The locomotive engineer must not only know how to run his engine, but he must also know a great deal about how it is built and how each part works, so that he will know what must be done if anything goes wrong. Therefore, one who aspires to become an engineer usually started as a machinist's or boiler maker's apprentice, or in some other beginner's job in a shop or roundhouse where locomotives were repaired. His next job may have been that of a hostler, who runs the locomotives in and around the shops and repair yards but who does not drive an engine in main-line service, or his next job could have been that of a locomotive fireman. The fireman's job furnishes the final training ground for the engineer's job and every locomotive engineer was selected from the ranks of firemen.
An engineer's first assignment was usually running a switching engine, pushing and pulling cars back and forth and making up trains in rail yards. Then he was assigned to a local freight run, and finally, he got a fast or long distance freight or passenger run.
Because of efficiency and safety concerns engineers, and every other member of the crew, had to be trained for his job but also had to be healthy and have good eyesight. Before the engineer was allowed to run a locomotive he had pass a rigid examination to prove that he was familiar with the technical details of locomotive operation, air-brakes, signals, etc., and also that he was thoroughly familiar with the rule book. For safety reasons no crew mwmber was allowed to start work unless he has been off duty for at least eight hours.
Crew members were assigned to different runs on the basis of seniority, the man with the longest service record having the first choice, the man with the second longest service record having the second choice, and so on.
Engineers sat on the right side of the cab and kept his eye on the track, observed signals and making sure the track was clear. When the train approached a signal, its message had to be confirmed by the fireman. to make certain that it was read it correctly. The engineer and fireman also watch the train to the rear to see that it was intact and to note any signal from the conductor or brakemen.
The steam engine's cab, situated behind the boiler and firebox, contained all of the controls required in the operation: the throttle, the air-brake controls, the sand controls, and several gauges and indicators which tell the engineer how well the engine was performing. Many locomotives were equipped with automatic stokers whereby coal was conveyed from the tender into the firebox.
The whistle was used to signal the train crew and sounds warnings upon approaching crossings, stations and persons or animals on the track. When the train was approaching a station, the engineer sounded one long blast. On approaching a grade crossing, he sounded two long, one short and one long blast. Several short blasts were sounded to warn persons or animals to get off the track. The engineer also has several whistle combinations for communicating information to the conductor and other members of the train crew.
On passenger trains the train crew communicated with to the engineer by means of a signal cord extending through the entire length of the train and attached to a little whistle beside the engineer in the cab. When the train was standing, two short pulls on the signal cord told the engineer to start the train; three shorts told him to back up; four shorts told him to apply or release air-brakes. When the train was moving two short blasts signaled the engineer to stop at once; three shorts, stop at next passenger station; four shorts, reduce speed. Freight trains were not equipped with signal cords so the conductor and crew signaled the engineer by means of hand, flag and lantern signals.
Although steam engines are long gone some scenic railroads still operate them and it is possible to attend classes to learn to be a fireman and engineer. One scenic railroad, for example, offers classes in which individuals must complete the Fireman Steam School Class before advancing to the Engineer Steam School Class. Both the Fireman and Engineer courses must be completed before signing up for the Advanced class and class sizes are limited. But it's not cheap:
The fireman's class costs $2250.00 and is available to first-time students. Emphasis is on “firing” a K-36 Baldwin locomotive and textbooks, rule book, and timetable are furnished in advance to all students. On day one students view safety videos and review course materials. After the classroom session, students meet in the yard where they receive hands-on training.
On day two they become familiar with the art of firing the locomotive and then practice the actual firing of the locomotive while it is making its run. Days three and four are test that are actually made during a 64-mile run.
The engineer's class cost $2750.00 and is open to those that took the Fireman's class. Emphasis is on the use of the throttle, brakes, setting valves, injectors, lubricators, lights, and repairs and maintenance, along with specific studies relative to use of the air on the locomotive and much more. Homework is required and students are tested beginning at day one, the material having been supplied in advance.
Day two includes the practice, familiarization and understanding of the operation of the locomotive. Days three and four test the students’ proficiency and skill by actually driving the engine on a run.
The Advanced class cost is $5,000.00. This class focuses less on road trips and more on the everyday tasks of railroading and covers such things as yard operation rules, yard operation, yard switching, air brakes and operating a local freight with switching.
During training students must pay for their room and board and supply steel toed shoes, eye protection, overalls, long sleeve shirts, caps and work gloves.
These days a diesel locomotive engineer's salary ranges between $60,000-$130,000 with the average being around $92,000. The route to becoming an engineer is not easy. Generally one starts in an entry-level position such as a Switchman or Brakeman. You do not need any previous railroad experience. These jobs directly lead to becoming a Conductor or an Engineer.
These are not fun jobs! They require a non-standard 40-hour week that require variable work hours with irregularly scheduled days off. Employees are always on-call, even nights, weekends and holidays, and are typically required to report to work within 90 minutes of notification. I once considered applying for such a position and was told we would be required to be reachable by phone at each shift change (7am. 3Pm and 11pm). I was also informed that the pay was so many dollars per week (I don't remember the exact amount). They phrased it as a dollar amount per week to try and hide the fact that it was actually minimum wage. I wasn't interested! Travel is required and crews sometimes spending a day or more away from home.
This entry level job requires working outdoors in all weather conditions, including snow, ice, rain, cold and heat and frequently more than 12 feet above the ground. Employees are affected by the amount of work available and it's not unusual to be placed on furlough status and no longer be on the active call list. As work demand increases, individuals are taken off furlough status as needed. Furloughs are based on seniority.
One railroad claims that as a beginning crew member on can expect to earn about $41,000 a year, but actual pay depends on location and union agreements. The first 14 weeks are dedicated to formal training both in the classroom and on the job. Afterward, you will be assigned to either a switch person, brake person or conductor.