By Julie Sneider, Assistant Editor
Penn State University is doing its part to train the next generation of railroaders with its new four-year rail transportation engineering degree at the Altoona campus.
Altoona just might be the only campus in the United States currently offering a four-year bachelor's degree in rail transportation engineering (RTE). The program's first class of students has reached junior status, while a growing number of younger students are expressing interest in the program and railroading careers, according to Stephen Dillen, RTE program coordinator.
Penn State launched the degree three years ago at the urging of railroad and transit executives who noted the need for more education and training designed for future railroaders. Although other U.S. colleges and universities offer rail-specific coursework at the undergraduate level and graduate degrees in rail engineering, Penn State officials believe theirs is the only four-year bachelor's degree program.
The university was approached by industry leaders who recognized its top-notch engineering program and for being located in a historically railroad-centric area, Dillen says. Altoona, Pa., is home to Norfolk Southern Corp.'s Juniata Locomotive Shop, as well as the Railroaders Memorial Museum and historic Horseshoe Curve, a three-track railroad curve on NS' Pittsburgh Line.
Among railroads that encouraged the program's development was NS, which in 2009 donated $100,000 through the Norfolk Southern Foundation to get it started. Faced with a maturing workforce, NS officials said at the time that the degree is needed to help the company and other rail sector businesses tap into a new talent pool that understands the railroad environment.
The program was designed to prepare students for careers in freight and passenger rail. RTE majors pursue a curriculum based on civil engineering courses, but with an emphasis on rail transportation. The program's first two years focus on general requirements for a civil engineering degree, while the junior and senior years delve more deeply into rail-specific coursework.
Because it's rooted in civil engineering, the RTE program leans toward the maintenance-of-way side of the railroad industry, Dillen says. Rail-specific classes cover an overview of industry economics, railroad regulatory structure, operation and safety, communications and signaling, and track location, construction and maintenance. Seniors are expected to complete a capstone design project.
Students' required lab work is performed on campus and on site at Class I and local short-line railroads. This semester, students performed field and/or lab work with NS and the Everett Railroad Co., a short line based in Blair County, Pa., according to Dillen.
The program's first class of nine students enrolled three years ago as freshmen and now are juniors.
"Because we have not advertised this program, and because it's so new, we are thrilled that we have nine students at the junior level," says Dillen.
Ten sophomores and nine freshmen are tracking the program. And among incoming freshmen for the fall of 2014, "we are seeing an increase in interest from those individuals," he says.
Some students are railroad enthusiasts or have a family history of people who worked in the industry, says Dillen. Others became interested after researching engineering career options and discovered the rail sector's need for a younger workforce. Due in large part to employee retirements, U.S. railroads anticipate hiring as many as 11,000 people this year, according to the Association of American Railroads. In 2012, railroads hired 15,000 workers.
In the future, Penn State Altoona plans to roll out a formal marketing plan aimed at increasing RTE enrollment, Dillen says. But for now, word-of-mouth appears to be working. The students have become active in AREMA — the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association — by forming a Penn State Altoona chapter, and several students have lined up summer internships at different Class Is.
Says Dillen: "Right now, our students are the program's best marketing agents."
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