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

Updated on June 16, 2013

© 2013 by Aurelio Locsin

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 24,380 brake, signal and switch operators in the country average $50,260 per year, or $24.16 per hour, as of May 2012.

  • The lowest paid 10 percent make $$29,360 yearly, or $14.12 hourly.
  • The highest paid 10 percent earn 467,920 annually, or $32.65 per hour.
  • This compares to the $43,450 per year, or $20.89 per hour, made by rail yard engineers, dinkey operators and hostlers; the annual $56,770, or $27.30 earned by railroad conductors and yardmasters; the $54,830 per year, or $26.36 received by locomotive engineers; and the $48,550 yearly, or $23.34 hourly, earned by locomotive firers.
  • Average wages for all 130.2 million workers in the country is $45,790 annually, or $22.01 per hour.


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

  1. Rail transportation has over 93 percent of the positions with mean wages at $51,170 per year, or $24.60 per hour.
  2. Support activities for rail transportation have almost 4 percent of the jobs at a mean annual $33,280, or $16 hourly.
  3. Local government has only 140 positions, averaging $78,380 yearly, or $37.68 hourly..

The industry with the highest pay is local government, followed by rail transportation and the federal government at a mean $49,020 per year, or $23.57 per hour.


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

  1. Texas has 3,260 operators earning a mean $38.870 per year, or $18.69 per hour.
  2. Illinois has 1,740 with unspecified wages.
  3. California contained 1,680 workers making a mean $60,060 yearly, or $28.87 hourly.

The states with the best paying employers are the following:

  1. New York at a mean $66,970 per year, or $32.20 per hour.
  2. California, which was mentioned previously.
  3. Mississippi at a mean $59,750 annually, or $28.72 hourly.


The Department of Labor ranks only the following six cities for the mean earnings of brake, signal and switch operators.

  1. New York City, New York: $77,360 yearly, $37.19 hourly.
  2. Portland, Oregon: $49,720 yearly, $23.90 hourly.
  3. Memphis, Tennessee: $39,360 yearly, or $18.92 hourly.
  4. Louisville, Kentucky: $36,370 yearly, or $17.49 hourly.
  5. Houston, Texas: $35,220 yearly, or $16.93 hourly.
  6. Gary, Indiana: $33,800 yearly, or $16.25 hourly.


The BLS sees jobs for railroad brake, signal and switch operators declining by 4 percent from 2010 to 2020, compared to a 1 percent increase for all train engineers and operators, 3 percent growth for all rail transportation workers and 14 percent addition to all occupations in all industries. Demand for rail transportation, particularly in freight, is expect to go up because of population growth, the economic recovery and global trade increases. However, the lack of new track, which is expensive to build, will depress employment. Remote-control technology, which allows movement of equipment from control stations, is replacing many operators.


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    • MarleneB profile image

      Marlene Bertrand 

      5 years ago from USA

      Wow! The federal government has only 60 positions? I'll bet that's because once a person obtains a job like that they keep it until they retire. It was interesting to see that a state like California has fewer jobs than a state that is smaller. This is an interesting hub. Thank you for the information. I'm excited to go read your hub about conductors and yardmasters, too.

    • Brett.Tesol profile image

      Brett Caulton 

      6 years ago from Asia

      Good article. Seems the railway is always well paid. A friend of mine started a few years back and he is already loaded! lol ... if you are keen, it seems pretty easy to move up. But, if you like the job, they are happy to let you do what you like doing!

      Voted up and interesting.


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