By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
The Transportation Technology Center Inc.’s (TTCI)
primary function is to conduct thorough research on products that can help railroads operate more safely, reliably and efficiently.
So TTCI President Lisa Stabler envisions her primary role as governing the reputation of the world-renowned facility in Pueblo, Colo., for producing high-quality R&D. The 52-square-mile facility conducts research for its owner, the Association of American Railroads (AAR)
, and its ultimate owners, the global railroad community. TTCI operates the center on behalf of the Federal Railroad Administration
, employing 48 miles of track to test freight and passenger rolling stock, vehicle and track components, and signaling/safety devices.
Stabler, 53, also believes one of her main functions is to help dispel a common misconception that TTCI both develops and sells new products.
“That’s not our mission at all,” she says, characterizing the center as a demonstration hotbed. “If we come up with a great design, we take it to our owners.”
A mother of three who’s been married for 30 years, Stabler has helped direct TTCI since she joined the center in 2010 as vice president of operations and training, and became president in October 2011. Stabler previously spent more than a decade at BNSF Railway Co.
and two decades at General Motors Corp.’s Delphi Corp. after earning a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Dayton and a master’s degree in mathematics from Wright State University.
At Delphi, Stabler was involved in product engineering, quality assurance and strategic planning. She helped design and validate a brake system component that could not fail under any circumstances, similar to rail industry stipulations, says Stabler.
“When someone is sitting at a crossing, they shouldn’t be thinking about whether it’s safe to be sitting there when a train passes. Yes, it’s safe,” she says.
Her time at Delphi also underscored that “you don’t need to design a $10 million part when a 10-cent part will work,” says Stabler.
In 1999, Craig Hill, one of her former bosses who at the time was VP of mechanical and value engineering at BNSF, approached Stabler about joining the Class I. She hadn’t thought about working in the rail industry, but the last strategic planning process she was involved in at Delphi “brought home the massive changes that were coming to the auto industry,” says Stabler.
In addition, Hill said BNSF was adopting Six Sigma process improvements and “lean manufacturing” principles, something that intrigued Stabler, a Six Sigma Black Belt.
She decided to join BNSF, where she became assistant VP of quality and reliability engineering. Stabler was responsible for Six Sigma problem solving, supplier quality, freight-car design, track measurement and mechanical quality systems. The varied work provided her knowledge of some emerging technologies, such as certain wayside detectors and car health monitoring systems.
The transition to TTCI
During her BNSF career and a stint as chair of the AAR’s Advanced Technology Safety Committee, Stabler got to know several individuals at TTCI, including former President Roy Allen. In 2010, she learned about the open VP of operations post. The main reason it appealed to her? TTCI is an organization dedicated to learning, says Stabler.
“I like to learn. Where else can you learn something nearly every day?” she says.
The position also enabled Stabler to become involved in areas she didn’t know much about, such as operations and training.
When Allen decided to retire as TTCI president in October 2011, the opportunity arose for Stabler to have a hand in all aspects of the center, including research. She pursued the position and became president.
A first order of business was developing her management team. Stabler promoted Semih Kalay from VP to senior VP of technology, and promoted Firdausi Irani to VP of business development, Robert Florom to VP of engineering and quality services, and Michael Sherer to VP of operations. The team, which also includes CFO and VP of Business Services David Meeks, and Senior AVP of Risk Management and Business Services James Lundgren, has a good blend of experience, Stabler says.
She also helped seize an opportunity to upgrade TTCI’s track and laboratories. Since the center’s 10-year contract was up for renewal about the time she took office, Stabler and her management team were able to secure $3.4 million in 2012 — the new contract’s first year — for the work. The project included tie replacement; the installation of a 22-mile fiber-optic line to improve Internet access; new lab equipment, such as a water cooling system; and upgrades to new tie wear and fatigue test machines.
“It really was a fortuitous time. You can do things in the first year of a contract that you can’t do in the last year,” says Stabler.
Track and lab upgrades are necessary because TTCI is the only facility in the world that can perform certain tests, she says.
“We are very unique in the sheer amount of track and the types of track we have. We can do tests for freight and high-speed rail, up to 165 mph, and with catenary or a third rail,” says Stabler.
Now, she’s committed to helping grow TTCI’s reputation of “getting to the truth in research” and providing accurate results, says Stabler.
She’s also trying to help nurture TTCI’s partnerships and expand the skillsets of the center’s up-and-coming engineers. In fall, Colorado State University-Pueblo will begin offering a new master of science degree co-developed with TTCI that will emphasize mechatronics and railroad engineering. And in April 2012, the center launched an internship program aimed at providing young engineers experience at a Class I for a year.
“The benefit is they understand the pressures of working in a Class I environment,” says Stabler.
Stabler aims to better understand the pressures of meeting the rail industry’s R&D needs. Something a colleague said to her prior to joining BNSF helps motivate her as she continues to guide TTCI.
“He said, ‘What in the world are you doing? Rail is a dying industry,’” says Stabler. “But it’s really a vibrant industry.”
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