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How Can I Become a Train Engineer?

Research the requirements it takes to become a train engineer. Learn about training, job growth, licensure requirements and salary to find out if this is the career for you.

What Is a Train Engineer?

Train engineers are experienced personnel in charge of operating locomotives that carry passengers or freight between destinations. The trains they drive may operate on diesel-electric, battery or electric engines, which can affect the types of controls they use. Over the course of a journey, they monitor the speed and efficiency of the train, as well as external conditions, and they make adjustments when necessary. In addition, they stay in close contact with freight dispatchers in order to remain informed about scheduling information related to arrivals and departures.

The following chart provides an overview about becoming a train engineer.

Education Required High school diploma or equivalent
Training Required Company-sponsored training program
Licensure or Certification Federal Railroad Administration licensure is required
Key Responsibilities Safely drive the train between stations in all kinds of weather; communicate with dispatchers about train and track conditions
Job Growth (2018-2028) -2% (decline)*
Median Salary (2018) $62,100*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Find an Entry-Level Railroad Job

Train engineers are highly experienced railroad employees. In order to pursue a career operating a locomotive, you generally need to obtain an entry-level position to gain experience as a brake operator, laborer or conductor. After being hired for a yard worker position, you'll undergo educational training through your employer that includes instruction on operating rules, timetables and train signals.

What Skills Do I Need?

Larger railroads in the United States, such as Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, CSX Transportation and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, usually require that you have some experience in construction, mechanics or electronics for a rail yard position. You can find open jobs and intern positions through a railroad company's website. Although not required, you might find it helpful to pursue an associate's degree in railroad operations through a vocational school or community college.

In all railroad jobs, you need to have good physical stamina, coordination, vision and hearing. You need an aptitude in mechanics and manual dexterity. To advance to a conductor or engineer position, you need to be at least 21 years old, though specific railroad companies might have stricter age requirements. Good communication skills and the ability to make quick decisions while using good judgment are also necessary. You'll usually need to pass a background check and drug testing.

Once you become an engineer, be prepared to work irregular hours on a variety of shifts. You might be required to work more than 40 hours per week, depending on the railroad and the type of train you operate. In passenger transportation, you'll generally work more stable hours than you would transporting freight.

How Can I Advance to a Train Engineer Position?

In order to obtain a position as a train engineer, you must complete a training program and obtain federal licensure. Training programs are generally conducted or organized by each railroad, but must meet federal requirements. Instruction includes instructor-led coursework, practice on simulators, and hands-on operations training. At the completion of the program, you need to pass railroad operations and skills performance tests to obtain your engineer's license.

Maintain Licensure

Once you're a licensed train engineer, you'll be subject to periodic operations rules tests. You'll have no prior notification of testing, and you'll be required to provide an appropriate response in an engineering situation, such as complying with a certain track scenario or maintaining a certain speed. Additionally, federal law requires that you take alcohol and drug tests periodically, as well as receive regular health exams.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Another job on a train is that of a conductor. As a conductor, you would oversee all activities related to the loading and unloading of passengers and/or cargo. You would also be in charge of all train employees, and you would make announcements about upcoming stops on passenger journeys. Train conductors need to have at least a high school diploma. Alternatively, if you are looking for a long-distance driving occupation, you could consider becoming a heavy truck driver. This job involves operating trucks that weigh over 26,000 pounds, in order to carry commercial goods between destinations. You need to earn a high school diploma and complete a professional education program in order to get the job.