Harlan D. Pickering, 53, a planning aide for the Federal Railroad Administration in the Department of Transportation, died of cancer Thursday at his home in Alexandria.

He joined the federal government here in 1962 and worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Weather Bureau, the Environmental Services Administration and in the office of the Secretary of Transportation before joining the FRA six years ago.

Mr. Pickering received a commendation in 1977 for his contributions to the Federal Railroad Administrator's annual policy statements for fiscal 1979-1980.

He was born in Kansas City, Mo. He graduated from Kansas City Junior College. After serving with the U.S. Army in World War II, he earned a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr. Pickering then worked for the Tension Envelope Co., the General Motors Corp. and the Western Auto Supply Co. in Kansas city He was with the General Electric Co. in New York before coming here.

He is survived by his wife, Ellen Pickering, formerly a member of the Alexandria City Council, and four children, David, Duff, Frances and Paula, all of the home, and a sister, Helen M. Hawkins, of Hacienda Heights, Calif.

The family suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the St. Anselm's School Fund in Washington.