Signal mechanics or signal maintainers are railroad employees who install, repair, and maintain the signals, signal equipment, and gate crossings that are part of the traffic control and communications systems along railroad tracks. They keep both electrical and mechanical components of signaling devices in good operating order by routinely inspecting and testing lights, circuits and wiring, crossing gates, and detection devices. There are approximately 8,200 signal mechanics employed in the United States.
Signal Mechanic Career History
Railroad signals were developed to let train crews know about conditions on the track ahead of them. Signaling systems became necessary in the 19th century when early steam-driven trains began to move so quickly that they ran the risk of colliding with one another. Smooth rails and wheels allowed trains to carry heavy loads easily and efficiently, but as speeds and load weights increased, trains needed longer stopping distances. Train crews had to be sure that they were not headed toward another train coming in the opposite direction on the same track, and they had to maintain a safe distance between trains moving in the same direction.
The first attempt to avoid accidents was the adoption of a timetable system. This system was based on running trains on timed schedules, so that there was always a space between them. However, if a train broke down, the next train’s crew had to be informed somehow so that it could react appropriately. In 1837, on a rail line in England, a telegraph system was introduced in which signals were sent on telegraph wires between stations up and down the tracks. The track was divided into blocks, or sections, with a signalman responsible for each block. As trains passed through the blocks, one signalman telegraphed messages to the next block, allowing the next signalman to decide whether it was safe for the train to proceed through that block.
In 1841, a system was devised for communicating with train operators using a mechanical version of semaphore arm signals. At night, when the signal flags could not be seen, a light source was used, with different colored lenses that were rotated in front of it. In time, various codes and rules were developed so that train crews could be kept informed about track conditions ahead as they moved from block to block.
As rail traffic increased, many refinements in signaling systems reduced the chances of human error and helped make train traffic run more smoothly. In 1872, an automatic block system was introduced in which the track itself was part of an electrical circuit, and various signals were activated when the train passed over the track. A modern version of this invention is the moving block system, in which a kind of zone is electronically maintained around a train, and the speed of nearby trains is regulated automatically. Today, traffic control in rail systems is largely centralized and computerized. Many trains and cars can be monitored at one time, and signals and switches can be operated remotely to manage the system with maximum safety and efficiency.
In order for these sophisticated controls to be effective, railroad signals and signaling equipment must function properly. Signal mechanics are responsible for ensuring that this vital equipment is working as intended.
The Job of Signal Mechanics
Signal mechanics install, maintain, and repair signal equipment. Today’s signal equipment includes computerized and electronic equipment detection devices and electronic grade crossing protection. To install signals, workers travel with road crews to designated areas. They place electrical wires, create circuits, and construct railway-highway crossing signals, such as flashers and gates. When signal mechanics install new signals or signal equipment, they or other crew members may have to dig holes and pour concrete foundations for the new equipment, or they may install precast concrete foundations. Because railroad signal systems are sometimes installed in the same areas as underground fiber-optic cables, signal mechanics must be familiar with marking systems and take great care in digging.
Signal mechanics who perform routine maintenance are generally responsible for a specified length of track. They are often part of a team of several signal mechanics, called a signal construction gang. They drive a truck along the track route, stopping to inspect and test crossings, signal lights, interlock equipment, and detection devices. When servicing battery-operated equipment, they check batteries, refilling them with water or replacing them with fresh ones if necessary. They use standard electrical testing devices to check signal circuits and wiring connections, and they replace any defective wiring, burned-out light bulbs, or broken colored lenses on light signals. They clean the lenses with a cloth and cleaning solution and lubricate moving parts on swinging signal arms and crossing gates. They tighten loose bolts, and open and close crossing gates to verify that the circuits and connections in the gates are working.
Signal mechanics are often required to travel long distances as repairs are needed. Many are assigned to a large region by their employer, such as the entire Midwest, or may even be on call to work anywhere in the nation. Generally, employees are responsible for providing their own transportation from their home to the work location. The railroad company pays the cost of hotel rooms and provides a meal allowance. When signal mechanics are required to travel, their workweek may begin on Sunday, when they travel to the work site so they can start early Monday. The workweek may then include four 10-hour days, or longer, depending on the urgency of the job.
Sometimes signal mechanics are dispatched to perform repairs at specific locations along the track in response to reports from other rail workers about damaged or malfunctioning equipment. In these cases, the worker analyzes the problem, repairs it, and checks to make sure that the equipment is functioning properly.
Signal mechanics also compile written reports that detail their inspection and repair activities, noting the mileage of the track that they have traveled and the locations where they have done work.
Signal Mechanic Career Requirements
Proven mechanical aptitude is very desirable, and a firm knowledge of electricity is a must. Because of the change in signaling technology in the railroad industry, railroads are requiring new job applicants to pass written tests that include AC/DC electronics. Therefore, you should take high school courses in electrical shop and electronics to give you a good background for this work. Take computer classes to familiarize yourself with this technology. Mathematics classes will also give you the skills you need to complete calculations and detailed work. Take English classes to hone your research, writing, and speaking skills. You will need these skills for completing reports.
Signal mechanics must have at least a high school diploma, although some railroads have gone so far as to require applicants to have college degrees in electronics or electrical engineering. Other railroads will consider applicants who have military experience in electronics, or who possess a two-year degree in electronics from a technical school.
Workers are usually trained both on the job and in the classroom. Some of the biggest railroads have their own schools; the smaller ones often contract to send their employees to those schools. For example, Norfolk Southern sends its signal trainees to its training center in McDonough, Georgia, during which they are paid a training wage and lodging and meals are paid for during the one-week training course.
Subjects studied in the classroom include electrical and electronics theory; mathematics; signal apparatus, protection devices, and circuits; federal railroad administration policies; and procedures related to signaling.
On the job, beginners often start out in helper positions, doing simple tasks requiring little special skill. Helpers work under the supervision of experienced signal mechanics. Later, they may become assistants and signal maintainers, based on their seniority and how much they have learned.
Signal mechanics need to be able to climb, stoop, kneel, crouch, and reach, and they should also be agile, with a good sense of balance. They work outdoors in any kind of weather and may have to be active throughout the day, perhaps climbing poles or hand digging with shovels and picks. Good vision, normal hearing, and depth perception are important. Anyone who works with electrical wiring should have good color vision to distinguish color-coded wires. Alertness and quick reflexes are needed for working in potentially dangerous circumstances on ladders, near high-voltage lines, and on moving equipment. Some companies require drug testing of their employees.
Most signal mechanics who work for the larger railroads are required to belong to a union—usually the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Those who work for the smaller railroads are typically nonunionized.
Exploring Signal Mechanic Career
A field trip to a rail yard can give you a firsthand idea of the work involved in this occupation. For a personalized view of the work, consider arranging an informational interview with a railroad employee who is involved in maintaining communications or control equipment. You or your guidance counselor may be able to find such a professional through local railroad company offices or local branches of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Go to the interview prepared to ask questions about the job. You will find that most people are pleased to talk about their work with those who show a sincere interest.
Signal mechanics may be employed by passenger lines or freight lines. They may work for one of the major railroads, such as Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, or CSX, or they may work for one of the 500 smaller short-line railroads across the country. Many of the passenger lines today are commuter lines located near large metropolitan areas. Signal mechanics who work for freight lines may work in rural or urban areas and travel more extensively than the shorter, daily commuter routes passenger railroad conductors make.
Prospective signal mechanics can contact the personnel offices of railroad companies for information about job opportunities. Another possibility is to check with the local, state, or national office of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. Because signal mechanic positions are often union positions, they follow structured hiring procedures, such as specific times of the year when applications are accepted. Norfolk Southern holds recruiting sessions, for instance. Applications are not sent out for union positions; rather, recruiting sessions are advertised in local newspapers, state job services, and schools. At these sessions, supervisors detail the open positions, answer questions, and oversee the application process. Some applicants may be selected for evaluations, which will be used to help determine who is hired.
Workers generally advance from helper positions to become assistant signal mechanics, and from there to positions as signal maintainers. Other advanced positions include signal shop foremen and signal inspectors. These promotions, which are related to workers’ seniority, sometimes take a number of years to achieve. Experienced signal mechanics can advance to such supervisory positions as gang foremen, directing and coordinating the activities of other signal mechanics. At one railroad, Norfolk Southern, signal mechanics are designated as assistant signal persons after qualifying as trainees. After completing two phases of training and based on seniority, assistant signal persons can bid for promotion to a signal maintainer position with territorial maintenance responsibilities.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, signal mechanics had median hourly earnings of $20.85 (amounting to an annual salary of $47,080) in 2004. Salaries ranged from less than $15.83 ($32,930 a year) to more than $26.96 per hour ($56,080 a year). Workers receive extra pay for overtime work. In addition to regular earnings, they receive fringe benefits such as employer contributions to health insurance and retirement plans, paid vacation days, and travel passes.
Signal department workers do their work outdoors in a variety of weather conditions, sometimes at night. Some workers are regularly scheduled to be on call for emergency repairs.
In some cases, signal mechanics must lift, carry, and push or pull somewhat heavy objects. They may also be required to stoop, squat, climb, and crawl into small spaces. Mechanics must use caution on the job to avoid hazards such as falling from ladders or signal towers, being hit by falling objects, and electric shock.
There is variety in the kinds of signals a mechanic works on, and variety in the location of the work, so the job is rarely boring. In addition, workers in this field can take pride in the importance of their responsibilities, since railroad travel is heavily dependent upon the proper functioning of signals.
Signal Mechanic Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment for most railroad transportation occupations to decline through 2014. Signal mechanics jobs should grow more slowly than the average occupation. Few new job openings are expected and competition for existing positions is expected to be quite strong. Reasons for this competition include the good pay and high job security and satisfaction. Because of the increasingly complex circuitry involved in the signaling systems, signal maintainers with the strongest technical training will be in the greatest demand in the coming years. Most job openings will occur when experienced workers transfer to other fields or leave the workforce altogether.