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Train DriverAlternative titles

Kaitaraiwa Rerewhenua

This job is sometimes referred to as:

Locomotive Engineer

Train drivers drive passenger or freight trains.

Contact us

Call us on 0800 222 733


Pay for train drivers varies depending on experience and whether they drive intercity trains or commuter trains. Intercity train drivers are usually paid a little more.

  • Train driver trainees earn between about $18 and $21 an hour while while doing their initial training.
  • Once they begin on-the-job training, pay rises to about $30 an hour, increasing to between $30 and $34 an hour once they are fully qualified.
  • Fully-qualified train drivers operating freight trains or inter-city passenger trains can earn up to $39 an hour.

Source: KiwiRail 2013.

What you will do

Train drivers may do some or all the following:

  • drive trains to destinations according to a schedule
  • stop at stations to pick up or drop off passengers
  • shunt wagons (push or pull them) using a locomotive
  • check locomotives for problems before starting a service
  • read bulletins (information about track work in specific areas and rule changes) before departing the station
  • act promptly and comply with safety rules in emergency conditions or breakdowns
  • identify faults in breakdown situations.

Skills and knowledge

Train drivers need to have:

  • understanding of the basic mechanics of locomotives, including the air brakes and electrics
  • knowledge of rail operating codes and signals
  • understanding of rules and regulations that cover the safe operation of locomotives
  • knowledge of procedures and protocols for operating radio equipment
  • shunting skills (pushing and pulling wagons or carriages using a locomotive).

Working conditions

Train drivers:

  • work shifts including evening and early morning starts and weekend and night work
  • spend most of their time in the driver's cab at the front of the train
  • work in conditions that are confined and noisy.

What's the job really like?

Jim Featherstone - Locomotive Engineer

Jim Featherstone
What makes your job interesting?

"The trains all perform differently, they've all got their own little personalities and quirks. And there's always something different out there on the track to see each day."

What are your main concerns?

"God forbid there are people walking across the track. Or animals on the track, which is not very nice either - hitting sheep or cows or pigs or anything."

Do you have a set daily routine?

"I might drive the passenger train from Wellington. It leaves there at 7.30am and gets into Palmy at 9.30am. In Palmerston North we change over and generally the outward bound freight train we are going back on is on good time so you can get straight back on, do the brakes and get out of there.

"The freight train will probably be a full load, probably 1,500 tonnes. It can be up to 900 metres long."

Are there any downsides to your role?

"You never know exactly what time you're getting home – that's one of the bad things. But nine times out of ten you're there in pretty good time."

Watch the video below to find out what working in the rail industry involves - 5.55 min. (Video courtesy of Competenz)

I’m Sam Caughan, I’m 18 years old and I’m interested in the rail industry.

Clinton: Well Sam’s off to spend some time with the Auckland operation of Kiwi Rail, New Zealand’s rail industry operator. Kiwi Rail run both freight and passenger services.

Colin: There is a huge range of jobs available in the rail industry – there’s mechanical engineers, there’s train drivers, there’s shunters, there’s signalmen, or if you want to work inside there’s the office side of it.

Clinton: Keeping Sam on track is Colin Vickery.

Clinton: First up, Sam’s headed to the Takapuna administration centre.

Colin: Welcome Sam, this is where we do everything in Kiwi Rail to make sure that we’re getting the right containers on the trains, make sure we’ve got the right locomotives, make sure we’ve got the right drivers and make sure that we’ve got the right freight. Over here on this side here is part of the train-bill team, and they will actually allocate the wagons to be used on the train and they will virtually build that train in the computer system to make it look like it’s exactly what they’re doing.

Chris: Ok Sam, this is our CTMS programme – it’s pretty much a visual representation of the way we’re going to load the train. Up here, they’re our wagons, and all these boxes down here are our containers. It’s got all of our info we need to know about the container down here, it’s a simple click and drag operation.

Clinton: Chris builds up the train - 1000 tons. Destination –Christchurch, and the information is mailed to the Marshalling Yard.

Colin: Out here are the Westfield yards, this is what’s called a Marshalling Yard, where the trains are marshaled into the correct order. Some of the customers here might be wanting to send wagons to Mt Maunganui, others to Palmerston North, so when they say they’re marshalling a train, they’re putting all the Palmerston North wagons together and they’re going to put all the Mt Maunganui wagons together.

Clinton: It’s all like one giant sized postal sorting office and it’s the job of a shunter to shuffle the wagons into the right order. Three wagons have to be dropped off this train and the shunter today, Lee, first shows Sam how the wagons are coupled.

Lee: And the bridle, that goes over there.

Sam: So what does the bridle do?

Lee: The bridle stops our hook from jumping, as the train is moving.

Clinton: Before any train can travel, the wagons have to be checked.

Lee: Would you like to put that inside?

Colin: The locomotive shouldn’t move without a shunter on board, so they’re used as pilots and they’re the ones that actually tell the locomotive engineer how far they have to come back, how far they have to go forward and also ensure that it’s safe for them to carry out that movement.

Colin: One of the good things about working in the railways is that whether you’re a shunter or a driver, or if you’re looking after the points or if you’re a signalman, everyone knows one another and you’re all actually working together.

Clinton: Our loco is about to head out on the road but first it has to be serviced.

Colin: This here is the sand department, so we put sand inside the locomotive so when the wheels start to slip, the actual locomotive senses the wheels are slipping and it puts sand down on the track to be able to give it some kind of adhesion to the rail, traction.

Clinton: Once the loco is refuelled it’s ready for the rostered driver to take charge.

Colin: I suppose one of the good things about being a train driver is - if you like trains, it’s the perfect job. It’s the kind of job where you work by yourself a lot of the time and you get some really big toys to play with.

Clinton: Neil Messiter hails from a railway family. Both his father and grandfather were locomotive drivers.

Neil: Coming out Lee.

Neil: This particular locomotive is the most powerful class of locomotive that we have in this country. I actually love this locomotive. It’s a diesel/electric locomotive – it’s basically an electric locomotive with it’s own power plant.

Neil: So how does it feel sitting in the seat, Sam?

Sam: It feels pretty good, let’s go for a drive!

Clinton: Lee gives the wagons one final check and it's time for Sam’s ride.

Lee: 183, you’re ready to leave?

Neil: Receiving Lee.

Colin: To become a locomotive engineer to drive a freight train, currently you have to do on-the-job training for 1040 hours, and you get sent away to school in Woburn and you get taught how the trains work, how the motors work, how the locomotives work and you’re also taught how to shunt and about road knowledge, so you have to know that bit of track like the back of your hand

Neil: Road knowledge is very important – 99% of knowing the road makes a good driver.

Neil: Because the terrain we travel over can be hilly - we only have so much braking power, and once you use that brake up, you’ve lost control of your train and then you’re in serious trouble.

Colin: It’s like a big family – everyone gets on and everyone gets in together and they pull their weight together. The other good thing about the job is that working in the railways you can either work inside or outside and you can do a number of different things.

Colin: I’ve been in the rails 17 years old and I’ve worked in a lot of different parts of it so far and I’m still not bored with the industry.

Clinton: So how has Sam done?

Colin: Sam’s done surprisingly well, he’s got a lot of knowledge, he seems to have taken a lot in and he’s been enthusiastic about the whole thing.

Sam: I think it surprised me quite a bit that there’s a lot of variety in the industry, because I thought it would be just as simple as jumping in the train and driving off, but there’s a lot more to it than that.

Clinton: There’s a wide range of opportunities for anyone wanting to join the rail industry. Practical on the job instruction is a major part of training. The level 2 National Certificate in Rail Transport is an introduction to a career in the railways. The level 4 Certificate in Locomotive Engineering recognises the skills required for driving locos. There’s a strand for the additional skills needed for driving a freight train.


Train drivers with one to three years' experience earn
per year
Senior train drivers can earn up to
per year
Jim Featherstone talking into a two-way radio in the cab of a locomotive

Train drivers need to know proceedures for operating communication equipment

Jim Featherstone walking along a track beside a locomotive

Train drivers do a visual inspection of their train before departure

A photo out of the front window of a train as it passes through a tunnel

Train drivers operate to strick schedules

Updated 6 May 2013