Railroad engineer

This article is about the operator of a train. For the professional engineer who designs railway systems, see Railway engineering.
A railroad engineer's workplace on a German ICE-Train.

An engineer (American and Canadian), engine driver, train driver, train operator (British and Commonwealth English) is a person who operates a train. The driver is in charge of, and responsible for driving the engine, as well as the mechanical operation of the train, train speed, and all train handling. The use of the term engineer to describe this occupation in North America should not be confused with the usual meanings of engineer.

For many American railroads, the following career progression is typical: assistant conductor (brakeman), conductor and finally driver. In the US, drivers are required to be certified and re-certified every two to three years.[1] In American English a hostler moves engines around train yards, but does not take them out on the normal tracks.

In India, a driver starts as a diesel assistant or electrical assistant (in case of electric locomotives). They then get promoted on a scale: goods, passenger, Mail/Express and Rajdhani/Shatabdi/Duronto.[2]

In New Zealand, the United States and Canada, train drivers are historically known as "locomotive engineers". In the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia they are known as "train drivers", "engine drivers", "locomotive drivers", or "locomotive operators".


An engineer is responsible for preparing equipment for service, checking paperwork and the condition of the locomotives. Their duties require that they control acceleration, braking and handling of the train underway. They must know the physical characteristics of the railroad, including passenger stations, the incline and decline of the right-of-way and speed limits. Along with the conductor, the engineer monitors time to not fall behind schedule, nor leave stations early. The train's speed must be reduced when following other trains, approaching route diversions, or regulating time over road to avoid arriving too early. The engineer assumes the duties of the conductor if the conductor is incapacitated.

The locomotive engineer is required to have an intimate knowledge of track geometry including signal placement so as to be able to safely control the train.

Maintaining concentration is of critical importance in this role.

Train handling

A workplace in Rigi cogwheel electric train

Train dynamics can be extreme and therefore an engineer must be familiar with train handling techniques so as to avoid train partings, derailments and exceeding maximum authorized speed.

Freight trains typically have different train forces from passenger trains. A typical freight train may have 660 tonnes (or more) of locomotive weight at the front. That may be followed by 2000 metres (6600 ft) of freight cars. The cars may or may not be uniformly loaded and may brake differently.

Severe brake applications can combine with these factors to cause a train parting. Therefore, good train handling practice for freight trains is usually to keep the train stretched or bunched, uniformly. This is achieved by keeping the train in power while a brake application is made, or by continuous use of dynamic brakes. Transitioning from one state to another (stretched vs. bunched) requires careful handling, and a skilled operator on the locomotive.

When there are Dead In Consist (DIC)multiple locomotives, some may be set up to brake like freight cars instead of locomotives.

On shorter passenger trains, this is even more noticeable, requiring the first application of the brake to be bled off on the locomotive, applying locomotive brakes with subsequent increases in application. The length and make-up of the slowing or stopping distance dictates just how much locomotive brake application should be allowed to apply. Passenger trains utilizing "Blended Braking" do not actuate (release) the application of locomotive brakes. This combines with dynamic braking forces, to produce the maximum amount of safe braking effort, for any given speed.

The use of dynamic brake can result in a severe slack action, when engaged, run in is highly possible if brought in at an inappropriate time (regarding track geometry and train speed) and if disengaged at an inappropriate time can result in a run out. Both can potentially snap train drawgear or couplings.

Stringlining is a potential cause of derailment that train handling techniques must take into account in order to reduce the likelihood of occurrence. When a train rounds a curve basic physics dictates the trailing cars in the consist will try to take the shortest route and the flange on some of the wheels within the consist could potentially fail to prevent this occurring with the resultant effect being a derailment.

Track geometry is also critical to train handling. It is desirable to have brakes releasing at the bottom of steep grades rather than applied. And at the top of a steep grade it is desirable to have a fully charged brake pipe.

Serial braking is where a train descends a grade on the air brake alone. The brake pipe application is gradually increased to slow down and if required (depending on the weight of the train and on the grade) stop the train so as to allow the locomotive compressors to recharge the brake pipe throughout the consist. In these cases it is permissible to use the locomotive brakes (which are independent of the train brake and charged through the main reservoir directly) to hold the train (In some cases the weight of the trailing consist will not be held on the locomotive brakes alone) slowing the rate of acceleration and giving more time to recharge the brake pipe to give a better application in the next subsequent train brake application. A runaway can occur if a brake application is required before the train pipe has recharged (as happened at Cima Hill in the United States).

A split reduction is where a train brake application is made and gradually increased as the train descends the grade. It is different from serial braking in that with Serial Braking the application is released, the brake pipe recharged then reapplied.

The dynamic brake when operable slows down the rate of acceleration and allows longer for a train brake pipe to be recharged before being required to be re applied. When a train descends a grade utilizing both the dynamic and air brakes the procedure is known as 'maintaining braking'.

Notable railroad engineers/train drivers

The United Kingdom (UK)-based transport historian Christian Wolmar stated in October 2013 that train operators employed by the Rio Tinto Group to transport iron ore across the Australian outback are most likely the highest-paid members of the occupation in the world at that time.[4]

See also

Further reading


  1. "2003 CFR Title 49, Volume 4; Part 240: Qualification and Certification of Locomotive Engineers". Code of Federal Regulations. United States National Archives and Records Administration. Retrieved 2007-11-14.
  2. "Train Crew". FAQ: Railway Operations. Indian Railways Fan Club. 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-14.
  3. Waterson, D.B. "Chifley, Joseph Benedict (Ben) (1885–1951)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 2015-09-06.
  4. Elisabeth Behrmann (3 October 2013). "Rio Replacing Train Drivers Paid Like U.S. Surgeons". Bloomberg. Retrieved 3 October 2013.

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