Driving That Train

How does a locomotive engineer get his license?

A makeshift memorial to the Sept. 12 Metrolink crash

A deadly commuter crash in Southern California is now being attributed to a locomotive engineer who failed to stop at a red signal—possibly because he was text-messaging while on the job. How do locomotive engineers prove they know the rules of the tracks?

They pass knowledge and skills tests. The government doesn’t issue laminated driver’s licenses to locomotive engineers; instead, each railroad must determine its own procedure for certifying the engineers in accordance with these federal rules. Since most engineers start out as conductors, they begin their training with a decent knowledge about railroad safety. Federal law requires that new engineers take classes on the basics of how a train operates and spend a “significant portion of time”—usually more than 120 hours—behind the controls of a locomotive while under supervision. In addition, prospective engineers are screened to make sure their vision and hearing is in order and that they don’t have a substance-abuse problem.

At the end of their training, the engineers must pass a closed-book, written exam that tests whether they know operating procedures for the train as well as the physical characteristics of the territory they will be working in. (For example, an engineer is expected to know where the track turns sharply or where the stations are on his route.) Likewise, they must pass a “skills” test, which can take place either in an actual train or in a simulator that looks like the full-size controls of a locomotive. (By federal law, a simulator used in testing should be programmed to illustrate the specific line a student will operate on and should “graphically and audibly” illustrate the consequences of the user’s actions.) According to government recommendations, a good skills test would monitor, for example, whether an engineer conducted the right inspections before moving, followed signals and speed restrictions, and used the horn appropriately.

For one example of how this process can work, consider this training program operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway—one of the nation’s largest. BNSF begins its training program for new engineers with three weeks at a center in Overland Park, Kan. There they learn the basics about air brakes and train handling and get their first exposure to a simulator. The next 15 weeks involve on-the-job training back at their home location, where trainees are assigned a specific territory and a trained engineer to supervise them as they man the controls during regular operations. The final two weeks involve a little more time in the classroom, along with the written test and the skills test, which involves two hourlong runs on the simulator. To earn certification, a student must pass each test with at least 90 percent—with one makeup try allowed for each—and then complete a successful evaluation behind the controls in their home area.

Engineers can have their certification revoked based on their performance on the job. (They are also required to go through recertification—including new tests—every three years.) In particular, railroads speak of the “six cardinal rules” that, if broken, will result in an automatic suspension. These include running a stop signal, exceeding the speed limit by more than 10 miles per hour, failing to use the air brakes safely, occupying a track without permission, tampering with safety equipment, and operating the train under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Breaking these rules will usually result in an engineer’s license being revoked for at least 30 days, with repeat offenders sidelined for longer.

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Explainer thanks Steve Kulm of the Federal Railroad Administration, David Rangel of Modoc Railway Academy, and James Stoetzel of Transit Safety Management Inc.