As a commuter from Long Island to New York City, I spend about 15 hours a week on the train. Most of the time there isn’t a problem, and the travel from LI to NYC is quite efficient.
But there’s something about paying nearly $350 every month just to ride the train that wasn't sitting right with me because I was starting to feel, like some Long Islanders do, that train conductors are overpaid.
My curiosity grew after I forgot to renew my monthly ticket and paid an extra $18 to get to Penn Station on October 1. I was determined to figure out what the responsibilities of an LIRR conductor were because there had to be more to their job than punching tickets.
From what I've been told, LIRR conductors make upwards of $70,000 to $100,000 a year after five years on the job, with most of them making an average of $90,000 if they take advantage of overtime and working on holidays.
After asking several conductors what they did one response I got was, “You don’t even know what I do. If you knew what I do, you would apologize to me.”
After not getting a clear answer I even blatantly asked what he did other than punch tickets, but instead of giving me an answer he rolled his eyes and walked away.
Naturally that didn't satiate my curiosity.
Finally, one LIRR conductor who didn’t want to be named, gave me a general overview of what they do.
There are four main jobs on each train. There’s the engineer who operates or “drives” the train. They make the most money.
Next there are conductors, brakemen and collectors, who are all considered conductors.
But the actual conductors are considered to have a higher status on the train and are like the managers. If something goes wrong, they are responsible. The conductor is the person who opens and closes the doors and whose voice is heard announcing the stops.
Collectors are the employees who punch your tickets. They can open and close the doors if they need to, in addition to helping disabled passengers and taking over for the conductor or brakeman if something goes wrong.
In addition to taking tickets, the brakemen run brake tests and are responsible for making sure the train stops when it is supposed to do. They also “throw switches,” which means they have to hit certain switches to make sure the train gets on the right track when it’s going into the yard.
But above all conductors ensure the safety of the passengers aboard the train.
In a recent job posting for an Assistant LIRR Conductor the responsibilities were listed:
"Provide passengers with information, answers questions concerning train rules, regulations, and schedules, and provides destination information.
"Must walk through moving passenger trains in performance of duties, climb on and off equipment using fixed ladders or stairs, assist passengers on, off and through trains routinely or under emergency conditions.
"Routinely operate yard and main track switches, derails, operates levers and valves to separate cars, couples and uncouples air brake hoses, inspects trains, performs minor repairs to equipment, applies or releases hand brakes, aligns coupling assemblies, opens and closes doors and stair covers (traps) on passenger equipment.
"Assist in the movement of cars to assemble trains or place for repair or service.
An anonymous LIRR conductor explained in an email:
"We couple and uncouple cars. Throw switches to line yards. Troubleshoot and fix equipment. Provide protection for workmen on tracks. Assist disabled passengers. Do brake tests and of course, as you know, collect fares."
He continued, "I mean I understand why people think that all we do is punch tickets, that's really the only part the public sees. But we work in all weather conditions, all holidays and all hours."
He then informed me that one thing about the LIRR he really doesn't like is not knowing when he will be working, sometimes not even three hours before he's supposed to be on a train.
"Trust me, I love this job and there are a lot of perks and everything, but there are also a lot of [bad] things as well," he said. "That's the way it works sometimes."
I was also told by a different LIRR employee, who didn’t want to be named either, that conductors have to deal with people who are rude and sometimes drunk and rowdy -- and therefore deserve to make so much money.