Do You Know Enough to Be a Train Operator?


By: Teresa McGlothlin

6 Min Quiz

Image: ElsvanderGun / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Becoming a train conductor doesn't have to be a childhood dream! Every year, rail-oriented organizations hire hundreds of new operators. With good salaries, excellent benefits and all the travel perks you could ever want, it's a career that's definitely worth pursuing. But ... you'll have to pass a few fairly rigorous tests before you can join the team. 

While you don't need a college degree to become a train operator, you will have to undergo a physical exam, an eye exam and a hearing screening before you can take the written exam. Once you're there, you'll need to possess reasonable amounts of grammar and mathematical knowledge to ace it. Throughout this quiz, you'll be asked a battery of questions similar to those you would find on rapid-transit or industrial railway exams. Do you think you know enough to get all of them right? 

Grab hold of the bar iron, and keep your eyes on the tracks. To answer all these questions correctly, you'll need to focus like a train conductor heading into a populated area. Stay on your toes and think your answers through before you respond; then, we'll let you know how you did. Will it be enough to impress yourself, or will you have some studying to do? Let's find out! 

Most railroad jobs require passing arithmetic tests. Can you figure out how much is .50 of 150 without using your phone?

Train operators are constantly having to calculate distances, times and mechanical numbers. In this case, .50 equals 50%, and 50% of 150 equals 75. Although this is a sample of a question you might find on a exam, it's on the easier side. Brushing up on your mathematics skills is recommended!


Which one of these organizations is responsible for the laws governing railroads?

The Federal Railroad Administration is a branch of the United States Department of Transportation. It was founded in 1966 and employs over 850 people who keep the nation's railways safe. Train operators are usually represented to the FRA by a union.


In the event of an accident or derailment, what type of inspection is conducted?

According to the "Journal of Public Transportation," traveling by train is 20% safer than traveling by car. Although accidents are rare, train operators are always prepared to conduct emergency inspections.


What's the minimum age requirement to become a train operator?

Age requirements to become a train operator vary from company to company, but the average age is 21. As long as operators can pass the tests, there's no maximum age limit. There are train jobs for every age and skill level.


If a train is traveling 10 MPH and it's 40 miles from the station, how long will it take the train to reach the station?

It's an operator's job to stick to a series of strict timetables and schedules. It might have been a breeze to figure out that our train will arrive in four hours, but an operator's day-to-day problems are far more difficult.


Do you know what it's called when two train cars are hooked together?

When you walk between train cars, you are walking on a platform that sits over the train's coupling mechanism. The act of joining the trains is shortened to "coupling," and it's a slow process. Extra safety measures are performed by hand to make sure the coupling maneuver has been successful.


When trains are instructed to operate at "slow speed," what's the maximum speed they can go?

Unlike roadways, railway speed limits vary by the time of day and the populations of the areas through which trains are traveling. When trains are told to operate at "slow speed," they are not to exceed 15 MPH.


Where are you most likely to see third rails used in the train industry?

Third rails are the electrified rails that you will often find in subway stations. The train and the third rail are connected by an electrical conductor. It supplies the train with the electricity it needs while the engine is idling.


To test their hearing, what sort of test would a train operator undergo?

Before being allowed to take the train operator exam, candidates must pass a drug screen, a physical and an audiometry evaluation. Hearing is an important function of any train operator's job. They must be able to clearly hear instructions over the radio and those being shouted across the train yard.


Before coupling passenger cars, how far apart should movement between the cars stop?

Train cars are stopped 50 feet apart before the coupling process begins; then, they are slowly inched together. When they are close enough for all the appropriate hoses and fittings to be attached, coupling begins.


When looking at an engine, where would you find the place where the pistons are housed?

Whether you're looking at a gas-powered car engine or a diesel-powered locomotive giant, the pistons are located within the cylinders. The cylinders are located in the engine block. You'll need to know these types of things to pass a train operator's exam.


What's the name of the black and white piece of wood that hangs in the middle of train platforms?

Trains are fairly technologically advanced these days, but operators still use the WWII-era zebra board to make sure their passengers stay safe. A black and white board that hangs above the tracks, the zebra board lets the operator know that the train has correctly docked at the station.


Which of these vision problems might prohibit someone from becoming a train operator?

As long as the problem can be corrected with glasses, most train operations have few vision restrictions. However, being color blind may present issues with properly reading railroad signals. It's generally the only vision problem that may prohibit employment as a train operator.


Can you pass the word knowledge portion of the exam by choosing the correct synonym for the word "busy"?

If something is dormant, inoperative or latent, it is far from busy. Our example of a train operator's exam question must be making you feel industrious. We certainly hope it's keeping you busy.


Is it true or false that you need a bachelor's degree to drive a train?

Although some train operators have opted to attend college courses in railroad engineering, it's only necessary to have a high school diploma or a GED. Most train operators begin their careers in the field and work their way up to conductor.


What's the dispatch location controlling traffic on a specific region of track called?

Monitoring the flow of rail traffic is an important job. Prior to the 1940s, it was done by individual train crews and railway operations. These days, Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) makes it easy with an electronic dispatching system that spreads the responsibility according to region.


If a block is reserved for one single train, what it is called?

Each train yard is split up into a series of blocks. When trains need maintenance, they are assigned a specific block that may or may not be shared with other trains. If a block is reserved for only one train, it is called the absolute block.


What's the difference between passive railway signs and active railway signs?

There are two types of railways signs that both drivers and train operators observe. Passive signs are stationary signs that mark the way along a railway route. Active signs are the signs with mechanical arms and flashing lights that grab attention through movement.


Which term is used to describe train speeds when instructed to stay under 45 MPH?

Depending on commuting times, traffic and track conditions, train speeds fluctuate several times per day. If a train is told to operate at "limited speed," the operator knows not to exceed 45 MPH.


When a train is carrying more than 60 loaded boxcars, what name is it given?

Freight trains that haul more than 60 cars loaded with containers are known in the business as intermodal trains. Because semi-trucks load the cars and engines are switched, it's possible for an intermodal train to make it all the way across the country without operators doing any heavy lifting.


Where would a train operator find information about areas with permanent speed restrictions?

This might be a little confusing, but there's a big difference between a timetable and a schedule. Both denote the arrival and departure times of trains, but the timetable contains information that's not generally available to the public. The timetable assists operators by listing track information.


What name is given to a track that is not considered one of the main tracks?

Trains that need attention or that need to be detoured are often instructed to take the auxiliary track. Auxiliary tracks often run alongside main tracks, but they allow trains a way to get out of the way so that traffic can continue to flow.


In addition to track circuits, how do railways monitor the trains that have entered and left blocks?

Technology has made it much easier to track the movements of a company's many trains. Electronic devices like axle counters and track circuits relay a train's location back to Centralized Traffic Control, making it easier to know which trains have entered and left blocks.


The name of a train yard that uses the terrain and gravity to move cars is called what?

Always full of ingenuity, train operators have learned the most efficient ways of moving mammoth trains. For instance, a hump yard utilizes a small raised portion of ground to move cars. Once a car has made it over the hump, gravity takes over and helps the train roll into place.


When train operators encounter a flashing yellow signal, what should they expect to find ahead?

Flashing yellow lights on train signals alert operators to potential situations ahead that require caution. The flashing yellow lights tell train operators to slow down and to use "approach medium" speed.


If a train car is carrying 14,000 pounds, how many tons is it carrying?

One ton equals 2,000 pounds; therefore, 14,000 divided by 2,000 equals 7. Our train car is carrying 7 tons of cargo, but this is an easy question compared to the ones you might find on official train exams.


Do you know the name that's given to a coach car that also has locomotive controls?

Have you ever wondered why you often see a passenger car equipped with a set of driver's controls? These cars are called control cars, and should the need arise, they are set up to operate the train. They are sometimes used in a push-pull fashion, helping to slow down a train.


A train platform that has tracks running on both of its sides is called what?

It's not uncommon to see island platforms in busy subway stations. They allow passengers to exit from a train and board another train on the adjoining side.


Why do train conductors point when entering a train station?

Spend any time on a subway platform, and you are sure to see a train driver pointing when they arrive at the station. It is a tradition, but it's also a safety measure. Pointing to the zebra board is a way to signal that the train is fully parked in the station and that passengers may safely deboard.


What does the Flashing End of Train Device (FRED) monitor from its mount on the last car?

FRED is more than a flashing light at the end of a train. The cleverly disguised device serves many purposes. Including monitoring a train's brake pressure and swaying movements, it also keeps track of the GPS location.


Can you figure out what the space between the two rails of a track is called?

The two rails of any track are frequently measured to make sure that the gauge hasn't changed. Gauge is determined by starting on the inside of one rail and measuring to the inside of the parallel rail beside it.


Trains that can operate from a locomotive engine on both ends are called what?

A train with a locomotive engine on both the front and back of its cars is called a push-pull train. Push-pull trains are frequently used on intermodal trains. The dual-ended locomotives make it easy to drive the train in either direction without switching tracks.


What name is given to the portion of track that rotates to make movement easier?

Rotating portions of a track called turntables allow for tracks to be repositioned. Turntables move tracks in a circular motion and eliminate the need for locomotives to leave and re-enter train yards to go back in the direction from which they came.


If an operator saw a sign with a "W," what would they do?

A relic left over from early railroading days, the sign with a "W" is called a whistle stop. When a driver sees the sign, it indicates that there is a crossing ahead. The sign tells the driver that it's time to begin blowing the whistle.


You'll need to know this! What part of a train is home to a bogie?

While bogies help make up a train's wheel assembly, they are not actually the part of the wheel that touches the track. Bogies are the portion that attaches the wheels to the axles and houses braking mechanisms.


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