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Workin' on the Railroad: Salaries of Brake, Signal and Switch Operators

Updated on May 11, 2020
alocsin profile image

The author enjoys researching the job market to report on the latest salaries, opportunities, and employment trends.


If you have dreams of working on the railroad, you’ll most likely start as a brake, signal or switch operator, which are considered entry-level positions. Brake operators, who are becoming increasingly rare, help with coupling and uncoupling cars, while operating some switches. Signal operators install, repair and maintain signals along the rail lines and in yards. And switch operators control switches within rail yards.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the 11,080 brake, signal and switch operators in the country average $62,380 per year, or $29.99 per hour.

  • The lowest-paid 10 percent make under $37,150 yearly, or $17.86 hourly.
  • The highest-paid 10 percent earn over $94,670 annually, or $45.50 per hour.


The industries with the most employment for brake, signal and switch operators are the following:

  1. Rail transportation employs 8,840 with mean wages at $64,490 per year, or $31.01 per hour.
  2. Support activities for rail transportation has 1,200 jobs averaging $43,510 yearly, or $20.92 hourly.
  3. Local government has 520 jobs, averaging $75,200 yearly, or $36.15 hourly..

The industry with the highest pay is state government, which pays an average $76,790 a year, or $36.92 an hour. Local government is next followed by rail transportation.


The states with the highest employment levels for brake, signal and switch operators are the following:

  1. Illinois has 1,040 operators earning a mean $66,620 per year, or $32.03 per hour.
  2. New York pays 650 employees an average $72,910 yearly, or $35.05 hourly.
  3. Pennsylvania contains 460 workers making a mean $59,100 a year or $28.41 an hour.

The states with the best-paying employers are the following:

  1. California at a mean $77,170 yearly, or $37.10 hourly.
  2. The previously mentioned New York.
  3. Massachusetts with an average $71,150 per year, or $34.21 per hour.


The cities with the most employment for railroad brake, signal and switch operators are the following:

  1. Chicago, Illinois, has 370 workers averaging $66,380 a year, or $31.91 an hour.
  2. Seattle, Washington, pays 230 a mean $72,740 yearly, or $34.97 hourly.
  3. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contains 200 positions that make an average of $56,690 per year, or $27.26 per hour.

The highest salaries are in Seattle and Chicago. Washington, DC, is third with a mean $65,020 a year, or $31.26 an hour.


Unfortunately, the job market for this profession does not look good. The BLS expects the number of positions to go down by 1 percent from 2018 to 2028. Jobs for all railroad workers will drop by 2 percent. This contrasts with the 5 percent increase predicted for all occupations.

The drop is due to the decreasing demand for moving bulk commodities like oil and coal. The use of pipelines in oil- and natural-gas-producing locations also lowers demand. Some increases are expected due to the growing use of intermodal freight, which refers to using multiple transportation strategies to ship goods.

© 2011 Aurelio Locsin


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