Train Engineers and Operators

Summary

Train engineers and operators
These workers operate both freight and passenger trains.
Quick Facts: Train Engineers and Operators
2010 Median Pay $46,100 per year
$22.17 per hour
Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation See How to Become One
On-the-job Training See How to Become One
Number of Jobs, 2010 67,100
Job Outlook, 2010-20 1% (Little or no change)
Employment Change, 2010-20 500

What Train Engineers and Operators Do

Train engineers and train operators ensure that freight trains and passenger trains stay on time and travel safely. Train engineers drive trains. Train operators work the brakes, signals, or switches.  

Work Environment

Train engineers include locomotive engineers who drive trains between stations and rail yard engineers who move trains around in a rail yard. Nearly all locomotive engineers work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in both rail transportation and support activities for rail. Nearly all brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry.

How to Become a Train Engineer or Operator

Many rail companies require workers to have a high school diploma or equivalent although some companies do not have education requirements for rail yard workers. Train engineers and operators are trained on the job through company training programs.

Pay

The median annual wage of train engineers and operators was $46,100 in May 2010.

Job Outlook

Employment of train engineers and operators is projected to experience little or no change, growing 1 percent from 2010 to 2020. However, job opportunities for these occupations should be favorable because many current workers are approaching retirement age.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of train engineers and operators with similar occupations.

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Contacts for More Information

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What Train Engineers and Operators Do

Train engineers and operators
Rail yard engineers make mechanical adjustments to trains.

Train engineers and train operators ensure that freight trains and passenger trains stay on time and travel safely. Train engineers drive trains. Train operators work the brakes, signals, or switches. 

Duties

Train engineers and operators 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. Train engineers and operators are essential to keeping freight and passenger trains running properly.

All 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. For more information, see the profile on railroad conductors and yardmasters.

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

The following are types of train engineers and operators:

Locomotive engineers drive freight or passenger trains between stations. They drive long-distance trains and commuter trains, but not subway trains. For more information on those who drive subway trains, see the profile on subway and streetcar operators.

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 though a snowstorm is driven differently than a train carrying coal though 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

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 small locomotives to and from maintenance shops.

Locomotive firers are 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.

Firers also monitor oil, temperature, and pressure gauges on train dashboards to determine if engines are operating safely and efficiently. Firers relay traffic signals from yard workers to engineers in a railroad yard.

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

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

Brake operators help couple and decouple 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 yards.

Switch operators control the track switches in rail yards. These switches allow trains to move between tracks.

Work Environment

Train engineers and operators
Locomotive engineers who work on long routes are sometimes away from home for long periods at a time.

Train engineers and operators held about 67,100 jobs in 2010.

Nearly all locomotive engineers and brake, signal, and switch operators work in the rail transportation industry. Rail yard engineers work in both rail transportation and support activities for rail.

Rail yard engineers spend most of their time working outside, regardless of weather conditions.

Most train engineers and operators are members of one of the two major unions for railroad workers.

Injuries

Rail yard engineers have higher rates of work-related injuries than most occupations have. They must move heavy equipment around and climb up and down equipment, which can be dangerous.

Work Schedules

Trains are scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, meaning that many train engineers and operators sometimes work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail employees work full time. In 2010, nearly one-third worked at least 50 hours a week, although federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for operators.

Locomotive engineers whose trains travel long routes can be away from home for long spans of time. Those who work on passenger trains with short routes generally have a more predictable schedule. Workers on some freight trains have irregular schedules.

For engineers, seniority (number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers are hired on a temporary basis, called "extra board," and get an assignment only when a railroad needs substitutes for workers who are absent.

How to Become a Train Engineer or Operator

Train engineers and operators
All train employees need mechanical ability.

Many rail companies require locomotive engineers to have a high school diploma or equivalent, although some companies do not have education requirements for rail yard workers. Train engineers and operators are trained on the job through company training programs.

Education

Some rail companies require a high school diploma or equivalent, especially for locomotive engineers. Other positions sometimes do not have education requirements.

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 nuances of that particular train route.

During training, an engineer learns the track length, where the switches are, or 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.

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.

Licenses

Some rail yard engineers drive large vehicles around the yard and must have a Commercial Driver's License (CDL). The qualifications for obtaining a CDL vary by state but generally include passing both a knowledge and a driving test. For more information about getting a CDL, contact the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association.

Certification

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.

Work Experience

Most locomotive engineers first work as conductors for several years. For more information, see the profile on conductors and yardmasters.

Advancement

Switch and signal operators can advance to become conductors or yardmasters.

Important Qualities

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

Decision making skills. When operating a locomotive, engineers must be able to make fast decisions to avoid accidents.

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.

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.

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 also must pass random drug and alcohol screenings over the course of their employment.

Pay

Train Engineers and Operators

Median annual wages, May 2010

Rail Transportation Workers

$47,620

Train Engineers and Operators

$46,100

Total, All Occupations

$33,840

 

The median annual wage of train engineers and operators was $46,100 in May 2010. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,000 and the top 10 percent earned more than $71,350.

Median wages for train engineer and operator occupations in May 2010 were as follows:

  • $47,670 for brake, signal, and switch operators
  • $46,630 for locomotive engineers
  • $43,510 for locomotive firers
  • $35,480 for rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers

Trains are scheduled to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, meaning that many train engineers and operators sometimes work nights, weekends, and holidays. Most rail employees work full time. In 2010, nearly one-third worked at least 50 hours a week, although federal regulations require a minimum number of rest hours for operators.

Locomotive engineers whose trains travel long routes can be away from home for long spans of time. Those who work on passenger trains with short routes generally have a more predictable schedule. Workers on some freight trains have irregular schedules.

For engineers, seniority (number of years on the job) usually dictates who receives the most desired shifts. Some engineers are hired on a temporary basis, called "extra board," and get an assignment only when a railroad needs substitutes for workers who are absent.

Job Outlook

Train Engineers and Operators

Percent change in employment, projected 2010-20

Total, All Occupations

14%

Rail Transportation Workers

3%

Train Engineers and Operators

1%

 

Employment of train engineers and operators is projected to experience little or no change, growing 1 percent from 2010 to 2020.

Employment of locomotive engineers is projected to grow 4 percent from 2010 to 2020, slower than the average for all occupations.

Employment of brake, signal, and switch operators is expected to decline 4 percent over the same period.

Although demand for rail transportation is expected to rise because of population growth and an increase in global trade, a lack of new track capacity will hold back growth. Building new tracks is expensive, so freight companies have found other ways to increase capacity, such as double-stacking (stacking one train car on top of another) or running longer trains.

Passenger rail can add more cars to existing train sets to increase capacity without increasing the number of locomotives. These types of measures can meet the growing demand for rail without significant increases in employment.

Employment of rail yard engineers, dinkey operators, and hostlers is projected to decline 4 from 2010 to 2020, while that of locomotive firers is projected to decline 5 percent.

Although demand for rail transportation is expected to grow, these occupations will be more affected by increases in productivity. Increased use of remote-control locomotive technology allows engines to be moved around rail yards remotely and is replacing some of these workers.

Job Prospects

Job opportunities should be favorable for these occupations. Although many workers stay in these occupations for a long time, currently more workers are nearing retirement than is the case in most occupations. When these workers begin to retire, many jobs should become available.

Employment projections data for train engineers and operators, 2010-20
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2010 Projected Employment, 2020 Change, 2010-20 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Train Engineers and Operators

67,100 67,600 1 500

Locomotive Engineers

53-4011 38,700 40,400 4 1,700 [XLS]

Locomotive Firers

53-4012 1,100 1,000 -5 -100 [XLS]

Rail Yard Engineers, Dinkey Operators, and Hostlers

53-4013 5,600 5,400 -4 -200 [XLS]

Railroad Brake, Signal, and Switch Operators

53-4021 21,700 20,800 -4 -900 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of train engineers and operators.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2010 MEDIAN PAY Help
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Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers

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Material moving machine operators

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Railroad conductors and yardmasters

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Conductors and yardmasters coordinate the daily activities of both freight and passenger train crews. Conductors work on the train. Yardmasters work in the rail yard.

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Subway and streetcar operators

Subway and Streetcar Operators

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Water transportation occupations

Water Transportation Occupations

Workers in water transportation occupations operate and maintain ships that take cargo and people over water. These ships travel to and from foreign ports across the ocean, to domestic ports along the coasts, across the Great Lakes, and along the country’s many inland waterways.

See How to Become One $46,610
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Train Engineers and Operators,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/transportation-and-material-moving/train-engineers-and-operators.htm (visited April 25, 2015).

Publish Date: Thursday, March 29, 2012