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July 2012

Rail News: MOW

Railway engineering event exposes professors to rail education, research

By Julie Sneider, assistant editor

As railroads contend with replacing an aging workforce, the American Railway and Maintenance of Way Association (AREMA) and faculty members from academic institutions have been working to raise awareness of the need for more engineering graduates with knowledge of the railroad industry.

Recently, AREMA wrapped up the 2012 Railway Engineering Education Symposium (REES), held June 11-13 at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kan. It was the third symposium organized by AREMA’s Committee 24 to help foster interest among North American college and university engineering faculty in adding railway engineering education to their curricula.

Organizers and attendees of the symposium, which also was held in 2008 and 2010, say the event already has prompted faculty members at some universities to add railway-specific content to engineering courses and raised engineering students’ awareness of railroading as a career option.

REES was organized in response to the small number of railroad faculty at academic institutions throughout North America, says Pasi Lautala, director of the Rail Transportation Program at Michigan Technological University.

“Even today, if you look at tenure-track or tenured faculty members in North America who do nothing but rail, I’m pretty sure you can count them on one hand,” says Lautala, who helped develop REES after surveying universities on their railroad engineering coursework and finding very little.

That lack of emphasis on railroad engineering education at the academic level hurts the industry because it limits the number of engineering students exposed to railroading as a career choice and discourages academic researchers from pursuing railroad-related research, Lautala says.

Photo Credit: AREMAREES 2012 attendees gathered for a photo outside the BNSF ITC building at Johnson County Community College.
Photo Credit: AREMA
Lautala and Christopher Barkan, director of the Railroad Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, brought the issue to the attention of AREMA several years ago — Lautala and Barkan are members of the association's education and training committee. AREMA responded by developing REES to bring together about two-dozen engineering school faculty members interested in introducing railroad engineering content to their respective curricula. The first REES was held in June 2008 at UIC. JCCC hosted the second, held in 2010, and this year’s events.

Twenty-eight faculty members from 28 universities attended this year’s symposium. Attendees received an overview of the industry, as well as railway engineering course material. They also were treated to a roundtable discussion of current North American railway engineering course offerings and research projects, networking opportunities and a visit to the railway education facilities at JCCC, as well as to BNSF Railway Co.’s nearby terminal facilities.

Has REES helped bring attention to the need for more railway-specific engineering coursework? Michael Pochop, project manager for REES 2012, thinks so. A number of faculty members who attended REES 2008 returned as program presenters at REES 2010 and 2012. He also cites anecdotal reports of universities adding railway coursework or material to their engineering curriculum, and an increase in the formation of AREMA student chapters.

A professional engineer with Hanson Professional Services Inc. in Anchorage, Alaska, Pochop chairs AREMA’s Committee 24, which is tasked with maintaining links with schools and universities to promote railway-engineering education. For Pochop, the demographic shift is taking place right before his  eyes.

“From my position at AREMA, I’ve seen two, three or four key senior people retire in just in the last four months or so,” he says. “Members on [AREMA] committees who work on the Class Is or as consultants are moving up the chain very quickly” as those companies react to impending retirements.

Class Is have been “massively excited” about the REES program and the exposure it has brought to railroad transportation at the university level, Pochop adds.

Institutions sending faculty members to this year’s symposium included Brigham Young University, California State Polytechnic University-Ponoma, Indiana University, Purdue University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, University of Missouri, University of Cincinnati, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary and Villanova University.

Leslie McCarthy is assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Villanova. She participated in the 2010 and 2012 symposiums in an effort to incorporate railway engineering into Villanova's transportation curriculum for undergraduate and graduate students, she says.

Since attending the symposiums, McCarthy has incorporated three weeks of railway engineering basics into a required introductory transportation-engineering course for sophomore civil-engineering students, and two weeks of railroad infrastructure and geometric design into an elective course for seniors. This summer, she is teaching a railway-engineering course for graduate students.

She also has worked with seniors in focusing their civil engineering capstone projects on rail-related topics. This year’s project focused on designing a transformation of the Villanova Station outside Philadelphia on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) Paoli Regional Rail Line.

Adding railway transportation to the curriculum has definitely helped raise the industry’s profile and career potential among civil engineering students at Villanova, McCarthy says. Her next goal is to develop a railway engineering research program at the university.

McCarthy’s experience is exactly the kind of impact REES organizers hoped the symposium would have on the academic world.

In September, AREMA’s Committee 24 members will gather at the AREMA 2012 Annual Conference and Exposition in Chicago to talk about what’s next for REES, says Pochop. Will there be a REES 2014?

“We’ll have a good group of people at Chicago to talk about what’s needed to keep this [topic] going, keep people talking and determine what makes the most sense in the future,” he says.


Browse articles on American Railway and Maintenance of Way Association Railway Engineering Education Symposium Pasi Lautala Michigan Technological University Christopher Barkan University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Michael Pochop Hanson Professional Services Inc. Johnson County Community College BNSF Railway Co. Leslie McCarthy Villanova University Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority

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