Rising Stars 2023: Young pros offer perspectives on railroading's greatest challenges

The 2023 class of Rising Stars includes (from left to right) Ismael Cuevas of Amtrak; Matthew Long of CPKC; Geetika Mahajan of CN; and Emma Moser of Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services Inc.

By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

Keeping up with the pace of technology, accomplishing ESG goals, recruiting and retaining talent, addressing employees’ quality-of-life concerns and improving safety are among the topics the 2023 Class of Rising Stars identified as challenges the rail industry must overcome to succeed and grow.  

This is the 11th year Progressive Railroading has recognized 20 to 25 young professionals for making outstanding contributions to the rail industry early in their careers. The magazine posted profiles of this year’s honorees on progressiverailroading.com and celebrated their career successes during a July 26 virtual ceremony. 

In emailed interviews, the award winners were asked what they believed to be the greatest challenge the rail industry faces in today’s economy. Their answers follow. Some responses have been edited for length.   


RailPrime: In your opinion, what is the rail industry’s biggest challenge?  


Lauren Berry, director of TRANSFLO marketing and strategy, CSX 

“Attracting new talent to the railroad for both field and management positions.” 


Kriss Beudjekian, senior manager of network operations, CN 

“Keeping up with environmental, social and governance responsibilities, especially pertaining to emission requirements. As an industry, we committed to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through renewable fuels and battery-electric locomotives. This will be an extensive investment across the industry to decarbonize the fleet, build supporting infrastructure and train personnel to maintain the assets.” 


Jason Boche, senior director of corporate development and strategy, Union Pacific Railroad 

“We need to deliver on the commitments we make to our four key stakeholders: customers, communities, employees and shareholders. It starts with providing consistent, reliable service as safely as possible. We need to deliver results that make our stakeholders feel consistently delighted.” 


Adam Brock, superintendent of mechanical, The Belt Railway Co. of Chicago

“Providing a better quality of life for our employees as compared to other industries. We must continue to improve in this area, so the industry stays competitive in the workforce.” 


Sabri Cakdi, senior director of product development, Holland LP 

“Meeting the expectations of investors, employees, regulatory bodies and customers while competing with the trucking industry that does not have to maintain the infrastructure like railroads.” 


Alex Clark, director of human resources, Loram Maintenance of Way Inc. 

“The future of this industry will be dependent on its continued adoption of technology. Meeting these future demands will require talent acquisition and management functions to lead the staffing and upskilling of employees.” 


Ismael Cuevas, manager of government affairs–state and local legislative relations, Amtrak 

“Diversifying its executive board rooms. I am not just talking about skin color or gender, but rather people who are willing to take risks and think outside the box. This industry that has triumphed in its almost 200-year existence needs to uplift the new generation of diverse Americans that will propel the industry into the 21st century.” 


Desirae Faber, senior engineering manager, Modern Railway Systems 

“The rail industry may struggle with not being the ‘new cool kid’ in town. Young talent is being enticed by flashier tech companies, industries and sectors that are, frankly, better at marketing themselves. We should be aware of the things that matter to the recruits to articulate how a career in the rail industry supports and aligns with what they care about.” 


Sean Fahey, deputy director of operations, planning and analysis, MTA Metro-North Railroad 

“Aging infrastructure. Whether it’s maintenance, replacement or restoration, we need to find a way to address it in a way that minimizes disruptions and delays, so we can continue providing a safe and reliable service.” 


Keith Fitzhugh, VP operations, south region, R.J. Corman Railroad Group 

“Turnover and manpower; understanding the mindset and culture of the millennials and Gen Z employees; and getting away from the ‘flavor of the month’ [by] keeping consistency in the company process.” 


Ryan Hill, chief engineer of design and construction, Conrail 

“Retaining young talent. The world is changing, and the railroad will have to learn to compete for talent against work-from-home opportunities for a generation that expects a comfortable work-life balance. Finding ways to meet employees’ work-life balance desires while still having them committed and dedicated to their tasks will continue to be a challenge.” 


Cami Hoffmann, advanced analytics manager, TTX Co. 

“The need for modernization. As technology advances at a faster rate than ever, the rail industry must adapt to remain competitive for its customers.” 


Catherine Kersting, operations manager, New York New Jersey Rail LLC 

“The railroad is an ever-changing industry, whether its new regulations, new technology or new employees. Being able to adapt and stay current to these changes is crucial and opens the door for new ideas and opportunities.” 


Max Lafferty, vice president of rail testing, Herzog Services Inc. 

“The rail industry has a rich history, and it has a story to tell. We need to do a better job of showing the world that rail is the safest, most economical and reliable means of transports good in North America.” 


Matthew Long, assistant superintendent of operations, Canadian Pacific Kansas City 

“Brand awareness. The outlook of the industry as a whole is a mystery to many people. Not everyone is familiar with what we do, and oftentimes the major railroads are grouped into one entity. I think the industry — and every railroader within it — has the opportunity to show the world how safe and efficient the railroad really is.” 


Geetika Mahajan, senior manager of customer product and strategy, CN  

“The railroad industry faces major challenges in the need to modernize our technologies to keep pace and stay relevant in the dynamic digital landscape. Balancing the preservation of our long-standing legacy systems and established processes while embracing the possibilities offered by advanced technology, presents a significant challenge.”  


Michael McGonagle, vice president of government affairs and operations, NRC and REMSA 

“The rail industry’s biggest challenge is the threat of potential harmful and non-targeted regulation on the rail industry, whether at the state or federal level.” 


Emma Moser, director of safety and reporting, Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services Inc. 

“Solidifying and developing the next generation of railroaders.” 


Dustin Ralls, manager of product development, CPKC 

“Managing the human element of the rail industry has become increasingly difficult over the past few years. The job market has been highly competitive, and when that’s combined with the negotiation of union contracts while fulfilling revenue duty to shareholders, it certainly becomes a challenging and complicated process.” 


Manuel Salazar, chief mechanical officer-East/South, CN 

“Industry collaboration. I feel that we are improving as an industry, however as technology evolves, this gives us an opportunity to collaborate as an industry even better. There are some developing technologies that we need to see as industry-benefiting initiatives versus individual company intellectual property.” 


Tim Thompson Jr., principal engineer, UP 

“Safety and security are critical challenges facing the rail industry, and they require ongoing investment, innovation and collaboration across the industry to address effectively. By prioritizing safety and security, our industry can ensure the continued safety of our employees, the communities we serve and the goods we transport.” 


Ryan Vickers, controller, global aftermarket, Progress Rail 

“With recent media attention, people may question the safety of rail transportation. Many companies in the industry have created and/or implemented technologies for monitoring, detection and safe operation, and at Progress Rail, we are encouraged by our customers’ adoption of these solutions.” 


Antoinette Walker, principal program and training coordinator, Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corp. 

“Keeping up with the changing times. The rail industry seems to be a step behind when it comes to innovation. Additionally, there is a lack of collaboration across the industry. Ideas and data are not widely shared as much within rail as it is within other industries. We often hear about so much that goes wrong — derailments, accidents and delays — that not enough is shared about what goes right — technology advancements, employment, customer service and training initiatives.” 


Jennifer White, president, Aberdeen Carolina & Western Railway 

“The retiring workforce of experienced railroaders and finding able and willing bodies to replace them. Replacing the knowledge of a career railroader is something that can’t be taught in a classroom. It takes time, commitment and on-the-job experience. For our railroad, we look at skill sets but more importantly, we look at the personality of the individuals for mentorship.”