Locomotive Operator: Salary and Career Facts

Research what it takes to become a locomotive operator. Learn about the education and licensing criteria, job duties and salary information to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Heavy Equipment degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Locomotive Operator?

Locomotive operators, also known as locomotive engineers, drive trains over long distances. Many operate trains that are powered by electric-diesel engines, but others are also qualified to drive trains that run on battery or electric power. These trains may convey heavy freight or carry passengers between destinations. Over the course of a journey, the locomotive operator monitors the controls and makes adjustments based on external conditions, like changes in weather or terrain. In addition, they communicate with dispatchers at their destinations using radio technology.

The table below provides some basic information for this career.

Education Required High school diploma or equivalent
Training Required Railroad-provided formal, hands-on education programs
Education Field of Study Industrial safety, electro-mechanical systems, railroad operations
Key Responsibilities Safely operate machinery, obey all railroad rules & regulations,
Licensure Federal license
Job Growth (2018-28) -2%*
Average Salary (2018) $66,920*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Education Will I Need for a Career as a Locomotive Operator?

Locomotive operators most often begin their careers as railroad conductors or brakemen, and they become engineers through job promotion. Railroad companies typically offer formal, hands-on education programs. If you prefer, you can also enroll in railroad operations programs that are offered by a few community colleges. An associate's degree program might consist of courses in technical mathematics, applied physics, accounting, marketing, electronics, construction management, industrial safety, electro-mechanical systems, geography laboratory and railroad transportation history.

What Job Duties Will I Have?

As a locomotive operator, you observe manual and electronic train signals, and carefully watch air brake, air pressure and speed controls. Your job involves inspecting the locomotive's mechanical components to be certain they are functioning properly and have the right amounts of water, fuel and other necessities.

Operators must also ensure that there are no obstacles or obstructions on railroad tracks they are traversing. You need to be prepared to handle emergency situations or engine malfunctions, according to regulations. Other job duties include using radiophones to communicate with train conductors, overseeing brake tests and announcing train signals to assistant staff. You are also charged with disassembling and assembling train cars in locomotive yard areas.

How Do I Become Licensed?

According to federal regulations, all locomotive operators who transport passengers or cargo must acquire licensing. As an aspiring locomotive operator, you are required to enter a railroad-sponsored training program for engineers, which involves simulator and classroom instruction. Then you undergo vision and hearing examinations, a background check and drug testing. It is necessary to successfully complete a performance examination, which assesses your operational skills as well as a railroad knowledge examination. When all requirements are satisfied, you become a licensed engineer.

How Much Money Could I Earn?

As reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, locomotive engineers who were employed by the railroad transportation industry earned average annual salaries of $67,270 in 2018 (www.bls.gov). Those who were employees of local government averaged approximately $61,600.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Instead of working as a locomotive engineer, you could find another job in the railroad industry, such as a conductor. In this position, you would be responsible for monitoring the loading and unloading of passengers and cargo, and you would supervise the train's crew throughout the journey. Conductors need to have at least a high school diploma. Alternatively, you could consider a different long-distance driving job, such as a heavy truck driver. Heavy truck drivers operate trucks that weigh over 26,000 pounds and carry goods between destinations that are far apart. In order to qualify for this job, you need to have a high school diploma and complete a professional training program.

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