PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Conrail trainman John Kohl was given the U.S. Department of Transportation's Heroism Award today for leaning out from a moving locomotive and plucking a 2-year-old girl from the rails last summer.

''You can measure the distance between life and death by the length of his arm. It was an extraordinary action. He had to put his life absolutely at risk, and he did it without even thinking,'' said John Riley, head of the Federal Railroad Administration.

The award is the highest civilian award for heroism given the the Transporation Department. It was last given two years ago, and officials said they could not determine the last time it was given to a trainman.

Kohl, who received a medal and plaque at a brief ceremony, has also been cited by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, a private foundation.

''I just reacted. In a situation like that, you don't weigh anything. You just do it. Probably anyone would have done something,'' Kohl, 42, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

''There was no time to stop. In a split second or two, we were on top of her. She was petrified. I moved my arm in an upsweep, grabbed her clothes and popped her up in the air out of the way,'' said Kohl, of Northumberland.

The rescue occurred at about 3 p.m. July 27 outside the central Pennsylvania community of Cresson as Kohl's Conrail freight train was making a routine run from the Conway railyards to Harrisburg.

Jeanne Defibaugh, of Cresson, was playing in the middle of the tracks, said Kohl, a Conrail employee for 22 years who was a brakeman at the time.

''It startles you. I said, 'Oh, honey, get off the rail.' From then on, I just reacted,'' said Kohl. ''We put the whole train on emergency, and we were blowing the horn and hollering. She stood up and ran for about 20 feet down the tracks and then sat down on the rail.''

With the train bearing down on the girl at 20 to 25 mph, Kohl climbed out of the cab onto the front metal frame, called a snowplow or cow-catcher. He had his right foot on the bottom step of a ladder and clutched a piece of iron with his right hand while he leaned out over the track.

''I spread my left leg out in front of the train and I had my left arm spread out. I swept her out of the way, and she landed on her belly.''

The train finally stopped more than 200 feet past where the tot was sitting.

''I ran back and picked her up. She was crying. I wanted to comfort her. After I picked her off the ground and held her, it got to me. I really got nervous.''

Except for minor cuts, the girl was unhurt, officials said.

The girl's parents, who had been visiting friends near the tracks, rushed out to thank Kohl. Last Christmas, Kohl sent the girl a teddy bear, and her parents sent him Jeanne's picture.

The heroism award was to be presented by John Riley, federal railroad administrator, on behalf of U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole.

Kohl also was cited for heroism by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission in Pittsburgh, and he will receive a medal and a check for $2,500 at an April 7 ceremony at Conrail headquarters in Philadelphia.

''It's nice that they're saying I'm a hero, but I don't consider myself one,'' Kohl said.