MinnEcon@Work: A life on the railroad

The railroad conductor training program at Dakota County Technical College sometimes draws students with romantic notions of life on the rails. It doesn’t last long.

Instructors make it clear from the start: Good job. Good money. But it can be a hard life.

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MPR’s Anna Weggel and I spent a morning recently filming and interviewing students. Many were laid off from other industries and, in their 30s and 40s, were trying to regroup.

Their stories capture a lot of the the hard times and hopes of many in this recession.

Conductors work the rail yards. Duties include moving and coupling rail cars. It’s a demanding job with lots of irregular hours and pressures that can be hard on families.

New conductors can start with annual salaries in the low- to mid-50s. In return, railroad life demands a lot.

“You’re going to be on call. That means you go to work when the telephone rings. You come to work and stay as long as they want you to stay,” said instructor Don Spano, who worked more than 20 years in railroads. “The railroad really dictates your sleeping patterns, your social patterns, your eating patterns. Everything.”

Demand for railroad workers has been rising in this decade after decades of decline. For the past five years, Dakota County Tech has been training people to be railroad conductors, one of only a few public school railroad programs in the country.

The certificate program costs $4,500, including books, equipment and supplies. Next fall, it rises to $4,800.

Enrollment took a hit in the recession along with railroad business generally. Data from the Association of American Railroads shows the drop in freight traffic in the recession. (Click on the chart.)

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Still, the prospects for reliable income and stable work draw dislocated workers from Minnesota and around the country.

Tracey Richardson, 36, from Louisville, Ky., worked in the auto industry before a layoff. “I had to do something,” he said. “I’d been unemployed for 8 months.” He didn’t know anyone in Minnesota when he signed up.

Ken Wood, 50, from Inver Grove Heights said he was a laid off machinist looking for a new career. Trying to find a job at 50 is hard, he said, adding wryly, “I could be a greeter at Wal-Mart.”

Murray Bogan, 48, was a master barber, cutting hair at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. But the workload slowed and his contract wasn’t renewed.

“I’m trying to get something more stable,” he said as he waited his turn to practice coupling the big rail cars. “The thing to remember is to be safe. Don’t let the cars hit you or anybody else.”

Danielle Gantt, 30, of Rosemount, had been trying to get into a nursing program. She looked into the railroad conductor program for a friend of her cousin and decided to give it a try on her own. She’s one of the few women to go through the program.

“The money’s as good as nursing, probably better right off the bat,” said Gantt, who has three kids from five to 13 years old.

There are no job promises at the end of the course. But instructor Spano says the railroad business may be at the end of the recession-induced decline. If that’s the case, things should improve.

Said Spano: “More traffic, more trains. More trains, more job options.”

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MinnEcon@Work is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans with cool jobs and interesting vantage points on the economy.

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  • John O.

    One aspect of this that is overlooked is that railroad workers are amongst the oldest in terms of age. Many are approaching retirement age, or are already there and keep on working for different reasons.