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Rail News Home People

August 2019

Rail News: People

Rising Stars 2019: Shirley Qian

Shirley Qian


Shirley Qian, 28
Senior planner
Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

Nominator’s quote: “Shirley successfully applied for a planning grant and is implementing alternative plans for alignment and construction methodologies for future rail capacity expansion in the sensitive Alviso Wetlands. This process involves finding win-win solutions that restore tidal flow, species habitat and sea level rise resiliency along with rail capacity enhancements involving resources, wildlife and environmental advocacy partners.” — Jim Allison, Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

Why did you go into railroading?
I entered the rail industry unintentionally. I began as an intern conducting a sea level rise vulnerability assessment for the Capitol Corridor service, not knowing anything about passenger-rail systems and how they work. However, during the process of the assessment, I learned a lot about Capitol Corridor and all the different partnerships that support the passenger rail service, such as those with Amtrak and Union Pacific. The passenger rail industry is very unique in the larger transportation sector, and it’s been a pleasure to work in and discover more about a part of the world that most people don’t have a clue about.

Describe your education after high school.
I studied environmental science and urban planning at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

How are you making a difference in the rail industry?
By leading and engaging in issues that will prepare the passenger-rail industry for the future, such as sea level rise adaptation and more proactive technology procurement strategies. Sea level rise, and climate change in general, will have a long-term impact on rail services. Considering the long lead time needed to implement physical changes to the railroad infrastructure, we need to start planning and coordinating with other partners now. On the other hand, technology is a fast-moving industry, and the nature of changes in the rail industry is comparatively slower, so I’m exploring how different procurement methods and contracting formats can enable us to keep up with current technology proactively. I’m very fortunate to work at an agency that is known for thinking ahead and pushing the envelope, where creative thinking about service improvements are supported and prioritized.

What is an interesting fact about you?
I was born in Shanghai and lived there for 10 years before moving to Houston. Most of my relatives are still in Shanghai, so I visit them every five years or so.

What was your very first job?
I was a tutor at Kumon, an after-school math and reading program for young students.

What is your philosophy toward life and your career?
Appreciate where you are and what you have, and do your part to make the world a better place for everyone and everything that lives in it.

What is your advice to new railroaders who want to advance their careers?
Be proactive in learning new things and seek opportunities to participate in projects different than what you are used to doing. Understanding different aspects of the railroading business (operations, planning, engineering, finance, funding, marketing, etc.) will enable you to think holistically about your particular role and formulate strategies that address cross-sectional issues.

What will be the biggest trend to affect railroading over the next decade?
The world is changing, from the climate to larger societal trends, and the railroad industry will need to prepare for those changes starting now. As impacts from climate change start to be felt in everyday operations in the next decade, I think we’ll start to see railroads be more active in planning changes, operationally and for capital projects, in response. Building and acquiring new talent to the industry will be important as well over the next decade, as the older generation of railroaders retires. There is opportunity to establish closer relationships with universities and internship programs to push the railroad industry to be more prominent in the younger generation’s minds.


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