How Do I Become a Locomotive Engineer?

Explore the career requirements for locomotive engineers. Get the facts about training and certification requirements, job duties and salary to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Locomotive Engineer?

Locomotive engineers drive long-distance freight and passenger trains from one location to another. They operate the controls of the locomotive, which can vary depending on whether the train is powered by a diesel-electric, battery or electric engine. They monitor speed and power levels, and they make necessary adjustments based on conditions such as weather and terrain, as well as the type of material the train is transporting. Locomotive engineers must also remain in constant communication with dispatchers so that they can stay informed about scheduling changes.

If this sounds like an ideal job description, keep reading to learn about entry-level requirements and other career info:

Education Required High school diploma or GED
Training Required Training completed on the job; postsecondary training programs are also available
Key Skills Decision-making and mechanical skills, hand-eye coordination
Certification Certification by the Federal Railroad Administration is required
Job Growth (2014-2024) 2% decline*
Median Salary (2015) $56,240*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education Do I Need for a Career as a Locomotive Engineer?

You need to hold a high school diploma or its equivalent if you'd like to work for a railroad. You may start out in an entry-level railroad position, such as that of a conductor or brakeman, before you can qualify for a locomotive engineering position. To become a conductor, you could either be trained by the railroad company itself or complete a training program offered by a community college.

For example, completing an Associate of Applied Science in Railroad Operations program could prepare you for an entry-level railroad position. You could expect to take courses in railroad operations, history and safety. You learn railroad rules and practical skills such as switching boxcars. You might also be required to take courses in economics, business and math. Potential elective courses include land surveying, accounting, engine repair and electronic circuits.

Do I Need to Get Certified?

Federal regulations require railroads to have a program for certifying locomotive engineers, and the Federal Railroad Administration must approve this program. In accordance, you must complete this program and become certified before you can start working as an engineer. You also have to pass a vision and hearing test, a knowledge test and a skill performance test. In addition, the railroad has to ascertain your prior safety conduct as a motor vehicle operator.

Certification training programs take approximately six months to complete. You learn the general code of operating rules (which governs the operation of railroads), as well as federal railroad regulations. You receive training on simulators and on actual trains under the supervision of a certified engineer.

What Job Duties Might I Have?

As a locomotive engineer, you have to constantly stay alert and monitor various controls as you operate trains that carry freight or passengers. You especially have to monitor the buff and draft forces that affect the cars of the train; if they aren't carefully monitored and kept within a certain range, they could cause the train to jackknife and derail. You are also responsible for sounding the horn and applying the throttle and airbrakes.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you are interested in working on a train, you could also consider become a conductor. They oversee the activities of all employees on the train, as well as the loading and unloading of passengers and/or cargo. Conductors need at least a high school diploma. Alternatively, you could consider a job as a long-distance truck driver. This would involve operating a truck weighing over 26,000 pounds to carry goods between locations. Truck drivers must have a high school diploma, and they must also complete a professional training program.

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