How to Become a Locomotive Engineer: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a locomotive engineer. Research the education programs, training information, and certification required for starting a career in the railroad industry.

Should I Become a Locomotive Engineer?

Also known as train engineers, locomotive engineers are responsible for driving trains safely from one destination to another. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), some engineers drive trains that carry passengers, whereas other engineers drive trains loaded with cargo. Engineers adjust train speeds to accommodate for weather conditions or sensitive cargo needs. They also collaborate with other railroad workers, monitor locomotive equipment, update train inspection logs, and make sure that trains remain on schedule. Many locomotive engineers are required to work weekends, nights and holidays. The following chart provides information from the BLS and shows the main qualifications for becoming a locomotive engineer:

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma or GED
Licensure and Certification Commercial driver's license (for driving vehicles on railroad station property) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) certification is required. Engineers must be recertified on a regular basis and must pass hearing and vision tests to become certified
Experience Previous experience as a conductor or other rail industry worker is recommended; most engineers received on-site training after being hired
Key Skills Ability to communicate effectively in person or over the radio, good time management skills, capable of thinking logically, and ability to make reasonable decisions quickly, familiar with train engines and related mechanical devices, able to identify faulty train equipment and capable of making equipment repairs as needed, able to pass drug tests and criminal background checks, capable of moving heavy objects or equipment, possess a high level of coordination, able to prove good eyesight and possess a strong sense of hearing
Salary $54,500 per year (Median salary from May, 2014 for locomotive engineers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Review Railroad Industry Training Programs

Technically, locomotive engineers aren't required to obtain any postsecondary training prior to employment. However, earning a degree or certificate related to the field of locomotive engineering may help job applicants impress employers. Certificate and associate's degree programs discuss such topics as railroad project planning, operating rules, conductor duties, air brakes, general operating rules, railroad history, railroad technical careers, and safety standards.

Success Tip:

  • Complete an internship. Many of these programs have internship opportunities, which will allow students to gain firsthand knowledge of the railroad industry. Students must usually meet all hiring requirements before starting internships, including passing background checks, vision tests, and drug screenings. During internships, students may learn about switching boxcars, adhering to timetable schedules, and troubleshooting repairs.

Step 2: Find Employment

People can find locomotive engineer positions with government-run railroad agencies or with private railroad businesses. According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), all railroad workers must have a clean criminal record and must be able to pass drug tests. Individuals who find employment with government railroad agencies may also have to be fingerprinted and fill out additional forms. Private companies may have additional pre-employment hiring requirements as well.

Step 3: Complete On-The-Job Training

After being successfully hired, locomotive engineers must go through training prior to becoming certified. On-the-job training often includes learning job skills from experienced locomotive engineers. Experienced engineers teach trainees how to drive locomotives, use air brakes, monitor equipment, and adhere to railroad regulations. They also educate trainees about particular railway routes.

Success Tip:

  • Ask for study-aid materials. After individuals complete on-the-job training, they must pass certification exams. To better prepare for the exams, trainees can ask their instructors for study-aid materials, such as official railroad regulation documents. Not all instructors may have this information on hand, but they may be able to direct trainees to the appropriate places, such as libraries or human resources departments.

Step 4: Become Certified

Upon completing on-the-job training, the FRA requires locomotive engineers to become certified. According to the BLS, certification exams often include several parts, including engineer skills tests and knowledge-based written tests. As part of the certification process, individuals also have to prove their knowledge of individual train routes. People will only be tested on the routes they were initially trained on. The final part of the certification process includes passing auditory and visual acuity tests.

Success Tip:

  • Be prepared for recertification. According to the BLS, locomotive engineers are certified on particular train routes. Engineers must be aware of all the turns, bumps, and potential hazards on each route they drive, since they are responsible for the safety of the passengers and cargo on-board. Environmental changes can affect routes over time, so engineers must recertify every few years, per the BLS. When engineers change routes, they must go through recertification before they can drive alone on the new route.

Step 5: Continue Education

The BLS states that most railroad employers encourage workers to continue their education in the industry. Many railroad companies will even pay for coursework or offer onsite classes. Some courses may cover changing regulations related to the railroad industry. Other courses may teach engineers the skills necessary for working with new technologies, such as high-speed electric trains. Keeping abreast of new technologies through continuing education may help locomotive engineers advance and move into higher positions of responsibility.

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