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What Does a Locomotive Engineer Do?

The locomotive engineers who operate trains do far more than sound the horn and guide passenger or cargo trains to their destination. Read on to find out more about what a locomotive operator does and what training is required to enter this career field.

Career Overview

Locomotive engineers operate diesel-electric and some battery-powered trains that carry passengers and cargo. While operating locomotives, train engineers operate controls, such as the airbrakes and throttle, and monitor speed, air pressure, and battery voltage. Of all rail workers, locomotive engineers were the highest paid in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, www.bls.gov).

Train engineers must complete a training program offered by a railroad company and undergo skill, hearing, and visual tests. The College Board (www.collegeboard.com) reports that in order to become a locomotive operator, you also must have experience as a rail worker and be at least 21 years old.

Important Facts About Locomotive Engineers

Median Salary (2020) $71,870 per year
Job Outlook (2019-2029) 3% decline
Required Education High school diploma, several months of training
Certification Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) certification required in all states
Similar Occupations Train Conductors, Yardmasters, Rail Yard Engineers, Locomotive Firers, Railroad Brake, Signal, or Switch Operators

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Duties and Responsibilities

The job begins prior to departure when a thorough mechanical check is required to document issues and make adjustments. Locomotive engineers must possess comprehensive knowledge of routes, changes to the tracks, and how the weight of a train or number of cars affects speed and braking. Engineers must also maintain certification, which can be revoked for unsafe operation of a train. Other job duties for locomotive engineers include:

  • Maintaining good physical condition, eyesight, and hearing
  • Remaining alert for track obstructions to avoid accidents
  • Following schedules and coordinating with conductors to ensure timeliness
  • Contacting traffic controllers concerning delays
  • Maintaining licensure by completing continuing education credits

Work Environment

The BLS reports that passenger train engineers can typically expect accommodations and temperatures aboard the train to be more agreeable than those found on trains that carry freight. Freight train engineers often work weekends and irregular shifts to meet customer demands, and they may be away from home for long periods if they will be travelling long distances. Those aboard passenger trains often have more predictable shifts. With a decline in the need for transporting non-renewable energy sources, the BLS projects that the employment of locomotive engineers will likely decline by about three percent between 2019 and 2029.