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Working as a Locomotive Engineer

What Does a Locomotive Engineer Do

Workers in railroad occupations ensure that passenger and freight trains run on time and travel safely. Some workers drive trains, some coordinate the activities of the trains, and others operate signals and switches in the rail yard.

Duties

Railroad workers typically do the following:

  • Check the mechanical condition of locomotives and make adjustments when necessary
  • Document issues with a train that require further inspection
  • Operate locomotive engines within or between stations

Freight trains move billions of tons of goods around the country to ports where they are shipped around the world. Passenger trains transport millions of passengers and commuters to destinations around the country. These railroad workers are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.

All workers in railroad occupations work together closely. Locomotive engineers travel with conductors and sometimes brake operators. Locomotive engineers and conductors are in constant contact and keep each other informed of any changes in the condition of the train.

Signal and switch operators communicate with both locomotive and rail yard engineers to make sure that trains end up at the correct destination. All occupations are in contact with dispatchers who give them directions on where to go and what to do.

Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. Most locomotive engineers drive diesel-electric engines, although some drive locomotives powered by battery or electricity.

Engineers must be aware of the goods their train is carrying because different types of freight require different types of driving, based on the conditions of the rails. For example, a train carrying hazardous material through a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal through a mountain region.

Locomotive engineers typically do the following:

  • Monitor speed, air pressure, battery use, and other instruments to ensure that the locomotive runs smoothly
  • Use a variety of controls, such as throttles and airbrakes, to operate the train
  • Communicate with dispatchers over radios to get information about delays or changes in the schedule

Conductors travel on both freight and passenger trains. They coordinate activities of the train crew. On passenger trains, they ensure safety and comfort and make announcements to keep passengers informed. On freight trains they are responsible for overseeing the loading and unloading of cargo.

Conductors typically do the following:

  • Check passengers’ tickets
  • Take payments from passengers who did not buy tickets in advance
  • Announce stations and give other announcements as needed
  • Help passengers to safety when needed
  • Deal with unruly passengers when needed
  • Oversee loading and unloading of cargo

Yardmasters do work similar to that of conductors, except that they do not travel on trains. They oversee and coordinate the activities of workers in the rail yard. They tell yard engineers where to move cars to fit the planned configuration or to load freight. Yardmasters ensure that trains are carrying the correct material before leaving the yard. Not all rail yards use yardmasters. In rail yards that do not have yardmasters, a conductor performs the duties of a yardmaster.

Yardmasters typically do the following:

  • Review schedules, switching orders, and shipping records of freight trains
  • Arrange for defective cars to be removed from a train for repairs
  • Switch train traffic to a certain section of the line to allow other inbound and outbound trains to get around
  • Break up or put together train cars according to a schedule

Rail yard engineers operate train engines within the rail yard. They move locomotives between tracks to keep the trains organized and on schedule. Some operate small locomotives called dinkeys. Sometimes, rail yard engineers are called hostlers and drive locomotives to and from maintenance shops or prepare them for the locomotive engineer. Some use remote locomotive technology to move freight cars within the rail yards.

Railroad brake, signal, or switch operators control equipment that keeps the trains running safely.

Brake operators help couple and uncouple train cars. Some travel with the train as part of the crew.

Signal operators install and maintain the signals along tracks and in the rail yard. Signals are important in preventing accidents because they allow increased communication between trains and dispatchers.

Switch operators control the track switches in rail yards. These switches allow trains to move between tracks and ensure trains are heading in the right direction.

Locomotive firers are sometimes part of a train crew and typically monitor tracks and train instruments. They look for equipment that is dragging, obstacles on the tracks, and other potential safety problems.

Few trains still use firers, because their work has been automated or is now done by a locomotive engineer or conductor.

How To Become a Locomotive Engineer

Workers in railroad occupations generally need a high school diploma and several months of on-the-job training.

Education

Rail companies typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers and conductors. 

Training

Locomotive engineers generally receive 2 to 3 months of on-the-job training before they can operate a train on their own. Typically, this training involves riding with an experienced engineer who teaches them the characteristics of that particular train route.

During training, an engineer learns the track length, where the switches are, and any unusual features of the track. An experienced engineer who switches to a new route also has to spend a few months in training to learn the route with an engineer who is familiar with it. In addition, railroad companies provide continuing education so that engineers can maintain their skills.

Most railroad companies have 1 to 3 months of on-the-job training for conductors and yardmasters. Amtrak (the passenger train company) and some of the larger freight railroad companies operate their own training programs. Smaller and regional railroads may send conductors to a central training facility or a community college.

Yardmasters may be sent to training programs or may be trained by an experienced yardmaster. They learn how to operate remote locomotive technology and how to manage railcars in the yard.

Conductors and yardmasters working for freight railroads also learn the proper procedures for loading and unloading different types of cargo. Conductors on passenger trains learn ticketing procedures and how to handle passengers.

Rail yard engineers and signal and switch operators also receive on-the-job training, generally through a company training program. This program may last a few weeks to a few months, depending on the company and the complexity of the job. The program may include some time in a classroom and some hands-on experience under the direction of an experienced employee.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors for several years.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Locomotive engineers must be certified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The certification, conducted by the railroad that employs them, involves a written knowledge test, a skills test, and a supervisor determining that the engineer understands all physical aspects of the particular route on which he or she will be operating.

An experienced engineer who changes routes must be recertified for the new route. Even engineers who do not switch routes must be recertified every few years.

At the end of the certification process, the engineer must pass a vision and hearing test.

Conductors who operate on national, regional, or commuter railroads are also required to become certified. To receive certification, new conductors must pass a test that has been designed and administered by the railroad and approved by the FRA.

Advancement

Rail yard engineers, switch operators, and signal operators can advance to become conductors or yardmasters. Some conductors or yardmasters advance to become locomotive engineers.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. All rail employees have to be able to communicate effectively with other crewmembers and passengers to keep the trains on schedule.

Customer-service skills. Conductors on passenger trains ensure customers’ comfort, make announcements, and answer any questions a passenger has. They must be courteous and patient. They may have to deal with unruly or upset passengers.

Decisionmaking skills. When operating a locomotive, engineers must plan ahead and make decisions minutes or even hours in advance.

Hand-eye coordination. Locomotive engineers have to operate various controls while staying aware of their surroundings.

Hearing ability. To show that they can hear warning signals and communicate with other employees, locomotive engineers have to pass a hearing test conducted by their rail company.

Leadership skills. On some trains, a conductor directs a crew. In rail yards, yardmasters oversee other workers.

Mechanical skills. All rail employees work with complex machines. Most have to be able to adjust equipment when it does not work properly. Some rail yard engineers spend most of their time fixing broken equipment or conducting daily mechanical inspections.

Physical strength. Some rail yard engineers have to lift heavy equipment.

Visual ability. To drive a train, locomotive engineers have to pass a vision test conducted by their rail company. Eyesight, peripheral vision, and color vision may be tested.

In addition, locomotive operators must be at least 21 years of age and pass a background test. They must also pass random drug and alcohol screenings over the course of their employment.

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Average Salary$50,070
Job Growth Rate-2%

Average Salary for a Locomotive Engineer

Locomotive Engineers in America make an average salary of $50,070 per year or $24 per hour. The top 10 percent makes over $69,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent under $36,000 per year.
Average Salary
$50,070

Best Paying Cities

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Locomotive Engineer Resumes

Designing and figuring out what to include on your resume can be tough, not to mention time-consuming. That's why we put together a guide that is designed to help you craft the perfect resume for becoming a Locomotive Engineer. If you're needing extra inspiration, take a look through our selection of templates that are specific to your job.

Learn How To Write a Locomotive Engineer Resume

At Zippia, we went through countless Locomotive Engineer resumes and compiled some information about how best to optimize them. Here are some suggestions based on what we found, divided by the individual sections of the resume itself.

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Locomotive Engineer Demographics

Gender

male

91.6 %

female

5.2 %

unknown

3.2 %

Ethnicity

White

75.6 %

Hispanic or Latino

10.8 %

Black or African American

9.9 %

Foreign Languages Spoken

Spanish

100.0 %
See More Demographics

Locomotive Engineer Education

Majors

Business
27.5 %

Degrees

High School Diploma

36.5 %

Bachelors

22.9 %

Associate

17.2 %
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Top Skills For a Locomotive Engineer

The skills section on your resume can be almost as important as the experience section, so you want it to be an accurate portrayal of what you can do. Luckily, we've found all of the skills you'll need so even if you don't have these skills yet, you know what you need to work on. Out of all the resumes we looked through, 11.5% of locomotive engineers listed applicable safety procedures on their resume, but soft skills such as communication skills and customer-service skills are important as well.

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Top Locomotive Engineer Employers

1. Union Pacific
4.7
Avg. Salary: 
$41,965
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
289+
2. CSX
4.8
Avg. Salary: 
$41,968
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
208+
3. BNSF Railway
4.8
Avg. Salary: 
$43,144
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
198+
4. Norfolk Southern Railway
4.4
Avg. Salary: 
$41,971
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
189+
5. Burlington
4.5
Avg. Salary: 
$60,899
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
67+
6. Canadian Pacific Railway
4.6
Avg. Salary: 
$42,943
Locomotive Engineers Hired: 
57+

Locomotive Engineer Videos

Updated October 2, 2020