Railroad Engineer

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Railroad Engineer

Education and Training High school, training, and license

Salary Median—$24.30 per hour

Employment Outlook Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Railroad engineers are also called locomotive engineers. Some run the trains that carry freight or passengers across the country or locally. Yard engineers, by contrast, operate automated systems that move passenger and freight cars into place in rail yards. They add cars to trains before they leave the station and separate cars after trains have reached their destinations. They also use locomotives to switch cars around for loading and unloading freight.

Engineers must be able to operate any locomotive the train lines use. Before and after each run, they must check carefully for mechanical problems. They either make minor repairs themselves or return the locomotives to the yard for servicing.

Advanced technology has affected the way engineers do their jobs. Much of the information they were traditionally responsible for, such as knowing the proper speeds at curves and bridges along their routes, is now communicated to engineers by computers and telephones. For example, if a train is approaching a curve that requires a slower speed, computers relay that information from the central railroad station to the locomotive, alerting the engineer to make the necessary adjustments. Computerized devices also alert engineers to train malfunctions. Engineers still must know all the operating rules, including how signals are used, and the locations of rail sidings (platforms) and the number of cars each siding can hold.

Education and Training Requirements

It takes several years for railroad engineers to get their positions. Most aspiring engineers start as yard laborers. To be hired for these entry-level positions, workers must have high school diplomas or their equivalent. They must also have good vision and hearing and be in good physical condition—the job is physically strenuous. Besides physical examinations, applicants must undergo criminal background checks and drug screening. After several years in the rail yard, laborers can become eligible for additional training.

Federal regulations require that beginning engineers complete formal training programs, including classroom, simulator, and hands-on instruction. The programs are usually administered by railroad companies, but they may also be available through technical schools or community colleges. When they have completed the programs, workers must pass comprehensive exams to obtain engineering licenses.

Because rules and procedures change, engineers are retested periodically. They also undergo frequent drug and alcohol screening and physical examinations.

Getting the Job

Job seekers can apply directly to railroad companies for jobs as yard workers or—if they already have experience in the rail yard or other rail occupations—to be accepted into training programs. Job openings are sometimes listed by state or private employment agencies, on union Web sites, or on Internet job sites.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Railroad engineers are at the top of their field. By accumulating seniority over many years, engineers can progress to more desirable jobs. For example, they may move to road service from assignments in the yard. Some may become railroad inspectors.

Employment of railroad engineers is expected to decline through 2014. While demand for service engineers to run freight trains should grow as the economy and transportation of goods expand, fewer yard engineers may be needed because of computerization. Opportunities could be plentiful, however, because a large number of engineers may retire in the next decade. More jobs for engineers may also become available if high-speed service expands in some rail corridors.

Working Conditions

Engineers who work in passenger service have fairly regular shifts in comfortable conditions. Those who work with freight have more difficult assignments. Especially on short runs, during which they must stop frequently to load and unload cars, the work can be physically demanding and sometimes dangerous. It often requires long hours, so strength and endurance are essential.

New engineers may wait years for regular assignments. In the meantime they are on call twenty-four hours a day to go where they are needed and may spend many nights away from home.

Earnings and Benefits

In 2004 the median salary for railroad engineers was $24.30 per hour. Overtime significantly increased many engineers' yearly income. (On some rail lines their earnings were curtailed by mileage limits that had been agreed to by the companies and the unions.) New engineers did not have regular hours, so they made much less money.

Where to Go for More Information

Association of American Railroads
50 F St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-1564
(202) 639-2100

United Transportation Union
14600 Detroit Ave.
Cleveland, OH 44107-4250
(216) 228-9400

Benefits may include paid vacations, sick leave, health insurance, and pensions.