Who Steers a Train?
Believe it or not, nobody steers a train. The wheels of a train and its rails work together to steer the train. The wheels of a train have a special shape. Each one has an inside rim, or flange, that fits just inside the steel rail. The flanged wheels hold the train on the rails, and guide it along the tracks. Railroad companies build their tracks as nearly level and straight as possible. Because there is less friction to hold back the wheels, it takes less energy, or effort, to pull a train on rails than it does to pull a car of the same weight along a road.
An engineer, train operator, hostler or engine driver is a person who operates a train. The engineer 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 meaning of engineer, as in someone who engages in design.
For many American railroads, the following career progression is typical: assistant conductor (brakeman), conductor and finally engineer. In the US, engineers are required to be certified and re-certified every two to three years. 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.
In the United States and Canada, train drivers are known as “locomotive engineers”. In the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, 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 dynamics can be extreme and therefore an engineer must be familiar with train handling techniques so as to avoid train partings, derailments and not exceeding maximum authorized speed.