Train Engineer - What They Do

Railway locomotive engineers operate railway locomotives to transport passengers and freight. They are employed by railway transport companies. Yard locomotive engineers operate locomotives within yards of railway, industrial or other establishments. They are employed by railway transport companies and industrial or commercial users of rail transport.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

Railway locomotive engineers

  • Operate locomotives to transport passengers and freight on railways
  • Operate communication systems to communicate with train crews and traffic controllers to ensure safe operation and scheduling of trains
  • Inspect assigned locomotives and test operating controls and equipment.

Yard locomotive engineers

  • Operate locomotives to switch, couple and uncouple cars for loading and unloading
  • Perform switching operations according to written switching orders or dispatched instructions
  • Inspect locomotives, replenish fuel or perform routine maintenance on locomotives.

Job titles

  • locomotive engineer - railway
  • yard engineer - railway
  • railway engineer
  • transfer hostler - railway
  • switch engineer - railway
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Completion of secondary school is usually required.
  • Experience as a conductor is required for railway locomotive engineers and may be required for yard locomotive engineers.
  • Experience as a railway yard worker may be required for yard locomotive engineers.
  • Railway locomotive engineers require a Canadian Rail Operating Rules certificate.

Essential Skills


  • Read notes from co-workers. For example, they read notes from mechanics and other railway locomotive engineers about the conditions of locomotives they are running. (1)
  • Read warnings on labels and placards. For example, freight and yard locomotive engineers transporting dangerous goods read special handling instructions and safety warnings on container labels. They read warnings on labels so that they are aware of the potential for electric shocks if generators are operated incorrectly. (2)
  • Read text passages in entry forms. For example, railway locomotive engineers read text passages in clearance forms to learn about precautions to take and directives to follow when entering restricted areas and when traveling through dark territories. (2)
  • Read memos from their supervisors. For example, they may read memos which outline changes in procedures for pre-departure inspections and specify new safety regulations. Railway locomotive engineers who operate freight trains read memos from their supervisors which describe special arrangements for loading and unloading cargo such as logs from flatbed railcars. (2)
  • Read operating bulletins. For example, railway locomotive engineers read short operating bulletins to learn about current track conditions, speed restrictions and maintenance crew locations. Yard locomotive engineers read bulletins which describe special cargo deliveries and list locomotives which are unavailable for use. (2)
  • Read equipment manuals. For example, they read passages in equipment manuals to learn about the diagnosis of malfunctions in brake systems. They read manuals to learn how to operate new equipment such as on-board diagnostic systems. (3)
  • Read regulations. For example, they study their organizations' railway rules and the Canadian Rail Operating Rules to know how to safely move trains in their territories and yards. They read rules specific to speed restrictions, central traffic control systems, public crossings, hot box detector systems, automatic block signal systems, radio channels and communication processes to be used when performing switching operations. They read their organizations' health and safety regulations to learn how to handle dangerous goods and how to report incidents and accidents. (4)
  • May read accident reports. For example, they may read reports of critical accidents. They read descriptions of serious accidents, accounts of events preceding and following the accidents and investigators' recommendations for new rules and regulations. (4)

Document use

  • Locate data in digital displays and gauges. For example, they check fuel gauges to see if fuel tanks are full. They locate speeds and distances travelled in speedometers. (1)
  • Identify symbols and icons. For example, they identify icons on equipment labels which indicate the potential for electrical shocks. Freight train and yard locomotive engineers locate symbols on placards which identify the presence of hazardous materials and goods. (1)
  • Locate data in lists. For example, railway locomotive engineers review passenger manifests to determine station stops. Locomotive engineers operating freight trains review cargo lists to confirm the contents of cars. To ensure proper braking methods are used, yard locomotive engineers review lists of cars to identify those that are empty. (2)
  • Locate a variety of data in schedules and tables. For example, railway locomotive engineers operating passenger trains locate arrival and departure times for each station, times to conduct brake tests and locations of side rails. Railway locomotive engineers view tables displaying radio channel call numbers and track owners. When preparing trains for outbound crews, yard locomotive engineers locate cars by searching tables which display rail car, train and track numbers. (2)
  • Locate data in forms. For example, they locate details of repairs made to locomotives in repair forms. They locate speed and movement restrictions in rail traffic control and clearance forms. Yard locomotive engineers may locate data on defects reported and repairs made in maintenance request forms. (2)
  • Enter data into forms. For example, they enter data on brakes, mechanical systems and emergency equipment into inspection forms. They enter details of deficiencies found during inspections into repair forms. They enter times worked into timesheets. They complete incident and accident forms which include detailed descriptions of their recollection of events surrounding accidents and incidents. Railway locomotive engineers enter locations and lengths of delays into delay forms. (2)
  • Interpret schematics. For example, railway locomotive engineers may locate connections for light assemblies and electrical jumper cables in electrical schematics. Yard locomotive engineers locate tracks, rail cars, working crews, cranes and docks in schematic representations of rail yards. (3)
  • May interpret technical drawings and maps. For example, freight and passenger train locomotive engineers may familiarize themselves with curvatures and grades and locations of signal appliances, public crossings and station houses by interpreting scale drawings of track profiles. (3)


  • Write reminders. For example, they write reminders about equipment deficiencies so they do not forget to report them at a later date. Railway locomotive engineers may write notes to remind themselves to contact dispatchers and rail traffic controllers for permission to enter restricted areas. (1)
  • Write text entries in administrative and data collection forms. For example, they describe technical and mechanical malfunctions they encounter during their shifts on maintenance forms. Railway locomotive engineers provide written explanations for delays and lost time during their runs on their shift reports. They note authorizations and clearances received from dispatchers and rail traffic controllers on clearance forms. They write detailed descriptions of their recollection of events surrounding accidents on incident and accident forms. (3)


Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Follow railway timetables for the operation of trains. For example, railway locomotive engineers speed up and slow down to achieve exact arrival times. They depart stations at specified departure times. Railway locomotive engineers operating freight trains time their arrivals at destinations in order to clear tracks with higher priority passenger trains. (1)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Calculate total lengths, distances and weights, elapsed times and other quantities important to train operation. For example, they calculate the total lengths of trains they are running by multiplying unit lengths by numbers of units. They calculate distances they have travelled along their routes and tracks by subtracting starting odometer readings from current readings. They calculate amounts of air pressure being released when applying brakes. Railway locomotive engineers calculate how long it will take them to reach various locations at specified speeds. (2)

Data Analysis Math

  • Compare measurements and instrument readings to standards and specifications. For example, they monitor speedometers to ensure that they are travelling at specified speeds. They monitor gauges for air and oil pressures to ensure that they remain within acceptable ranges. (1)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate times. For example, they may estimate times needed to complete pre-departure inspections. They estimate times required to come to full stops. Locomotive engineers operating freight trains may estimate times to unload customers' cars. (2)
  • Estimate distances. For example, they estimate distances required to bring trains to full stops. They may estimate distances to people walking on tracks and obstructions such as fallen trees. Yard locomotive engineers estimate distances between cars when building trains for out-bound crews. (2)

Oral communication

  • Listen to bell and whistle signals. For example, they listen to whistle and bell signals from brakemen, conductors and other locomotive engineers working on the tracks. (1)
  • Listen to radio communications. For example, freight and passenger train locomotive engineers listen to broadcasts on radio channels to learn about track conditions in subdivisions. Locomotive engineers who operate passenger trains listen to broadcasts of their rates of speed to ensure they are operating within specified clearances and to ensure that speedometers are accurate. Yard locomotive engineers listen to radio communications from other crews so they are aware of where others are working in the yards. (2)
  • Discuss ongoing work with co-workers. For example, engineers who operate freight trains discuss cargos' contents with conductors to ensure that goods are safely delivered to customers. They provide updates on locomotives' performances to engineers beginning their shifts. Locomotive engineers who operate passenger trains receive information from station agents about special needs passengers. They inform cabin crews of delays due to poor weather and track conditions. Yard locomotive engineers discuss methods for building outbound trains with yard forepersons. Railway locomotive engineers ask yard engineers for help with troubleshooting malfunctioning equipment. (3)
  • Discuss train movements, track clearance and other matters with traffic controllers, coordinators and dispatchers. For example, railway locomotive engineers ask rail traffic controllers for permissions to proceed with their runs and clearances to occupy main tracks and sidings. Yard locomotive engineers receive permissions to move trains from traffic coordinators. They ask dispatchers for permission to enter restricted areas and to occupy tracks. Passenger train locomotive engineers confirm arrival and departure times from stations with conductors, station dispatchers and rail traffic controllers. (3)


Problem Solving

  • Encounter equipment malfunctions. For example, when railway locomotive engineers lose power because locomotives are malfunctioning, they inform rail traffic control and their supervisors and ask for clearances to drop off freight cars so they can continue their runs. When railway locomotive engineers operating passenger trains notice limited power, they request route protection extensions from rail traffic control and proceed to switching stations to wait for repairs. When locomotive engineers note spiking amperage readings, they request clearances to stop their trains and walk the tracks to locate wheels which have degenerated. Yard locomotive engineers use their whistles to signal loss of radio contact and wait for replacement radios to be delivered. (2)

Decision Making

  • Make decisions about the operation of locomotives and the management of trains. Yard locomotive engineers decide not to proceed until there is sufficient air charged into brake systems. Railway locomotive engineers decide to drop off cars with overheated wheel bearings and inoperative brakes. (3)

Critical Thinking

  • Assess the operating condition of locomotives. They ensure equipment readings are in operating ranges. They listen for unusual engine sounds. They gauge the performance of locomotives against that of similar units under similar conditions. (2)
  • Judge the safety of rail operations and work procedures. They check to see that actions taken by co-workers conform to written work procedures. They confirm that locomotive and train movements are carried out according to regulations. They observe local track and weather conditions to anticipate risks such as rock falls and ice on rails and platforms. (3)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Railway and yard locomotive engineers' job assignments and priorities are provided by their supervisors. They plan their job tasks to achieve these priorities and work with yard forepersons, rail traffic controllers and conductors to complete their tasks. (2)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember speed limits for track under restriction.

Finding Information

  • Find information about track conditions. For example, freight and passenger train locomotive engineers read daily operating bulletins and speak with rail traffic controllers to determine current track conditions. (2)
  • Find information about trains they are operating. They review manifests, switch lists and daily operating bulletins to identify numbers and types of rail cars that need to be moved, tracks that are available and schedules for train movements. (2)

Digital technology

  • Use databases. For example, they may enter their identification numbers and shift hours in their organizations' databases. They may print daily operating bulletins prior to beginning their shifts. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Railway and yard locomotive engineers coordinate and integrate job tasks with other railway workers to ensure that they operate the trains safely and efficiently. For example, they work with conductors, other engineers, dispatchers, rail traffic controllers and yard forepersons to move trains on main lines and in yards. They work independently to check all mechanical and safety equipment in their locomotives. (3)

Continuous Learning

Railway and yard locomotive engineers need to update their knowledge of rail operations and regulations regularly and complete mandatory recertification training. They renew first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation certifications annually. Every three years, they attend programs presented by Transport Canada to obtain recertification in the Canadian Rail Operating Rules. They may attend meetings to review their organizations' health and safety procedures and protocols. (2)