What Is the Salary of a Railroad Engineer?

Explore the career requirements for railroad engineers. Get the facts about education, salary, licensure requirements and potential job growth 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 Railroad Engineer?

A railroad engineer, also known as a locomotive engineer, drives freight and/or passenger trains for long distances. They often operate diesel-electric engines, but some are also trained to drive trains that run solely on battery or electric power. During a trip, they monitor speed and efficiency gauges on the train, and they make adjustments based on the external conditions and the type of cargo they are carrying. In addition, they use radios to communicate with dispatchers at their destinations in order to ensure that all parties stay up-to-date on upcoming arrivals and potential scheduling changes.

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

Degree RequiredHigh school diploma or equivalent
Key Duties Inspect locomotive mechanics and report issues; operate locomotive to transport railroad cars between stations and within stations
Certification Railroad engineers must be certified by Federal Railroad Administration
Job Growth (2014-2024) -2%*
Median Salary (2015) $56,240*

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

What Salary Could I Expect to Earn as a Railroad Engineer?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov) reported a median salary of $56,240 for locomotive engineers as of May 2015; the middle salary range was $46,650 and $66,740. As of 2014, the BLS reported that most railroad workers belonged to a union. Employment is expected to decline 2% from 2014 to 2024 due to an increase in transportation productivity.

What Would My Duties Be?

In addition to making a train go and stop, as a railroad engineer you inspect the locomotive for mechanical problems before every run. You perform minor adjustments and document anything that needs further, more detailed inspection. The safety of passengers, cargo and the train is on your shoulders.

Driving a locomotive takes concentration. You watch the speed, battery charge, amperage and air pressure of the brake lines and the primary reservoir. You need to be aware of the number and kinds of cars as well as what each is carrying. You must know the ratio of loaded cars to empty cars and understand how your train reacts to different rail conditions and grades, so as to adjust your speed and braking to match them. You must know what the railroad regulations are, as well as speed limits, signals and orders.

You may work weekends, nights and holidays -- often more than 40 hours a week. However, you follow federally mandated minimum rest hours. As a new engineer, you may not have a regular schedule. Instead you are in an 'extra board' position of covering for other engineers who are absent because of illness, vacation or other situations.

What Education Do I Need Operate a Train?

You must have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent. The railroad has its own training program, approved by the Federal Railroad Administration. This includes classroom and hands-on instruction, as well as simulator time.

When you have completed training, you must pass several kinds of tests. These include visual acuity and hearing tests, as well as a background check on your safety conduct. You take exams on your knowledge of railroad operation and skills performance. Passing all of these earns you the required federal license for operating a train.

What Other Requirements Does the Job Have?

You must be 21 years old to apply for a railroad engineer job. You likely need to have had another railroad job -- conductor or brakeman -- so that you already have training in operating rules, timetables, signals and other basics. To maintain licensure, you may have surprise tests where you must act in or respond to specific situations such as following signals or keeping a certain speed through a yard or curve.

You also need to pass a physical exam, a criminal background check and a screening for drugs and alcohol. To maintain your license, regular physical exams are required. You are also given random drug tests when you are on duty.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Rather than working as a locomotive engineer, you might be interested in another position within the railroad industry. One option is a job as a conductor, which would involve overseeing the loading and unloading of passengers and cargo, as well as supervising the train's crew throughout the journey. Like locomotive engineers, conductors need to have at least a high school diploma. Alternatively, if you enjoy long-distance driving, you could become a heavy truck driver. In this job, you would operate trucks that weigh over 26,000 pounds and carry goods between destinations that may be in different states. Heavy truck drivers need to have a high school diploma and successfully complete a professional training program.

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