What is a Locomotive Engineer?

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  • Written By: J.Gunsch
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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A locomotive engineer, or railroad engineer, is a freight or passenger train operator. The train is made up of one or more locomotives that pull the passenger or freight cars, and the locomotive engineer is in charge of the locomotives. The locomotives which power the trains are usually run by a combination of diesel and electricity. However there are some locomotives that run on electricity alone.

The job of a locomotive engineer includes inspecting the mechanical conditions of the locomotives prior to, and at the completion of each trip. They are trained to make minor adjustments to the machinery when necessary. Upon completion of the pre-trip inspection the locomotive engineer awaits instructions to start the trip from the railroad conductors on board.

Once the train is in motion, the locomotive engineer controls the acceleration and braking of the train by maneuvering throttles and airbrakes. They also must keep a close eye on the amperage, air pressure, and battery gauges. Another important part of the locomotive engineer's job is to maintain communication with other railroad personnel such as conductors on the train and traffic control center staff. The locomotive engineer is also responsible for keeping daily records of the train’s physical condition and procedures followed on each trip.


In addition to the skills of inspecting and adjusting the mechanics of the locomotive and controlling its movement, the locomotive engineer must have a comprehensive understanding of the railroad and routes that they travel, including the terminals. They also have to know the condition and makeup of their train and the condition and geometrics of the route the train will travel. This is extremely important because the acceleration and braking capabilities of the train are dependent on the grades and condition of the rail as well as the weight of the train cars the locomotive is pulling.

Because the job of locomotive engineer requires the most skills of any railroad worker, locomotive engineer positions are almost always filled by workers that have experience in other railroad-operating occupations. The majority of railroad transportation workers start as yard laborers. Because the improperly operated train can have disastrous effects, locomotive engineers are held to high standards in terms of physical shape, specifically in the areas of dexterity, eyesight, hand-eye coordination, and hearing. As a result, locomotive engineers are frequently tested.


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