Social Security vs Railroad Retirement, Disability, and Survivor Benefits

Federal railroad retirement and disability benefits are often higher than Social Security benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Baltimore School of Law

Railroad workers are entitled to participate in a federal retirement and disability program similar to Social Security. The railroad retirement program offers different and somewhat expanded benefits from Social Security. And the program is administered by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB), not by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Like the SSA, the RRB is a federal agency.

Railroad benefits are divided into two tiers. Tier 1 is more like traditional Social Security, whereas Tier 2 is more like a private pension plan.

What Are Tier 1 Railroad Benefits?

Tier 1 benefits include retirement, disability, spousal, and survivors benefits. Tier 1 benefits were designed to take the place of Social Security.

Tier 1 Retirement Railroad Benefits

Railroad retirement benefits (called "age annuities") are calculated the same way as Social Security retirement benefits, but the eligibility requirements differ. To be eligible for railroad retirement benefits, a worker must have been employed by the railroad for just five years (if the employment was after 1995), or ten years if the employment was before 1995. But workers who were employed by the railroad for less than 30 years will get a reduced amount of retirement benefits.

Just like with Social Security, most railroad workers are not entitled to take retirement benefits until the age of 62 (with one exception, discussed below). Also like Social Security, if a retiree takes railroad benefits at age 62, it's considered early retirement, and the RRB will permanently reduce that person's retirement benefits. The normal railroad retirement age is 67 for those born in 1960 or later, the same as for Social Security.

However, unlike Social Security, RRB allows railroad workers with at least 30 years of service in railroad-covered employment to collect full retirement benefits at the age of 60 (with no reduction for claiming early).

How Much Are Railroad Retirement Benefits?

Like Social Security retirement, railroad retirement benefits are based on the highest 35 years of a worker's indexed earnings. But railroad retirement benefits are generally higher than Social Security benefits, because railroad employers and workers pay higher retirement taxes.

In 2024, the average railroad retirement benefit is $3,450 (compared to about $1,500 for Social Security). But recent retirees are awarded even higher average benefits because their earnings were higher than those who retired years ago.

Additional Tier 1 Railroad Retirement Annuity

A small additional annuity payment is available to someone who:

  • has worked for at least 25 years for an RRB-covered employer
  • began working for the railroad before October 1, 1981, and
  • is currently connected to the railroad company.

To receive this additional annuity, the worker must be either

  • 60 years of age, with at least 30 years of work with an RRB-covered employer, or
  • 65 years of age, with 25 to 29 years of work with an RRB-covered employer.

Tier 1 Railroad Disability Benefits

The RRB has two types of disability benefits: a total disability annuity (like Social Security's disability insurance benefit) and an occupational disability annuity.

Total Disability Annuity for Railroad Workers

For the total disability annuity, the RRB follows the same definition of disability as the SSA. This means that to be eligible for RRB disability, a worker's disability must be severe enough to prevent "substantial gainful activity" (SGA) for at least one year. For 2024, SGA is defined as being able to earn $1,550 a month from working (or $2,590 for people who are blind), for both Social Security and railroad disability benefits.

To get the full RRB disability amount, a railroad worker must have at least ten years of covered railroad employment. Workers who have only five years of employment with the railroad (after 1995) must meet additional earning requirements. They can qualify for RRB disability benefits only if they've earned at least 20 Social Security work credits in the last ten years.

Occupational Disability Annuity for Railroad Workers

Unlike Social Security, workers covered by RRB are also eligible for an "occupational disability" benefit. This benefit helps people who can still do some type of work, but whose disability prevents them from doing their normal railroad duty. To be eligible for this benefit, the railroad worker must have a current connection to the railroad industry and:

  • be between the age of 60 and full retirement age with at least 10 years of covered railroad employment, or
  • be under 60 but have at least 20 years of covered RRB service.

How Much Are Railroad Disability Benefits?

On average, career railroad workers who became disabled and stop working in 2024 receive $3,450 per month. In comparison, the average monthly SSDI benefit in 2024 is $1,537.

RRB has a five-month waiting period for disability benefits, just like Social Security's five-month waiting period.

Tier 1 Railroad Spousal Benefits

Spouses of railroad employees who qualify for railroad retirement may also qualify for benefits equal to about half of the covered spouse's payment. This amount can be affected, though, if the covered worker takes early retirement.

Current Spouses

To be entitled to spouse's benefits, the spouses must:

  • have been married to the railroad worker for at least one year or have conceived a child, and
  • the worker must no longer be working for a railroad.

The age and service requirements are the same as for retirement benefits (discussed above). But spouses of covered railroad workers can also get benefits at any age if they are taking care of:

  • a railroad worker's child and that child is under the age of 18, or
  • a railroad worker's child and that child became disabled before the age of 22.

Divorced Spouses

Divorced spouses are also entitled to Tier 1 benefits based on the same rules and regulations as Social Security. This means that former spouses are eligible if:

  • the spouse was married to the railroad worker for at least ten years
  • the non-RRB covered spouse hasn't remarried (unless over the age of 60, or over the age of 50 if disabled), and
  • the former spouse can't get an equal or higher benefit amount on their own or someone else's earnings record.

Children's Benefits

Unlike Social Security, children of railroad workers don't receive dependents benefits if their parent is collecting railroad retirement or disability benefits. Technically, children of railroad workers only get RRB benefits if the covered parent has died. On the other hand, RRB includes a minimum payment provision to make sure that a family who is covered by RRB will get the same amount in benefits as a similarly situated family who is getting Social Security benefits. So a railroad worker with a child under 18 will get an increase in their retirement or disability benefits to account for the child.

Survivors Benefits

To be eligible for RRB survivors benefits, the deceased railroad worker must:

  • have at least 10 years of RRB covered service, or five years of RRB covered service after 1995, and
  • have had a current connection to the railroad when he or she died or retired.

If the criteria for RRB survivors benefits can't be met, any credits that the railroad worker earned while performing RRB-covered work are transferred to Social Security. The transferred credits can then be used to give Social Security survivors benefits to the worker's spouse and children.

Survivors benefits can be paid to:

  • widow(er)s
  • former spouses
  • dependent children
    • children under the age of 18
    • children between the ages of 18 and 19 who are in the 12th grade or below
    • children who became disabled before the age of 22
  • dependent grandchildren (if both parents are deceased or disabled), and
  • dependent parents.

Each type of survivor receives a different percentage of the railroad worker's Tier I benefit. Limits on survivors benefits are calculated in the same way as Social Security survivors benefits (with the maximum family benefit calculation). To learn more about how benefit amounts are calculated, read our article Social Security Survivors Benefits After the Death of a Disabled Worker and Survivors Benefits for Divorced Spouses.

Tier II Railroad Benefits

Unlike Social Security, RRB retirement has a second tier of benefits that functions similarly to private pension plans—specifically, defined benefit pension plans. To qualify for this benefit, railroad workers must have a current connection to the railroad industry.

These benefits, called Tier II benefits, are calculated based on the covered worker's average income using the worker's five years of highest earnings. The benefit amount is then determined using a complex formula based in part on how long the worker was employed by the railroad and is then adjusted to account for cost of living increases. You can learn more about how Tier II benefits are calculated on the RRB website.

Tier II benefits can also be paid to current spouses and survivors. However, former spouses are entitled to Tier II benefits only if the entitlement was part of the spouses' property settlement agreement. Tier II spousal benefits are 45% of the worker's Tier II retirement benefits. Tier II survivor benefits vary depending on the type of survivor.

Railroad Retirement vs. Social Security

Here's a summary of the most obvious differences between RRB and Social Security benefits:

  • Railroad workers with 30 years of service can collect full retirement benefits at the age of 60 (with no early retirement reduction).
  • Railroad workers can get an additional supplemental annuity with the additional Tier II benefit.
  • Railroad workers are eligible for an occupational disability benefit that pays people who can do some work other than their normal railroad duty.
  • Children don't get dependents benefits per se, but families of railroad workers don't receive less in benefits than under Social Security. The RRB's "special minimum guaranty" provision increases the worker's benefit to match what a family would receive through Social Security.

For more information, read the RRB's Q&A on the comparison of railroad and Social Security retirement.

Can Railroad Employees Get Social Security?

Yes, railroad employees who worked in jobs covered by Social Security can get railroad and Social Security benefits ("dual benefits"). After the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines the benefit amount, the RRB will reduce the amount of the railroad annuity and issue a combined monthly benefit payment. The reduction is based on Social Security law that limits payments to the higher of two benefits.

The tier II retirement benefit is not reduced by the amount of the Social Security benefit. For more information, read the RRB's Q&A on dual benefit payments.

Unemployment and Sickness Benefits

Workers covered by RRB may also be entitled to unemployment or sickness benefits. Contact the RRB for more information on these benefits. Railroad workers who receive RRB retirement or disability benefits are entitled to Medicare coverage just like Social Security recipients.

Contact Information for the Railroad Retirement Board

You can find your local RRB field office using the RRB's field office locator. You can also speak to an RRB representative by calling the RRB at 877-772-5772 from 9:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, EST.

Updated December 29, 2023

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