alone would be unsafe. The conductors' union, the United Transportation Union, also opposes this initiative, despite historical differences with the engineers' union.

Remote control locomotives
By the late 1990s, remote control locomotives were increasingly popular on North American railroads for switching duties in rail yards. This system allows the conductor to directly control the locomotive(s) via a wireless remote unit, as opposed to radioing commands to an engineer in the cab. Some Class I Rail Yards utilize RCO packs for their conductors, while others do not, depending on the size and type of Yard. Class I Railroads train conductors on the use of RCO packs with classroom and hands-on instruction, culminating with on-the-job training and certification as a RCO operator. Currently, Class I railroads such as Norfolk Southern require RCO qualified conductors to work from job boards that perform RCO operations exclusively (when in a yard that utilizes RCO switching). This ensures the extra training and pay these conductors receive will provide the company with maximum value for the investment.

Train hosts
As there is no explicit Federal requirement for a two-person train crew in the United States, the Utah Transit Authority originally planned their FrontRunner service to be operated by an operator only, with revenue collected by a proof-of-payment system. Before operation began, the FRA required FrontRunner to employ a second crew member on each train to assist with emergency evacuation, disabled access, and other safety-sensitive situations. FrontRunner classified this job as a train host, with a focus on customer service rather than railroad operations. Some other services, such as Amtrak's Downeaster, also use train hosts (paid or volunteer) to assist the conductor with non-revenue-related customer service duties.

Streetcar conductor
Many antique or heritage streetcars, which operated through the earlier part of the 20th century, were designed for operation by a crew of two or more. The conductor primarily collected fares and signaled the driver when safe to depart from stopping places. The conductor also assisted with switching when necessary, changing the trolley pole and attended to passengers' needs.

Modern vehicle design and ticketing arrangements have largely eliminated the need for conductors on street railways and Light Rail systems. In recent years a number of modern streetcars or Light Rail systems have introduced (or re-introduced) conductors to minimize fare evasion and to provide customer care, supervision and security functions, even in situations where a second crew member is not strictly needed.

See also:



A freight train conductor (seated at desk) on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.
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An Amtrak passenger train conductor standing in Amfleet car doorway, as the Downeaster train leaves Durham, New Hampshire.

By Ben Schumin - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,