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Train conductors are trained by railways and need to be fit enough for the all-weather work.

Job: Train conductor

The role: Train conductors are responsible for the safe co-ordination and operation of locomotives. They keep track of schedules and shipping records, as well as assist in the coupling and uncoupling of train cars. There are four different types of train conductors, and their day-to-day responsibilities vary.

Road switcher conductors are responsible for picking up train cars from clients in the surrounding areas and delivering them to their home terminal so that they can be hauled to their final destination.

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"These employees will also have an interface with customers," said Mark Hallman, the director of communications and public affairs for Canadian National Railway Co. "The customer will indicate what type of cars they want slotted or picked up in a particular location, so there's very much a customer relationship aspect to the road switching."

Yard conductors spend their day in the train yard taking the freight provided by road switchers and attaching them to the appropriate outbound train.

Road conductors carry out inspections and see loads to their final destinations. They typically take some time to rest at their final destination before returning on another train to their home terminal, occasionally stopping to pick up more cars en route.

Traffic co-ordinators oversee operations from the terminal office. They track the movement of freight in and out of the yard, and ensure that the railway company is meeting its commitments to its customers.

Education: There are no formal educational requirements for train conductors. However, each is put through a rigorous training program provided by their employer. CN, for example, provides a seven-week training program in its new training facility in Winnipeg.

According to David Radford, CN's director of operations training and development, training programs offered by CN and other railway companies are regulated by Transport Canada. Students are required to pass a Canadian railway operating rules exam as well as a comprehensive railway signals exam in order to become qualified under federal railway operating standards. Train conductors are also subject to recertification every three years.

Upon completion of the training program, students then spend four to six months in field training before becoming a qualified conductor.

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"They also have to pass a medical exam prior to being hired at the railway," said Mr. Radford, adding that students need to meet CN's medical requirement for fitness.

Salary: Compensation for train conductors is typically determined under union contract, and includes perks like medical benefits, family assistance programs, pensions and disability insurance coverage.

Freight railway conductors employed by large companies such as CN and Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. earn a starting salary between $75,000 and $78,000 a year. Over the course of their career, that salary can grow to $84,000 to $92,000 a year, and there are a number of opportunities to increase that salary in related fields.

For example, experienced conductors can apply for a traffic co-ordinator position, which pays about $98,000 annually.

"After two years, they have an opportunity to move up to a locomotive engineer position," said Mr. Radford, adding that the job requires a deeper understanding of mechanical operations such as train speed. "That position is responsible for the safe handling of a train over a territory or route, and the average salary for that position is over $110,000 per year."

Job prospects: An aging work force has resulted in a major need for train conductors across Canada. According to Mr. Radford, CN has hired 14,000 employees in the past five years, 4,000 of whom were train conductors. "We're continuously hiring all across the country," he said.

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Challenges: Among the greatest challenges for train conductors are the sporadic working hours and a working environment that can be difficult in Canada's unforgiving winters.

"It's an outside environment working in all kinds of weather, days and nights," Mr. Radford said. "The railway lines operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it can be a challenging environment."

Furthermore, while safety is a top priority for railway companies like CN, the job certainly provides a risk factor that doesn't exist for those working behind a desk.

"You're dealing with moving very large, heavy pieces of equipment, and because of that, safety has to be at the forefront of everybody's mind," said Mr. Radford, adding that each assignment starts with a safety briefing.

Why they do it: Train conductors enjoy working independently, outdoors and in a non-traditional working environment. The job also provides a number of opportunities to advance beyond entry-level positions, and provides a competitive, stable salary as well as union benefits from day one.

Misconceptions: As one of the oldest forms of mass transportation still in operation today, people often think of the railway industry as very old-fashioned.

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"It is one of the most high-tech industries in the country right now," said the spokesman Mr. Hallman. "We make extensive use of technology in terms of our operations."

Give us the scoop: Are you a train conductor? Write a note in the comments area of this story or e-mail your comment to careerquestion@globeandmail.com and let us know what you would tell others who are interested in the profession.

Want to read more stories from our Salaries Series? Find more here.

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