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What does a Train Dispatcher do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A train dispatcher is a railroading professional who is responsible for coordinating the smooth use of railroad tracks within the area which the dispatcher supervises. Acting much like an air traffic controller, a train dispatcher is responsible for deciding when trains get to use which tracks, and for allocating tracks so that they are used as efficiently as possible. Most train dispatchers are employed by railroads, and they must go through extensive training before they are allowed to work as dispatchers.

In the early days of railroading, coordinating usage of the tracks was not critical, although most trains tried to keep to a timetable for the benefit of their customers. Over time, however, as utilization of train tracks increased, it became necessary to have dispatchers to control use of the tracks with the goal of preventing accidents, ensuring that trains do not end up on tracks which are not rated to carry them, and helping trains keep to their published time tables.

Also known as a rail traffic controller, a train dispatcher works long shifts in an office which has extensive monitoring equipment which can be used to monitor all activity on area railroad tracks. Train dispatchers use computerized systems to monitor and control trains, along with radios so that they can communicate directly with train crews. They must also be concerned with conditions which could impact their trains and tracks, such as poor weather which forces a train to slow down, accidents, delays on other lines which translate to backups on the dispatcher's lines, and heavily laden freight trains which are forced to travel more slowly.

Like air traffic controllers, train dispatchers are largely invisible to the public unless they make a mistake. They are capable of coordinating the safe and effective use of huge areas of track, often keeping track of multiple trains and ongoing issues at once. A skilled train dispatcher must be able to multitask, in addition to having an in depth knowledge of the tracks in his or her area, along with a knowledge of the railroad industry.

Railroads tend to train their own dispatchers, using on the job training and mentors to familiarize people with the system and the protocols the railroad has in place. Train dispatchers need to learn to use radios and computer systems, and they must also be familiar with the signaling and communications methods used on railroad tracks. It helps to be passionate about trains to work as a train dispatcher.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PracticalAdultInsights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon940011 — On Mar 17, 2014

Really? The train dispatcher has to concern themselves not only with the safety of the passengers on board, but also with the general public, and fellow employees, fire dept. and police personnel and EMS on or about the tracks.

Just a fraction of these responsibilities involve trespassers, car on the tracks, track defects, people trying to harm themselves or those who succeed, switch trouble, failing crossing protections, signal trouble, onboard crime, medical emergencies, bridge strikes, bridge failures, track fires, fare disputes, police investigations, debris on the tracks, downed trees, downed power lines, kids playing near the tracks, equipment trouble, third rail/catinary issues, track work, route restrictions, equipment restrictions, close clearances, speed restrictions, track/station capacities, weight restrictions, grade of track restrictions, turns of crews and equipment, late trains, delays, on limited tracks/roadways, where the smallest of circumstances has the greatest long lasting domino effect on an aged infrastructure, with far less security.

By anon330925 — On Apr 19, 2013

We've hired former air traffic controllers as train dispatchers. They cite that air traffic control is easier due to the scheduled nature of commercial flights and the computer assisted oversight. Many train dispatchers are dealing with technology that lags far behind what is required by the FAA. Add to that the regular need to maintain and inspect the tracks and structures and an infrastructure fractured by the thousands of streets that cross tracks with the careless, reckless, and clueless people that traverse public streets daily.

Then there are the rule sets that are cumbersome, convoluted, scattered among various subsets and continually being modified. Couple that with ridiculous corporate policies, conflicting guidelines, and a work environment that would rather crucify the dispatcher than correct known yet neglected problems. It's a total cake walk.

By MaPa — On Jul 20, 2011

I would say that maneuvering a bunch of trains through a crowded freight yard could certainly be really stressful, but that the day to day routine is probably easier than that of an air traffic controller.

By BigManCar — On Jul 20, 2011

@fingered - I would imagine that the big difference in dispatching trains and aircraft is that airplanes are so much faster, and they move in three dimensions. So a plane could end up almost anywhere. A train, at least theoretically, should only move along a set path.

By yseult — On Jul 19, 2011

@fingered - If you consider the technical requirements and systems that train dispatchers have to learn as part of their training, I'd say that their education is quite different. The similarities would normally lie in the "soft skills" that they require - ability to multi-task, deal with high levels of stress, work in teams and so on. They would also need a strong background in working with railway trains or a similar environment.

By AnnBoleyn — On Jul 18, 2011

@fingered - I have no experience in either job, but I would imagine that a train dispatcher's job is generally a little less stressful than flight dispatchers. If you think about it, most airports typically have far more volume than train stations, and their vehicles move faster than trains too. This would mean that flight dispatchers would likely have to think and react much faster than train dispatchers while managing a higher load of additional traffic at the same time.

By fingered — On Jul 18, 2011

They did mention air traffic controllers in this article. I wonder if the job of a train dispatcher is as stressful as that of an air traffic controller. Is their training at all similar to flight dispatcher training too?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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