Knowing Your Territory

Students hit training track in Railroad Conductor Technology program

Ask any conductor or locomotive engineer and they will tell you the most important part of their job is knowing their territory. And that’s what the DCTC Railroad Conductor Technology program is about: studying your route in advance and knowing exactly where you’re going.

“The only way to become a locomotive engineer at a modern U.S. railway—and there are more than 500 across the country—is to follow the conductor path,” said RRCT Instructor Don Spano, who has more than two decades of professional experience working as a conductor, yardmaster and safety director at four Minnesota-based railways. “In fact, many railroads, particularly shortlines, require their conductors to become engineers after only a few years on the job. Our program not only teaches the skills you need as a conductor, it also shows you what you need to know to get hired in the first place. Bottom line: When it comes to landing a job, you will know what the guy off the street doesn’t know. In a tough economy, the right training can make all the difference.”

One of a kind

Instructor Don Spano (right) with RRCT student

The DCTC Railroad Conductor Technology program—the only one of its kind in Minnesota and one of only a handful in the U.S.—takes just 15 weeks to complete, seven weeks of classroom and outdoor lab work and an eight-week conductor internship with a railroad. The curriculum reflects the skill range operations managers at major railways and shortlines are looking for in new conductors. Training focuses on general code of operation rules, mechanical operations, conductor duties, utilization of railroad equipment and safety standards. Virtually all jobs at railroad companies are full-time.

Learn by doing

On a balmy morning in early June, students in the RRCT program head outside to gain critical hands-on experience working with actual railcars on the college’s outdoor track—the only on-campus railroad training facility in the nation. Don Spano and fellow instructor, Bob Hawworth, work with each student individually, making sure everyone understands what it means to be a conductor on a modern railway.

“During the first weeks of the program, our students are busy learning how to work safely in an unfamiliar environment,” Spano said. “By the time they graduate with their 16-credit certificate, they are comfortable with the terminology, the railcars, working with an engineer and their responsibilities as a conductor. They are ready to make their way in the rail industry.”

All the livelong day…working on the railroad at DCTC

James Clark—one student’s story

James Clark | Railroad Conductor Technology student

James Clark, 22, of Cleveland, Ohio, has always been interested in trains. Members of his family have worked in the industry, including his father, who was with the signals department at Norfolk Southern Railway. A graduate of Cornerstone Christian Academy near Los Angeles, Calif., Clark went on to earn an A.A. degree from Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. He already works two jobs in the rail industry, one as a volunteer train dispatcher with the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in Ohio, and one as a conductor with the Flats Industrial Railroad, a Class III railroad located in Cleveland.

“I like the logistics involved in railroad work,” said Clark, whose long-range goals point to a career as a train dispatcher or engineer with a Class I railroad in the western United States. “I like facing new and different challenges on the job. As a conductor, you approach each day ready for anything.”

Even though Clark already has experience as a conductor, he looks on the DCTC program as great way to consolidate his skill base and earn an actual certificate. “The faculty at DCTC are very knowledgeable,” he said. “Having a training track right on campus is a big advantage.”

“When you work as a conductor and engineer, you get to be your own boss. Everything that needs doing in the yard and on board your train is put into your hands. The instructors at DCTC not only prepare you for your duties on the job, but they also tell you exactly what life will be like working for a railroad.”
—Matthew Fahrman | RRCT 2005 graduate and member of program’s first class | Locomotive engineer, conductor and relief operations manager at Minnesota Commercial Railway

Invest in your future

Railway companies are serious about how they run their operations. By making an investment in time, effort and money in the RRCT program, you will be showing prospective employers that you are as serious as they are. In fact, Canadian Pacific, one of the largest freight railways in North America, makes DCTC RRCT graduates the company’s first choice for new hires. On an even brighter note, financial aid is available for the program.

Who’s who in the industry

DCTC partners with the top rail companies in the region, including:

Job Facts from Great Expectations 2011

Published by the Association of American Railroads

  • Railroad employment in 2010 was up 5.2 percent, bringing total employment at the nation’s freight railroads to more than 175,000
  • Railroads are hiring as traffic levels return and many of some 67,000 employees, roughly 30 percent of the total rail workforce, become eligible for retirement over the next five years
  • Railroad employees are highly compensated—according to U.S. government data, the average full-time rail worker in 2009 earned wages of $81,563 and benefits of $25,522 for a total average compensation of $107,085
    • That compares with the average U.S. employee who in 2009 saw average total compensation of $64,552, or roughly 60 percent of the average total annual compensation for a rail employee

For more information about the Railroad Conductor Technology program at DCTC, contact: