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By Pat Foran, Editor
On May 17-19, Railway Systems Suppliers Inc. (RSSI ) will host its 50th Annual C&S Exhibition at the Qwest Convention Center in Omaha, Neb. RSSI officials will celebrate the occasion by doing what they've done during the past 50 gatherings: offer an opportunity for railroaders to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological change — and to problem-solve with the communication-and-signal segment.
Although records are 'vague' regarding formal get-togethers prior to the mid-1960s, trade publication and RSSI newsletter reports (and anecdotes) suggest C&S professionals — railroaders and supply-siders alike — congregated to swap ideas 'as far back as 1906,' says Donald 'Bucky' Remaley, RSSI's executive director and secretary-treasurer.
From the beginning, the Association of American Railroads' Communication and Signals Division (and its predecessors) participated in the events. 'Our exhibit was held in conjunction with AAR C&S section meetings until the time AAR moved the S&C section out and became the American Railway Engineering Association [now the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association] in 1997,' Remaley says.
In October 1961, the C&S contingent — which at that time included members of the Railway Communications Supplier Association and the Signal Appliance Association — met in Toronto; it's the first official gathering for which documentation exists, according to RSSI. In 1966, the group took the incorporation plunge and emerged as the Railway Signal and Communication Suppliers Association Inc.
In 1972, the Railway Signal and Communication Suppliers Association was rechristened 'Railway Systems Suppliers Inc.' The association's primary aim: organize and manage an annual trade show for members to exhibit their products and services.
Today, the aim's the same, says Remaley, who was named RSSI's executive director in 1995 after retiring from Safetran Systems Corp., where he'd served as vice president of government and industrial relations since 1979. He entered the C&S arena in 1951 with Union Switch & Signal Inc., where for the next 27 years he held various engineering and marketing positions.
Remaley also served on the RSSI board from 1979 through 1995, and as the association's president in 1985 and 1995.
Since 1995, the expo has attracted about 1,380 attendees (spouses included) per year, with a high of 1,707 in Omaha in 2005. To Remaley, a watershed event was the 2001 show in Kansas City, Mo.
'The supplier-to-customer ratio had been out of whack — as high as 8:1,' he says. 'So, the RSSI board sat down with the major railroads and asked, "How do we change to best suit your needs?' The format we're using now is what came out of those meetings.'
The new format? No technical program, no hospitality suites, no outside entertaining, no frills. Only this: A robust expo enabling RSSI member companies to exhibit their C&S products, systems and services.
'At the 2001 event, we had everything in the exhibit hall, including the food,' Remaley says. 'That format's been completely endorsed by the railroads. They love it.'
No wonder, considering the supplier-to-customer ratio for the 2001 show was about 1.3:1 ('It's been as low as 1:1,' Remaley says). During the past few years, the ratio has hovered around the 1.8:1 range, which Remaley considers 'the industry standard.'
Over the years, the one constant within the C&S segment — and RSSI — has been change, particularly in terms of technology.
'Through the '70s, '80s and '90s, it was the grade crossing area — there's really been an evolution of technology there,' says Remaley. 'I see a similar thing happening with PTC.'
RSSI attendees certainly will see positive train control (PTC) technology on display — and hear the corresponding buzz about PTC's impact on the industry at large — during this year's event.
'Our show in Omaha is going to be a big one,' Remaley says, adding that Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway Co. and the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety plan to send big delegations.
And there'll be a lot for attendees to see. Exhibitors were still signing up for booth space as this issue went to press.
'We started out at around 300 booths, now we're around 350, with around 140 exhibitors,' Remaley said in mid-April.
Meeting the wide-ranging needs of 'our C&S counterparts on the railroad' will continue to be Job 1, Remaley says. That'll be no mean feat. But Remaley believes RSSI and the annual exhibition are on the right track, if an encounter he had with a railroader from the 2007 Calgary show is any indication.
'He was a young fellow from one of the Canadian railroads,' Remaley says. 'He was taking a cigarette break. It was his first show. "This is great,' he told me. "I came here with nine problems to solve, and by 2 p.m., I had solutions for all nine of them.''
The railroader finished his cigarette, then said to Remaley: 'I need to get back in there. There is information hanging from the rafters.'
This year's exhibition at the Qwest Convention Center (and the ceiling therein) affords a similar opportunity to learn, share and problem-solve, Remaley says. For more information on RSSI's 50th 2010 C&S Exhibition, go online at www.rssi.org or call 502-327-7774.