What is a Railroad Operations Degree?

Railways play a vital social and economic role throughout the world. They are responsible for 43 percent of all intercity freight transportation in the US.

Railroad operations training programs produce the conductors, dispatchers, mechanics, and laborers that keep these complex systems working. The typical curriculum covers the history of the railroad industry, government rules and regulations pertaining to rail transportation, operating and inspection procedures, hazardous materials handling, and career opportunities in the field.

Program Options

A railroad locomotive at dusk.

Students are encouraged to select a program approved by the American Association of Railroad Superintendents (AARS).

Certificate in Railroad Operations – Varying Durations
Certificate programs teach only subjects in the major. They are focused exclusively on the various aspects of railroad operations. Some programs may concentrate on one particular aspect of the field such as freight operations, locomotive operations, maintenance operations, or railroad conductor training, allowing students to earn a certificate in as little as ten weeks.

Associate Degree in Railroad Operations – Two Year Duration
A railroad operations associate program combines courses in the major with general education classes in subjects such as English, mathematics, physics, and computer science.

Despite the differences described above, railroad operations courses like the following are at the heart of both of these programs:

Introduction to the Railroad Industry – an overview of the railroad industry, covering:

  • Development and evolution of the railroad industry in North America
  • Economic impact of railroads in North America
  • Various career opportunities in railroading
  • Occupations in the industry, their functions, and requirements
  • Major characteristics of the North American rail industry’s operations, processes, and structure
  • First aid, automated external defibrillator (AED), and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training
  • Hazardous materials practices and handling

Railroad Operations and Safety Rules – safe train practices and operations, covering:

  • Railroad operations and safety rules
  • The importance of safety, personal health, and environmental awareness
  • Important techniques for improving safety operations and conditions
  • Various safety measures and tools such as operating rules, signals and their indications, block signals, track warrants, track bulletins, and railroad radio rules

General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) – learning the GCOR; students must pass a GCOR test to advance in the program and must demonstrate proficiency in:

  • Employee responsibilities
  • Protocol for dealing with accidents and the safe movement of trains
  • Railroad radio rules, timetables, train handling
  • Signals and their use
  • Movement of trains and engines
  • Territories including centralized traffic control system (CTC), track warrant control (TWC), automatic train supervision (ATS), automatic cab signaling (ACS), etc.

Yard Switching Operations – an overview of the railroad operations that are unseen because they take place in industrial facilities and railroad yards:

  • Breaking up, spotting / making up trains, and releasing them to their proper destination
  • Rules governing safety in rail operations and what special precautions need to be taken when working with heavy equipment, engines, and freight cars
  • Field application of Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules

Air Brakes and Train Handling Rules – hands-on experience with locomotives and freight cars:

  • Inspecting and testing brake equipment
  • Air brakes and their operations and inspection processes
  • Mechanics, major structural components, problem-solving of brake systems, and the FRA rules and regulations
  • Coupling and uncoupling rail cars and locomotives
  • Conducting daily inspections of freight cars and locomotives according to federal regulations

Railroad Field Operations – on-the-job training in a working railroad environment:

  • General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR), timetables, special instructions, general orders and track bulletins, and track warrants on a railroad system
  • Students will make up trains, switch, and spot rail equipment
  • Students will couple and uncouple rail cars and locomotives, troubleshoot air brake systems and lining track switches, and inspect damaged tracks

Hazardous Materials, Practices, and Handling – regarding ‘substances or materials that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has determined to be capable of posing unreasonable risk to health and safety when transported in commerce’:

  • Federal regulatory agencies
  • DOT’s Hazardous Materials Regulations
  • Recognition and identification of hazardous materials in transportation
  • Using the Emergency Response Guidebook
  • Chemical properties
  • How to use online resources
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Pocket Guide
  • Hazardous Substances Fact Sheets and Material Safety Data Sheets
  • Introduction to toxicology and DOT-required security awareness training

Freight Car and Locomotive Daily Inspection – inspection of locomotives in active service by a qualified inspector, covering:

  • Conducting inspection of freight cars and locomotives according to federal regulations
  • Writing an accurate and detailed inspection report

Preparing for the Job Application and Interview – preparation and practice for gaining entry into the railroad industry:

  • How to write an effective cover letter and resume and complete an employment application
  • Interviewing protocol and techniques
  • Focusing on career goals to advance and move beyond entry-level positions
  • Using the internet to explore career opportunities and research potential employers in the railroad industry

Degrees Similar to Railroad Operations

Aircraft Maintenance Technology
Aircraft mechanics and technicians keep airplanes in safe operating condition. Degree programs in aircraft maintenance technology teach students how to inspect, maintain, and repair aircraft.

The typical curriculum covers both the airframe (structural) and power plant (engine) components of aircraft. Students learn about aircraft metal structures, fuel systems, electronics, hydraulics and propulsion systems, landing gear systems, and maintenance and inspection regulations.

Automotive Mechanics
Automotive mechanics training programs prepare students to work in the servicing and maintenance of cars. Coursework covers preventative maintenance, brake systems, suspension systems, steering systems, wheel alignment, drive lines and axles, and electrical fundamentals.

Machine Shop Technology
Machinists support manufacturing industries by making and modifying metal parts. Degree programs in machine shop technology teach students about the machining industry’s production methods, materials, and processes.

Skills You’ll Learn

Graduates with a railroad operations degree gain this valuable set of transferable skills:

  • Ability to adapt to working with new systems
  • Ability to identify and solve technical and sometimes complex problems
  • Ability to read and understand technical information, follow guidelines, and conduct technical inspections
  • Ability to read gauges, dials, and other instruments
  • Ability to work both independently and as part of a team
  • Ability to work to deadlines
  • Attention to detail
  • Critical and analytical thinking
  • Customer service skills
  • Decision making skills
  • Focus / concentration
  • Hand-eye coordination and manual dexterity
  • Mechanical skills
  • Physical strength
  • Safety awareness
  • Spatial perception
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Visualization skills

What Can You Do with a Railroad Operations Degree?

The very specialized nature of an education in railroad operations means that the vast majority of graduates work directly in the field, that is to say for the more than five hundred companies that make up the US railroad industry and provide the nation’s freight and passenger transportation service on a network of some 300,000 route-miles of track.

Below are descriptions of the most popular railroad operations jobs, some of which may be referred to by more than one title. Some roles may require further education and/or on-the-job training.

  • Yardmaster - is the overseer of the rail yard or train depot; manages all yard personnel to make sure that each train gets organized according to various schedules and cargo manifests
  • Signal Maintainer – services the electrical components of railway systems that are used for signals, including rail switches, lights, and wiring; opportunities exist with passenger and freight rail lines and subway systems
  • Locomotive Electrician / Diesel Locomotive Electrician – services and maintains all electrical equipment onboard trains and on track systems
  • Locomotive Engineer / Railroad Engineer / Train Engineer – is the train driver and is the top ranking official on the train; controls the speed of the train and follows instructions provided by train dispatchers; locomotive engineers are typically promoted from conductor positions
  • Train Dispatcher – directs and coordinates train traffic for a region using computer programs to plan and direct train traffic and communicate with conductors and engineers onboard the trains
  • Rail Car Loader – works for companies that transport goods on rail lines; works in warehouses and distribution centers and manages the loading and securing of goods into rail cars for transport; unloads arriving goods; coordinates with railroad companies regarding delivery of shipments
  • Railroad Mechanic / Diesel Mechanic – maintains the train engine, typically diesel-electric engines
  • Railroad Conductor / Train Conductor – oversees all train operations, cargo, and crew; inspects the train to ensure it functions properly and complies with all regulations; maintains communication with railroad crew members and stations by radio and telephone
  • Track Laborer – works for passenger or freight railroad companies, performs inspections, maintenance, and repairs on rail tracks and some train equipment; this is an entry-level job
  • Brake Operator / Brakeman – operates train brakes, usually airbrakes; may ride on trains or be stationed with the switchmen on the ground at junctions; considered an assistant to the conductor or engineer; on passenger trains, the brake operator may also collect tickets at stations or make announcements
  • Switchman – operates the switches at railway intersections to change the direction of trains; coordinates with train dispatchers and engineers to ensure that trains pass through intersections safely and on the correct track; computers and hydraulic engines control modern switches


Find out what graduates typically earn.

Read about Salary