A railroad inspector is an individual responsible for examining the tracks and trains of the railway system to ensure that they are in compliance with all applicable safety regulations. In the United States, railroad inspectors are generally employed by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a division of the Department of the Transportation. Although there is no specific certification process, the federal government expects certain competencies and availabilities to become a railroad inspector, which include knowledge of the railroad operations, communication skills, analytical insight, and availability for extensive travel.
The primary competency required to become a railroad inspector is having experience and understanding concerning railroad operations and/or railroad construction. Prior railroad industry experience is essential, and although there is not a specific written test, applicants are rigorously evaluated on their experience and training in their application and answers to a supplemental qualifications exam. The FRA does not require a specific college degree for inspectors, but a background in engineering is helpful for the inspector’s job and for acquiring positions that build the necessary experience. Especially useful is any position that deals with one or more of the five inspector occupational disciplines: track, signals and train control, operations, motive equipment, and hazardous materials.
Communication skills are also crucial for anyone wanting to become a railroad inspector. Although railroad inspectors, particularly those specializing in track or signals inspections, do a certain amount of direct inspection of the physical components of the rail industry, they also need to interview people in and near the industry to gather information for their investigations. The operations specialty, in particular, is focused on the human component of train operation, making sure that the crews who load and operate the trains follow safe industry practices. Additionally, inspectors required to write up and/or present their findings and recommendations after completing an investigation.
Railroad inspectors maintain ongoing oversight of safety conditions for the railways, but they also conduct investigations to determine explanations for railway accidents and mishaps. For this reason, anyone wanting to become a railroad inspector must demonstrate analytic skills to conduct an investigation and determine which factors lead to a failure in rail operations, what parties bear responsibility, and how future risk can be minimized. Specific examples include determining if a train’s driver was following proper procedures or investigating if signaling equipment was operating correctly.
Any prospective railroad inspector must also be available to travel extensively for the work. In addition to a willingness to travel, a valid driver’s license and a sufficient credit rating to be entrusted with a government expense card are also requirements. The FRA specifically notes that railroad inspectors who are unable to obtain or retain their travel cards will be subject to removal from Federal service.
Because the railroad inspector position is a Federal job, those who want to become a railroad inspector must also meet requirements for Federal employment. Drug tests are required as part of the application process, and inspectors are potentially subject to random drug testing over the course of their careers. To avoid conflicts of interest, since railroad inspectors must have prior experience with the companies they will be inspecting and investigating, railroad inspectors must also divest themselves of any and all reemployment rights, leaves of absence, and seniority rights they may hold from rail companies. Failure to do so will make the railroad inspector subject to removal from Federal service.
Although countries other than the United States may have different specifics, the core competencies of railway experience, investigation skills, and written and oral communication will be necessary for applicants to become a railroad inspector anywhere. Although the job of railroad inspector can be very demanding, it is also a career path that offers rewards in its opportunity to make a difference, keep people safe, and provide closure and explanation after tragedies.