A profession with no room for error

Added on 27.09.2019

Locomotives weighing nearly 200 tonnes pull massively heavy trains that weigh 6,500 tonnes, which is more than half the weight of the Eiffel Tower. Inside that locomotive is the locomotive driver, whose work is based on the training and knowledge they acquire during nine months and which is reassessed every three years.

Martin Laur, Head of Safety and Quality Department

The locomotive driver’s responsibility is one of the greatest in the entire transport sector. This applies particularly to freight locomotive drivers, for any move of these drivers can determine the fate of a train weighing several thousand tonnes. Responsibility and training are key words that characterise freight train locomotive drivers.

To take on this kind of responsibility, the person dreaming of becoming a locomotive driver must take several important steps that will allow them, if they are committed enough, to drive a train one day. To become a locomotive driver, one must first complete general training for locomotive drivers in one of the three training centres that issue the relevant certificate. In Estonia, locomotive drives receive training from TTK University of Applied Sciences, as well as rail freight company Operail, and passenger train transport company Elron.

It may seem peculiar that the 360 academic hours of general locomotive driver training do not entail learning about different types of locomotives. This is because the aim of the training is not to learn about different types of locomotives in particular, as the training is pan-European and focuses more on the general knowledge necessary for operating any kind of locomotive on any kind of infrastructure. Therefore, a locomotive driver who received training in Estonia can be employed in any country in Europe.

After general training, there is an obligatory traineeship of four months, after which it is possible to apply for a locomotive driver's permit at a service bureau of the Estonian Road Administration. In reality, this means that those who pass the state exam will be given a document confirming that the owner of the permit has acquired the required general knowledge of driving a locomotive. At this point, they have still never driven a locomotive themselves, because they do not have the required certificates that they now need to obtain. During their four-month traineeship, they will have been another locomotive driver’s assistant, observing and learning the specifics of the profession and remembering all of the important aspects it entails.

Next, the owner of a locomotive driver’s permit will get to know a specific locomotive during theoretical and practical training to properly assume the responsibilities of a locomotive driver. In addition to driving the locomotive, it is necessary to be familiar with its structure as well as with the functioning of the systems and devices, and to know the methods for eliminating possible malfunctions. This type of training is also obligatory for pilots and members of the higher categories of large cargo vessel crews, for example.

Then, they must complete training on knowing the area of operation. The locomotive driver must be familiar with every last metre of the railway they are using. Broadly speaking, this knowledge can be divided into two categories. Firstly, the locomotive driver needs to know all their stations like the palm of their hand to operate between them safely. It is also important to know who to address about changing switches to drive the train safely. Secondly, it is vital to know the routes and their profiles. Ignorance of the profile of the infrastructure can have catastrophic consequences, because if the locomotive driver picks the wrong speed for a certain part of the route, it can cause a dynamic force that disconnects wagon fastenings, resulting in a highly dangerous situation. On the other hand, appropriate knowledge of the route can allow the locomotive driver to save fuel and ensure that the rolling stock and railway infrastructure remain in good condition.

After successfully completing theoretical and practical exams with an examiner approved by the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority, the locomotive driver will be issued the certificates they need to finally start working as a locomotive driver. By that time, about nine months will have passed from the moment they began their journey. This is still not the end of their learning and training. Locomotive drivers must retake their exams once in every three years, and as the locomotive driver’s permit is issued with a 10-year validity, it is necessary to go to the Estonian Road Authority to retake the locomotive driver’s exam that is based on the materials of their general training. Once in every three years, the locomotive driver must prove to a commission that they are suitable and adequate to perform their job. This further indicates that the task of a locomotive driver is one of great responsibility and cannot be taken lightly. By the way, a locomotive driver must answer correctly to at least 90% of the questions when retaking their exam, so there is almost no room for error, just like in their daily work. Furthermore, every Operail locomotive driver undergoes a sobriety test with an automated device before each shift. Should the result be positive, the locomotive driver is excluded from their shift, or excluded from the Operail staff entirely.

Train drivers work accurately and are able to solve different problems as they arise. Still, it is evident that as much as they would like to, locomotive drivers cannot stop the train right away when there is an unexpected obstacle on the tracks. The braking distance of a fully loaded freight train, weighing over 6,000 tonnes and moving at a speed of 80 km/h is ten times longer than that of a car – about one kilometre.

Upon seeing an obstacle, the locomotive driver blows a warning whistle that emits a sound of 109 decibels. Hearing a sound this loud for a minute can cause permanent damage to one's hearing. When the locomotive driver sees that a collision is inevitable, they will use the emergency brakes at once, but this may not be enough. When the worst has happened, meaning there has been a collision with a vehicle or a person, the train will be stopped as quickly as possible and the locomotive driver will immediately go to give first aid to the injured person. All locomotive drivers receive first aid training and know how to help the injured person until the paramedics arrive.

Even in the profession with no room for error, even with all their long and substantive preparation and repeated exams, the locomotive driver is unable to stop the freight train fast enough to avoid an accident. Only the person outside on the tracks can prevent accidents by staying safe and only crossing the railway in the correct manner at the places intended for crossing.