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Railroad Conductors


The term conductor is likely to conjure up an image of the man who calls "All aboard!" before a train leaves the station. In the early days of the railroad, this association was accurate. Today, however, railroad conductors are more than a passenger liaison. With today's smaller crews, conductors and engineers often make up the entire crew aboard a train.

On many early passenger trains, the railroad conductor's most important task was to see to the comfort and safety of the passengers. For the first conductors, this was no simple task. The earliest trains had seats bolted to platforms that looked much like today's flat cars. There were no roofs over those cars, and passengers were consequently exposed to the elements, such as rain and wind, and to flying sparks from the tinderboxes of locomotives. More often than not, the conductor had to extinguish fires started by flying sparks on the train and in passengers' clothing.

By the 1870s, as trains crossed the unsettled western areas of the United States, the conductor's job became even more difficult and dangerous. Outlaws frequently attacked trains or tore up tracks and damaged bridges. Once rail came to be a popular method of both passenger and freight transportation in the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s, railroad companies had the means to improve the quality of their locomotives and trains.

As locomotives and trains became more complex machines, conductors became well versed in all areas of train operation. They were required to know a lot about all aspects of a train, from the engines, cars, and cargo to the track and signal systems. Today's conductors are responsible for the proper functioning of the entire train.