How To Become a Train Engineer

By Jordan Fabel •  Updated: November 15, 2022  •  8 min read  •  Transportation
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If you want to become a train engineer, you need to know the steps. Maybe you’ve had a fascination with trains all your life. This could be a good sign that becoming a train engineer is a good career choice for you.

Also known as a locomotive engineer, a train engineer works on a moving locomotive. They will operate the train and make sure it arrives safely at the station. There are many job duties for a train engineer to perform.

Those considering this career path need to understand the job duties. It’s also necessary to understand how to become a train engineer. Let’s look at both the duties and the steps to enter this career.

How To Become a Train Engineer

Job Duties of a Train Engineer

As a train engineer, you’re responsible for making sure the train arrives safely at the station. You might operate freight or a passenger train for a private or government-run railroad agency. It’s common to drive long-distance locomotives as a train engineer.

Some train engineers will move trains in a rail yard. Others will move trains between stations. Common job duties of a train engineer include:

There are many job duties for a train engineer to perform. If you like the idea of performing these duties daily, you will likely enjoy working as a train engineer.

How To Become a Train Engineer in 4 Steps

Step #1 – Meet the Basic Requirements

If you want to become a train engineer, you have to be at least 21 years of age. It’s necessary to have a high school diploma or GED to become a train engineer, as well.

Along with these basic requirements, you will need to have very good vision and excellent hearing. Good hand-eye coordination is also necessary, along with a high level of stamina. If you understand mechanics well, this is also helpful.

Step #2 – Work in an Entry-Level Position

Most train engineers will start in an entry-level position to gain on-the-job training. This may include switch operator or brake operator positions. You will be uncoupling and coupling train cars, communicating with other train professionals, and operating switches.

After gaining some experience, you can work your way up to a position as a train conductor. This is likely a requirement before you can become a train engineer.

Step #3 – Complete Formal Training

On-the-job formal training is necessary for all train engineers. You will need to go through extensive training and complete a formal engineer training program. Railroad companies often offer federally-approved training with classroom instruction and hands-on training.

During your training, you will learn how to operate the trains, use the equipment, and navigate specific weather conditions. You will also learn how to follow safety practices and transport specific types of materials.

Some community colleges or universities may offer train engineer programs. However, these are more commonly found through railroad companies.

Step #4 – Earn Your License

Train engineers will need to become federally licensed by the Federal Railroad Association. You will need to complete the necessary training and gain hands-on experience first. Then, it’s required that you pass an exam. This exam will test your technical skills and knowledge of safely operating a train.

Along with the exam, you have to pass a background check, a hearing exam, and a vision test. It’s also necessary to demonstrate knowledge of train routes.

Once you’ve earned your license, you will need to pass tests occasionally, along with physical exams. Random drug and alcohol screenings will also be necessary.

Necessary Skills to Become a Train Engineer

If you want to become a train engineer, you will either need to have or learn the following skills:

These skills are vital to your career as a train engineer. Some you can acquire with on-the-job training and education. Others, you may have to work on or already have.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Train Engineer

How much does a train engineer make each year?

The salary range for train engineers goes from about $38K to about $99K. It’s based on your location, the type of train you operate, your experience, and your employer. Some train engineer jobs pay more than others.

Crew members often make the least at about $38K per year. Once you become a conductor, you can earn around $43K per year. Field service engineers make closer to $70K per year. The top-paying train engineer position will be a release engineer at about $99K per year.

Locomotive engineers will likely earn an average salary of about $67K per year. It can be higher in some locations. If you gain years of experience, you can earn more money each year, too.

Some of the top employers will pay significantly more. For example, conductors can make a six-figure salary working for top employers like Star Transportation or Canadian National Railway. Even the U.S. Army pays well above average for train engineers.

What type of benefits are common for train engineers?

It’s common to receive employee benefits at a train engineer. A 401(k) and health insurance are the most common benefits you will receive. Most train engineers will also receive life, vision, disability, and dental insurance. Paid time off for vacations, parental leave, and for illnesses are also very common benefits.

What is the difference between a train conductor and a train engineer?

A train conductor works on the ground and assists the train engineer. This is an important position, but a train engineer is the one that will actually operate the train and drive it from station to station. Some train engineers will start as conductors and work their way into an engineer position.

What are the common types of trains operated by train engineers?

Train engineers will likely drive passenger or freight trains. It’s common to operate commuter trains from suburban areas to metropolitan cities. Long-distance trains are also operated by train engineers.

The most common type of train operated by a train engineer is a diesel-electric train. Other trains operated by train engineers may be powered by battery or electricity only.

Is there a possibility for advancement as a train engineer?

Yes. Many train engineers work their way into management-level positions. They may enter into management training to become trainmasters, general supervisors, or terminal managers. The Federal Railroad Administration also offers positions for research and development, regulatory careers, and safety inspector jobs to railroad engineers.

How long will it take to become a train engineer?

Once you have the necessary experience working in an entry-level position, you will go through two to three months of on-the-job training. This type of training will allow you to become a train engineer, once you complete the exam and get your federal license.

The amount of experience you need depends on the company you work for. Some companies require more experience as a train conductor than others. Make sure you understand how long your employer expects you to work as a conductor before you can train as an engineer.

Most train engineers will need to work for a few years before they can independently drive a train.

Are train engineers in high demand?

No. This career is growing, but not very fast. It’s expected to grow at a rate of about 2% over the next ten years.

Do I need to be licensed to work as a train engineer?

Yes. You will need to earn your Federal Railroad Association license. It’s also necessary to get a commercial driver’s license. There may be other certifications you may need for a specific type of train, too.

Do I need a degree to become a train engineer?

No. This career doesn’t require a degree. About 68% of train engineers have a high school diploma. The rest may have some type of certification, but very few have a college degree. It’s not a requirement since the job will require on-the-job training.

Do I need to be in good health to become a train engineer?

Yes. You will need to have good physical stamina, great hearing, and excellent vision. This is required to become and remain a train engineer. Since you will spend most of the day on your feet, it’s necessary to be in good physical health.

If you want to become a train engineer, you can use the steps above. This career doesn’t require a degree, but it will require experience. Gaining on-the-job training and experience is the key to work your way up to the position of a train engineer.

Jordan Fabel

Jordan Fabel

Covering different 'paths' that people's lives can take. Creative, foster parent, ticket dismissal, you get the idea. Exploring the requirements, certifications, exams, and obviously, approved courses along each path.