Freight railroads in the U.S. primarily operate with two people in a locomotive cab — the engineer, who operates the train, and the conductor, who historically has acted as an observer and recorder while onboard the train and performed ground service work when the train is stopped. This is in sharp contrast to many rail systems in Europe and passenger trains in the U.S., which have operated safely for decades with one person in the cab.

Through collective bargaining — a longstanding process used by railroads and rail labor to negotiate wages, benefits and work rules — U.S. railroads aim to modernize existing staffing models by redeploying the conductor from the cab of the locomotive to a ground-based position. Importantly, this will allow railroads to enhance the quality of life for conductors while maintaining levels of safety and service.

Quality of life is a particularly resonating issue for railroad employees like conductors.

Even though unionized Class I freight rail employees’ total compensation, including benefits, currently ranks within the top 10% of U.S. workers, certain railroad jobs come with an unpredictable work life due to work schedules tied to train movements and considerable time away from home. This is especially true for conductors who spend, on average, 89 days away from home each year.

Freight railroad management is reimagining the conductor’s role. Instead of being stationed within the locomotive cab, conductors can be staged at various locations within a region where they are most needed. Conductors will be able to respond quickly to unforeseen events.

The shift to a ground-based position would enable a more predictable, consistent and higher quality-of-life role, like many other railroad employees.

Much of the ground service work envisioned for conductors will become shift based, which will mean more nights at home with family and friends.

Ground-based conductors can be stationed in trucks, allowing them to quickly travel to trains or different railcars to identify and inspect problems that may arise as well as better manage planned events, such as scheduled pickups and setouts of railcars at customer facilities. Not only does this new staffing model make better use of the conductor’s time, but it also prevents them from having to walk the length of a train from the locomotive — sometimes at night or in poor weather conditions — to the location where service is required.

The push to reimagine the role of the conductor is especially timely, coming as the industry is working hard to attract more people into its ranks. Transforming the conductor role and infusing it with better work-life balance will provide yet another reason to make a career in freight railroads.