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What Certification Does a Railroad Engineer Require?

by Will Charpentier

Federal law spells out a railroad engineer’s certification requirements. Obtaining certification depends on your work habits, job experience, physical abilities and the ability to complete training successfully. Once certified, you can operate a locomotive that pulls a 100-car train two miles or more long as it flies along two ribbons of steel a little less than 5 feet apart, at speeds of 70 mph or more.

Building a Head of Steam

Railroad engineers begin their careers in train service by working aboard trains as a brakeman or a conductor. If they’re 21 or older, have excellent sight and hearing, a good safety record and pass the drug tests that are a part of railroading, they can begin their employer’s Federal Railroad Administration-certified engineer course. When they pass the classes and complete the on-the-job training, they receive their certification as an engineer. Should they leave a railroad to take a job as an engineer with another railroad, they may have to undergo certification again, if their new employer does not accept the training of another railroad.

Outside Training OK

Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations outlines the requirements for an engineer’s training. The regulations also allow railroads to train the engineers directly or accept the training of another railroad. If a railroad elects to train engineers, they can conduct the training or send the candidates to a school; for example, the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway sends its prospective engineers to the National Academy of Railroad Sciences, an FRA-certified program at Johnson Community College, in Overland Park, Kansas.

The Basics in a Changing World

Training a new engineer includes teaching the candidate to handle a train safely and efficiently either through a simulator, such as that used by NARS, or through actual operation. Engineers operate in a stringent and constantly changing regulatory environment as trains increase in size and cargo becomes more diverse. Some basics never change, such as the way to start a train in motion on level ground and on a hill or grade, how to come to a safe speed, locomotive and car air brake system use, how to obey block signals, lights and signage, yard approaches, and managing a train in adverse conditions.

The Test

Upon completion of the training, whether through the railroad or a training school, candidates undergo rigorous written testing to ensure they can operate a train safely and within the requirements of laws and regulations. Candidates are tested on personal safety, operating and equipment inspection practices, train-handling practices and Federal safety rules. Testing also includes operation within the certifying railroad’s in-house safety rules.

About the Author

Will Charpentier is a writer who specializes in boating and maritime subjects. A retired ship captain, Charpentier holds a doctorate in applied ocean science and engineering. He is also a certified marine technician and the author of a popular text on writing local history.

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