To become a Railroad Engineer, you must first of all, have the right to live and work in the USA or Canada and have a good standard of English. According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen website (the US equivalent of ASLEF) you must also be at least 21, have a minimum of a good High School education, meet high medical standards and have completed the Engineer’s training course. You will nearly always have to start as a Conductor or Brakeman and work in those grades while you train.
Although not openly stated for discriminatory reasons there is a clear preference for ex-military types and people with at least two years in college. Such people are better suited to the shift work involved and have the potential to go into management eventually. Having an endorsement from someone currently employed in a railroad position, especially in management, can be an asset. A deal breaker for possible hiring is a drunk or under the influence of drugs driving charge or a criminal record. It is very important to be diligent in watching the posting of jobs on any particular website. Jobs open and close out rather rapidly, so I would suggest checking the job posting site for each company at least once a week. One other major difference in the USA is that Railroad Companies seem much more willing to hire individuals straight off the street, and they use a probationary period to weed out people who cannot quickly grasp the concept of railroading. They will assign trainees to train crews after only one month and then alternate them from actual working environments back to classroom training until the course is completed. Unless it a short line railroad (a kind of private freight branch line), no one enters the engineer training program directly upon hiring; the pool is made up entirely of conductors and/or yard personnel.
The US Railroad Retirement Board issues a list of vacancies across the USA each month which you can view here. The same page has a list of links direct to US railroads’ website job pages (including Canadian National and Canadian Pacific).
A major difference from the British practice is that in the US you can pay to put yourself through the Conductor or Engineer training programs. Dakota County Technical College provides Conductor training and the not-for-profit Modoc Railroad Academy (in California) does Conductor and Engineer training – but you have to pass the Conductor program first! Also, have a look at the National Academy of Railroad Sciences College in Kansas City. These courses are developed in association with major railroads and those carriers often use these colleges to train their own staff or else employ graduates directly from them. Such colleges run placement programs for their graduates although they won’t guarantee you a job. Modoc claims to have a 94% placement rate. There are over a dozen colleges in the USA which offer similar courses and also Associate Degrees in Railroad Operations. You can view links to some of these colleges here.
– thanks to Rob for some of this information