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Ryan Breier, 39
Director of signals, communications, train control
Burns Engineering Inc.
Nominator’s quote: “What makes Ryan stand out is his personal approach to communicating expectations and maintaining that communication to ensure that no one involved in a project is unaware of those expectations. He treats his coworkers and his clients the same — with respect, transparency and with the expectation that they will do likewise.” — William Wiedmann, Burns Engineering Inc.
What is your educational background?
As a member of the U.S. Air Force, I received a series of training programs to qualify as an aircraft guidance and control systems specialist on the C141 Starlifter airframe. Currently, I’m a matriculated junior in Drexel University’s evening college working toward a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with an anticipated graduation date in 2022.
Describe your current job and responsibilities.
My current job title is director of signals, communications and train control (SCT&S) at Burns Engineering Inc. My primary job responsibility is managing an internal staff of 30, as well as vendors and consulting staff in the design, implementation, testing and commissioning of state- of-the-art positive train control (PTC) solutions, system improvements to legacy railroad infrastructure and next generation train control solutions.
The Burns signals, communications and train control group currently serves as the system integrator of record for Amtrak’s advanced civil speed enforcement system (ACSES) PTC program. As the systems integrator, our team is responsible for the regulatory compliance, maintenance and system improvements of the Amtrak ACSES PTS system to include PTC interoperability with all host and tenant railroads on the Northeast Corridor (NEC). In addition, our team, in conjunction with Amtrak’s internal experts, have taken a lead role in the AAR NEC Change Management meetings to coordinate among all NEC ACSES railroads for overall system configuration and interoperability.
Other PTC involvement includes systems integration tasks and wayside design as a partner to Hitachi STS for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s (SEPTA) and Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s (MBTA) PTC programs, respectively, as well as I-ETMS development with Alaska Railroad and the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.
Non-PTC related initiatives involve a variety of traditional railroad signaling projects involving the design, implementation and testing of interlockings, grade crossings, intermediate locations and office communications. Key clients for these crucial infrastructure improvements include Amtrak, MBTA, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District and SEPTA among others
Briefly describe your career path.
Following high school graduation in 1999, I joined the U.S. Air Force and served four years active, two years reserve as an aircraft guidance and control systems specialist, receiving honorable discharge in 2005. I entered into the railroad industry in 2003 as a field engineering specialist with Union Switch & Signal (now Hitachi STS) in their East Coast engineering office located in Princeton, New Jersey. As a member of US&S, my primary focus involved systems implementation, maintenance, technical leadership and project management activities related to New Jersey Transit’s advanced speed enforcements system (ASES), which was a precursor to the current ACSES PTC solution on the Northeast Corridor.
Following a brief period with Gannett Fleming as a railroad signal design specialist, I joined Burns Engineering in 2010 as a founding member of their railroad and transit communications and signals group. Since 2010, the Burns C&S group has grown from a relative startup to an industry leading group of engineers, designers and technology personnel focusing on PTC solutions and system improvements of railroad infrastructure. At Burns, my career path has progressed from technical lead, to project manager and now director of our SCT&S operations throughout the United States.
Why did you get involved in the railroad industry?
As a child I was always drawn to the railroad, and specifically the historical aspect of the U.S. railroad infrastructure. Having been born and raised in western Pennsylvania, I became increasingly aware of the railroad industry as a profession as US&S, among others, called Pittsburgh home. The training and experience that I received as a member of the USAF provided the foundation for a career in systems implementation and maintenance, and having fulfilled my initial obligation to the USAF and deciding not to reenlist, the natural transition was to return to my passion.
What is the best career advice you’ve received?
Regardless of your role or position, be sure to identify someone to serve as your mentor, and someone who you can mentor. The learning opportunities presented by both experiences are vast with the latter honing management and leadership skills.
What advice would you give to a new railroader?
It is an exciting time in our industry in terms of the application of technology on our existing infrastructure. That said, what is often difficult for a newcomer to understand are the guiding principles that served the railroad community throughout its history. I would advise all new railroaders to spend the time to understand the history and established design principles to develop a strong foundation from which they can apply new ideas, techniques, processes, etc.
What was your very first job?
My very first job was delivering the weekly local newspaper. Stacks of the publication were dropped off on our front step, and I would roll, bag and deliver each, bright and early every Saturday morning (I can still smell the ink on my hands). Though I transitioned to more regular employment in high school, I continued to deliver newspapers as it gave me a sense of satisfaction to provide for the community.
Describe a fun fact about yourself.
I have an 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, both of whom share my love of music. I’ve been teaching my son how to play the guitar, and with only two years under his belt, he has progressed to the point where he can play songs from start to finish. On occasion, the three of us put on a “concert” for my wife where my son and I will play guitar and sing, and my daughter will dance and sing.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
As mentioned, I have two small children so the bulk of my spare time is spent with my family. They are both heavily involved in extracurricular activities, and I’ve coached many of their soccer and baseball teams over the years. When we’re not attending practice, games or recitals, I enjoy home improvement and I’m currently finishing the basement as a large play area for my children.
What is the biggest challenge the rail industry now faces or will face?
Until recently, my answer would have focused on the apparent talent gap, and amount of institutional knowledge that will be lost as the seasoned men and women in our industry approach retirement age. However, given recent world events, I now believe our industry, specifically transit railroads, face a much greater challenge.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our country to a halt, both literally and figuratively as it relates to rail transit. In many of the country’s major metropolitan areas, ridership numbers have declined to near zero amid government-mandated stay-at-home orders. As the pandemic risk reduces and cities reopen, fear for one’s general well-being and the desire to maintain social distancing likely will see that ridership trend continue.
Additionally, in an effort to survive during these trying times, many companies have worked to streamline the “work from home” process. As stakeholders realize certain benefits associated with allowing employees to avoid commuting, “work from home” could be yet another trend to ultimately reduce ridership.Transit agencies thrive on ridership revenue to fund critical projects from new safety technology to state of good repair on aging infrastructure. The challenge presented to all involved is to restore faith in public transit from a health and safety perspective.
Though no simple task, it is a challenge not insurmountable and will require “outside the box” thinking and ideas from the brilliant men and women in our industry. I look forward to facing this challenge head on, and restoring the industry that I’ve watched advance by leaps and bounds during my career.