How to Become a Railroad Engineer: Training & Requirements

Feb 01, 2022

Should I Become a Railroad Engineer?

A railroad engineer, also known as a locomotive engineer or a train engineer, run trains that transport passengers and cargo. They also inspect and maintain trains and operate controls while the train is in motion. 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. They must have extensive knowledge of train routes and schedules, be able to ensure passenger and employee safety on board, and understand in great detail how to operate multiple kinds of trains. Read on to learn about how to become a train engineer.

Applicants are required to meet basic requirements before they can gain work experience in entry-level positions that can lead to engineering positions. To become a railroad engineer, individuals must also complete training, often in the form of a locomotive engineer apprenticeship program. They must then pass exams and become federally licensed.

Train Engineer Qualifications

To become a railroad engineer, you will need a high school diploma or equivalent and 1-3 months of on the job training with specialized equipment, classroom instruction and periodic continuing education and training. You must receive railroad engineer certification from the Federal Railroad Administration. Certification includes background check, written and skills tests, and hearing and vision tests. Prior experience as a switchman, brakeman or conductor is necessary, along with manual dexterity, physical coordination and problem-solving skills.

How to Become a Railroad Engineer

  1. Meet basic requirements
  2. Work in entry-level positions
  3. Complete railroad engineer training programs
  4. Become federally licensed
  5. Advance your career

Let's take a look at what steps you'll need to take to become a railroad engineer in more detail:

Step 1: Meet Basic Requirements

Railroad engineers must be at least twenty-one 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, as train engineer jobs can be physically challenging.

Step 2: Work in Entry-Level Positions

Before starting your train engineer career, 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. Most individuals are then expected to become a train conductor prior to becoming a railroad engineer.

Step 3: Complete Railway Engineer Training Programs

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 train engineer school 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: Advance Your Career

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.


What Is the Salary and Outlook for Locomotive Engineer Jobs?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a median annual salary for locomotive engineers of $67,090 in May 2019, which is higher than the average salary for jobs in the U.S. The highest paying states for locomotive engineers in 2019, based on mean annual salary, were Nevada ($99,520), Washington ($89,100), California ($84,740), Wyoming ($83,670), and New York ($80,310). The job outlook for locomotive engineers is -3% (decline) between 2019 and 2029, largely because of an increase in automation and a reduction in train travel across the United States. Around 1,000 jobs are expected to disappear in that time. This may be something to consider if you are looking into becoming a railway engineer. Those who want to have better job outlook prospects may wish to consider looking at jobs in Europe, where train travel is more common.

What Skills Do Train Engineers Need?

Train engineers can benefit from cultivating the following skills over the course of their careers:

  • Attention to detail
  • Communication skills
  • Patience
  • Excellent mechanical skills
  • Ability to manage a crisis calmly
  • Stamina and endurance
  • Extensive knowledge of how trains work
  • Ability to work in challenging weather conditions

What Railway Engineer Qualification Requirements Are There?

As discussed above, a high school diploma, some training, and licensure are needed in order to start a career as a railway engineer. There are also physical requirements. Beyond that, anyone with the will to do the job and an interest in starting this career should be able to get started. Be sure to look into any specific requirements that different states or train companies may have, and keep in mind that there may be differences between the requirements for cargo conductors than from passenger conductors, including requirements for how to interact with customers.

To become a railroad engineer, you'll need a high school diploma and formal training in order to qualify for the mandatory federal license.

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