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How to Become a Locomotive Engineer

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Locomotive engineers drive trains full of passengers or cargo during all hours of the day and in any type of weather. The job requires excellent eyesight, quick thinking and plenty of training. Railroad operators such as Amtrak, Metro-North Railroad and NJ Transit put new hires through extensive training and testing before they’re allowed on the track. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, aspiring locomotive engineers must be at least 21 years old, submit to a background check and pass hearing and vision tests.

Eligibility and Preparation

The minimum education requirement for locomotive engineers is a high school diploma, but those who go on to college and major in areas related to railroad and railway transportation might have better job prospects. Some enroll in associated programs to prepare for the career, such as the Locomotive Engineer and Conductor Basic Training Program offered at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania. These early preparation courses prepare students for training on the job and help them develop important skills such as identifying and troubleshooting potential rail problems.

Learn and Practice

Each railroad has its own training process that usually lasts two to three months, follows federal guidelines and results in certification. Federal law requires locomotive engineers to receive some form of training on specific topics, including operational tests and inspections, emergency preparedness plans, electronic recordkeeping and passenger train emergency simulations. According to an article on “Slate," federal law also mandates that those new to the profession must spend several hours, usually more than 120, in control of a train while under supervision.

Test and Pass

Locomotive engineers receive certification accredited by the Federal Railroad Administration upon finishing training programs and passing the tests. Written exams focus on train operating procedures and features of surrounding territories that may affect a train in motion, such as steep mountains or icy areas. Candidates’ skills are also put to the test in either an actual train or a simulator. The skills exam highlights your knowledge of inspections prior to moving the train and your ability to follow speed limits, signs and signals.

Maintenance and Wages

Locomotive engineers must apply for recertification every three years, which requires repeating the testing process. According to the BLS, locomotive engineers earned a mean annual income of $55,660 as of May 2013. The highest paid engineers were in Maryland and averaged $74,330 a year at that time. The BLS expects employment of locomotive engineers to decline 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, but it notes that openings will come from workers leaving the occupation for retirement.


Based in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, Megan Torrance left her position as the general manager for five Subway restaurants to focus on her passion for writing. Torrance specializes in creating content for career-oriented, motivated individuals and small business owners. Her work has been published on such sites as Chron, GlobalPost and eHow.

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