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Become a Railroad Engineer: Step-by-Step Career Guide

Learn how to become a railroad engineer. Find out about the requirements, qualifications and examinations you will need to start a career in this field.

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Should I Become a Railroad Engineer?

Railroad, or locomotive, engineers drive passenger and freight trains. They monitor equipment to ensure that the train is operating correctly and safely. Railroad engineers also communicate with passengers, crew and dispatchers to maintain timeliness and safety.

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  • Heavy Equipment Operation
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Career Requirements

Required Education High school diploma or equivalent
Training 1-3 months of on-the-job training with specialized equipment; classroom instruction; periodic continuing education and training
Certification Must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration; certification includes background check; written and skills test; hearing and vision tests
Experience Prior experience as a switchman, brakeman or conductor is necessary
Key Skills Manual dexterity; physical coordination; problem solving
Salary $54,500 (2014 median salary for locomotive engineers )

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Meet Basic Requirements

Railroad engineers must be at least 21-years-old and possess a high school diploma or its equivalent. Physically, they must have sharp vision and hearing and possess good hand-eye coordination. Railroad engineers are usually mechanically minded with sound judgment and high levels of physical stamina.

Step 2: Work In Entry-Level Positions

Before becoming a railroad engineer, candidates are generally required to hold an entry-level position, as well as the position of train conductor. Entry-level positions typically held by individuals pursuing careers as railroad engineers include work as switch operators or brake operators. Work as a switch or brake person includes moving train cars, operating switches and communicating with other railroad professionals. Prior to becoming railroad engineers, individuals are generally required to have held the position of train conductor.

Step 3: Complete Training

Railroad engineers must complete formal training programs and receive on-the-job instruction. Formal training includes classroom and hands-on instruction. Engineers study the technology and equipment used on the job. They also learn to operate trains in a variety of conditions, to follow general safety practices and to transport hazardous materials. To acquire this knowledge they may use simulators or work on operational locomotives. Courses are offered at community colleges and universities as well as at industry-specific academies.

Step 4: Become Federally Licensed

Federal regulations require that all railroad engineers be licensed. To obtain licensure, engineers must complete a formal training program that includes both classroom instruction and hands-on experience. Railroad engineers must also pass a hearing and vision test and submit to a background check. Additionally, they must pass an exam that tests operational knowledge, technical skill and the ability to demonstrate appropriate conduct.

Railroad engineers must pass periodic, unannounced operational tests to remain licensed. These tests require engineers to show proficiency in certain situations, which may include demonstrations of speed maintenance or signal compliance.

Step 5: Career Advancement

Railroad engineers have many career advancement options. Experienced engineers can enter management training and become trainmasters, terminal managers or general supervision. Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration offers safety inspector, research and development and regulatory opportunities to experienced railroad engineers.

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