Locomotive Operator: Training Requirements and Career Information

Oct 20, 2021

Locomotive operators drive trains, both passenger and freight. In order to qualify for this profession you must have a high school diploma and a federal license.

Essential Information

Locomotive operators, more commonly called locomotive engineers, manage the functioning of both passenger and freight trains to convey goods and people from place to place. They need a high school diploma or GED certificate, then a period of formal training as a locomotive engineer. This program is often offered by the railroad company, but a few community colleges also offer certificate programs. Training includes both classroom work and hands-on supervised experience in driving the train. Locomotive engineers must be licensed by passing written and practical examinations and must meet physical requirements.

Required Education High school diploma or the equivalent and completion of an approved locomotive engineer training program
License Federal license required
Projected Job Outlook (2019-2029)* 3% decline (locomotive engineers)
Mean Salary (2020)* $70,660 (locomotive engineers)

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

Training Requirements for Locomotive Operators

Railroad companies require job applicants to possess a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED) to qualify. They also mandate a period of formal education in train operation. The railroad company may administer the training through its own program, which would employ a mixture of classroom education and on-the-job teaching.

However, some community colleges offer certificate programs in locomotive engineering. These provide entry-level knowledge of many aspects of the railroad industry, including rules of operation and equipment used. Successful completion prepares students to test for positions with railroad industry employers.


The federal government requires all railroad engineers to be licensed. This entails passing both written and performance-based examinations. Applicants must also meet vision and hearing standards. Finally, they must possess a background of previous safety in railroad operations as well as have a history free of substance abuse. To keep licensure, locomotive operators have to pass periodic and unannounced efficiency tests.

Locomotive Operator Career Information

Locomotive operators oversee the running of both cargo and passenger trains. They check their vehicle's status before moving and also monitor its operation while in use, which includes keeping an eye on its speed, air pressure and battery charge. While trains are running, operators handle controls like brakes and throttles. Locomotive engineers also study their routes so they can make adjustments in their procedures to account for differences in the number of train cars, rail conditions and more.

Salary Information

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that locomotive engineers brought home a mean annual salary of $70,660 in May 2020 ( Their median annual wage was $71,870. The top-paid ten percent of workers earned $97,430 or more, while the bottom-paid ten percent garnered $43,580 or less.

Career Outlook

In 2018, the BLS predicted employment among locomotive engineers to decline through 2028. Specifically, it forecast a four percent decrease in jobs. Global trade and population growth were to bear positive tidings for the railroad industry. However, increased automated operation and limited track space somewhat temper those benefits. The BLS noted that employment opportunities would be more plentiful due to older workers retiring.

After formal training and passing certain examinations, locomotive operators can obtain the federal licensing required to drive trains across the country.

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