How To Become a Train Driver (Plus Duties, Salary and Job Outlook)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published March 17, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Operating a train is the responsibility of a train driver. It requires a strong understanding of the workings of locomotives and railways to transport passengers and materials safely to their destinations. If you're interested in a career as a train driver, it can be helpful to understand what the job entails. In this article, we define the role and responsibilities of train drivers, explain how to become one, discuss the skills essential to the job, describe the work environment and look at the average salary and job outlook.

Related: 11 Jobs You Can Work in the Railroad Industry

What is a train driver?

A train driver is a professional who operates a passenger or freight train on a rail network. They're also known by numerous other titles, including train engineer, locomotive engineer, train operator and engine driver. The position of the train driver differs from that of the conductor in that the former is in charge of running the locomotive while the latter manages the cars, including the crew, passengers and their activities. Thus, the driver is a mechanical operator who handles the vehicle, controlling its speed and movements, whereas the conductor is similar to a supervisor.

Related: What Does a Conductor Do on a Train?

What does a train driver do?

The primary responsibility of a train driver is to operate a locomotive to transport passengers or freight between stations. The specific duties of the job tend to be similar regardless of the employer and generally include the following:

  • Inspecting the vehicle and engine in preparation for a route

  • Driving long-distance between points

  • Receiving and interpreting train orders

  • Heeding electronic and manual signals along a route

  • Complying with professional and federal rules and regulations relating to train operation and safety

  • Monitoring the speed, air pressure and other operational measurements of the train

  • Using mechanical controls such as throttles and air brakes to control the speed and motion of the train

  • Observing the track ahead for obstructions and responding accordingly

  • Maintaining contact with the conductor and informing them of changes to the train's condition

Related: Learn About 6 Railroad Companies in the US

How to become a train driver

You can follow these steps to learn how to become a train driver:

1. Earn a high school diploma

The minimum education requirement to be a train driver is a high school diploma or equivalent. Completing your high school education indicates that you possess the mental acuity to understand the workings of a locomotive and how to operate it. A common alternative to a high school diploma is the GED, which requires that you pass a comprehensive exam covering language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

Related: GED vs. High School Diploma: Differences, Similarities and How To Choose

2. Apply for a railroad position

Train drivers typically earn their position by working their way up from the entry level. In this way, you can gain practical knowledge about the workings of railways and gain the relevant experience that employers typically request in train driver candidates. Some common titles that they hold in their career path are brake operator, switch operator, yardmaster and conductor, and experience in the lattermost position is a common prerequisite for a driving role. Look for available entry-level railroad positions such as these in your area by searching job sites, the job pages of railway companies and niche job boards.

3. Apply for a train driver position

After you've gained experience in the railway industry and worked your way up to higher-level positions, you can begin applying for train driver positions. Inquire with your current employer about internal promotions, as applying from within can improve your candidacy greatly. If no positions are available within your organization, use the same job-search resources as before to find opportunities elsewhere.

Related: How To Write an Internal Promotion Resume Objective

4. Complete training

A training program can teach you the technical skills and knowledge required to drive a train. These programs cover a broad array of topics, including but not limited to industry and federal regulations, locomotive engines, onboard systems and how to handle the vehicle in various weather conditions. Your employer is likely to provide you with this training, or else direct you to an organization that can. The length of the program depends on your employer or training provider. Some programs may last as little as three months, while others may take 20 months or more.

5. Get certified

Certification by the Federal Railroad Administration is a requirement for all train drivers. After completing training, you're required to complete a written knowledge test and a skills test to assess your suitability for the position, and a supervisor determines whether you possess a sufficient understanding of the job and your route. Once certified, you then undergo a final test to assess your hearing and vision. Recertification is necessary every few years and whenever you change routes.

Essential skills for train drivers

Successfully executing the duties of a train driver requires various proficiencies and personal qualities, including the following:

Technical skills

For train drivers, technical skills refer to competencies relating to the physical operation of a train. It's necessary for drivers to be knowledgeable about the various controls found within the cab of the train. With this understanding, they can control the speed of the vehicle and help to direct it on its course.

Concentration

Concentration is the ability of a person to focus on a task for extended periods. Train driving typically involves long consecutive hours of travel, during which the driver is to focus on controlling the vehicle. The ability to concentrate on this task can ensure safe and speedy transportation of the people or freight aboard.

Related: 10 Ways To Improve Your Focus and Concentration Skills

Hand-eye coordination

Hand-eye coordination refers to the ability of your sight and hands to work together to complete physical tasks that require movement and precision. This ability is useful for train drivers since the operation of physical controls on the train is a requirement of the job. Normally, the driver is looking ahead as they operate such controls, so strong hand-eye coordination allows them to reach and manipulate the appropriate levers, handles and buttons accurately.

Visual acuity

Visual acuity is a measure of an individual's ability to discern objects and details at a distance. For train drivers, whose job involves operating a moving vehicle, strong visual acuity is essential. If, for example, an object is blocking the tracks ahead, it's necessary for the driver to see the obstacle to react accordingly. Peripheral and color vision are also important, as moving objects may approach at angles and obstacles may be present in dim light.

Communication

Communication is the ability to convey information to others in a way they can easily understand. During routes, train drivers maintain communication with others to ensure safe and accurate travel. They speak via radio with dispatchers to relay details such as track and weather conditions, and they frequently update the conductor with information relating to the vehicle and travel.

Decision-making skills

An individual with excellent decision-making skills can quickly consider the potential actions they can take and choose the one that's most likely to lead to success. A train driver may encounter challenges on their routes, including but not limited to travel delays and physical obstacles. A skilled decision-maker can react to such challenges appropriately by executing actions that minimize or avoid unwanted outcomes.

Related: Decision-Makers: Definition and Why They're Important

Work environment for train drivers

The primary employers of train drivers are rail transportation companies. Whether driving passenger or freight trains, train drivers typically work within climate-controlled settings that are spacious enough to allow for unconstrained movement. The constant noise and vibrations emanating from the train engine and rail may present physical challenges to the driver, as might the jolting movements of the vehicle.

Since both passenger and freight trains run long-distance routes and operate 24 hours per day, it may be common for train drivers to spend long periods away from home. Nighttime, weekend, holiday and overtime work may also be necessary. That being said, there are regulations in place that cap shift times at 12 hours per period, followed by a specified number of rest hours. Those who usually work short routes can expect to work more predictable, consistent schedules. As train drivers gain experience, their seniority may allow them to select shifts that align with their preferences.

Related: 6 Different Work Environment Types and Example Career Roles

Average salary and job outlook for train drivers

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that train drivers, categorized as locomotive engineers, earn a mean annual wage of $71,870 per year. This is above the annual wage for railroad workers in general, who average $64,210 per year, and significantly more than the overall average for all occupations, which is $41,950 per year. Various factors may influence a train driver's specific earning potential. Location is one such factor, as BLS figures show that drivers in Nebraska, California, Montana, Minnesota and Missouri average higher than average salaries, starting at over $77,000 per year in each state.

As for job outlook, the BLS predicts a 6% growth in employment for train drivers between 2020 and 2030. This is slower than the 7.7% average growth rate forecasted for all occupations but greater than the 5% average for railroad workers in general. The Bureau attributes the projected growth to a prospective increase in freight transported via multiple modes of transport, including rail. Limitations to growth may arise with a decline in the use of coal, a resource commonly transported by train.

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