In general, a railroad engineer is responsible for the safe handling of a railroad locomotive and compliance with railroad rules and regulations. Once the train is moving, the engineer is responsible for acceleration and braking, as well as other handling procedures. This professional is also responsible for checking the condition of the locomotive before operation and ensuring that all equipment is properly working and ready for service. These responsibilities require that the railroad engineer has a thorough knowledge of the route the train will be traveling, and he must be ready to respond to the terrain the train will be traveling through.
The railroad engineer is responsible for knowing track conditions and station locations as well. The engineer must be prepared to accelerate and decelerate the train in relation to slopes and inclines, and must be ready to react to any unforeseen changes in track conditions, including obstructions. The railroad engineer must also be familiar with the specific handling characteristics of his train. For example, freight trains handle very differently than passenger trains, and an engineer must know how to handle each type of train to prevent derailments, partings, or excessive speed.
Typically, someone must become an assistant conductor, or brakeman, before becoming a railroad engineer. A brakeman's duties can include throwing track switches in freight situations, or collecting ticket revenue on passenger trains. This job provides a brakeman with an opportunity to become familiar with the trains themselves and the operating procedures that are used during train operation, and the brakeman can become more familiar with the instrumentation that a railroad engineer must monitor before, during, and after a train is moving.
In order to become a railroad engineer, a candidate must spend a significant amount of time training. He or she will spend around 120 hours behind the controls of a train, under careful supervision. The candidate must also be screened to ensure good vision and hearing, as well as an absence of substance abuse problems. The potential engineer will then be required to pass both a written test and a real-time skills test in order to become certified as a railroad engineer. While there is no engineer license, per se, each railroad company must draw their own qualification guidelines in accordance with federal rules and regulations.
An engineer can lose his license for several reasons. Some of the most serious reasons are running a stop signal, exceeding the speed limit by more than ten miles an hour, operating the train under the influence of alcohol or drugs, occupying a track without permission, and using the air brakes improperly. These violations are considered serious and can lead to serious repercussions for the engineer.