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by Angela Cotey, Associate editor
In her more than 20-year career, Lupe Valdez has worked for a non-profit group, two transit authorities and an environmental agency. The public relations professional's stints with the four organizations taught her about nonprofit management; transportation planning and construction; environmental laws, regulations and processes; air quality issues; and "Railroading 101."
Since joining Union Pacific Railroad five years ago as director of public affairs for the southern California region, Valdez has put every one of her experiences to good use.
"I thought these were just little pieces of what I'd done," she says. "I never imagined they would come together."
In her current position, Valdez serves as a liaison between North America's largest Class I and the communities in one of the country's most densely populated regions. She helps residents and elected officials understand what the railroad does and why; addresses railroad-related concerns; and relays those concerns to UP execs.
Valdez's work during the past five years has helped the railroad improve its image and provide UP officials with a better understanding of the problems plaguing the area. Her efforts also helped Valdez earn the 2009 "Outstanding Woman of the Year" award from the League of Railway Industry Women (LRIW). Sponsored by Progressive Railroading, the award recognizes an individual's dedication and contribution to the rail industry.
"The reputation of the company had been strained in the southern California area, after years of turbulence with local communities," according to a letter nominating Valdez for the LRIW honor. "Her work with local elected officials, chambers of commerce and non-profits have helped increase the visibility of Union Pacific and raise the company's profile in a positive light."
Valdez's previous experiences prepped her well for the job.
She began her career at Los Angeles' Center for Nonprofit Management, which aims to help small, grassroots organizations become more efficient at managing their operations.
After a two years there, Valdez moved on to the transportation sector, assuming a public affairs position at what's now known as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. During her 10 years at the agency, Valdez gained a knowledge of transit construction and environmental issues.
That environmental understanding came in handy when Valdez took on her next position — deputy executive officer of public affairs for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a position she held for four years.
"I'm not an engineer or scientist — I tried to avoid chemistry in college — but I did come to understand a lot of issues related to air quality," Valdez says.
And how those issues translate
within the rail environment.
"At that time, UP and BNSF had signed a memorandum of understanding with the state focused on reducing emissions from diesel particulates," Valdez says. "So I understood a little bit of the railroad industry nomenclature."
In 2001, Valdez had an opportunity to delve deeper into the rail world when she accepted a position at commuter-rail agency Metrolink, where she was charged with creating a public affairs department. During her four years at the agency, Valdez picked up what she called "Railroading 101" from Metrolink employees.
"They taught me the ins and outs of MOW, rights of way, locomotives, systems," she says. "Little did I know, I would really need it for my next career."
In late 2004, UP engineer Richard Gonzalez — whom Valdez had come to know during her Metrolink stint — approached her at a public utility meeting they were attending. The Class I had been considering creating a public affairs position specifically for southern California, and Gonzalez thought Valdez should consider it.
Her initial response: "I told him not to hold out hope," she says. "I was very happy at Metrolink and, at the time, UP was not the favorite railroad in southern California. They had a lot of issues with local elected officials that had gone unaddressed."
UP had suffered some "high-profile" derailments in the region, Valdez says. And while UP did have staff stationed in Sacramento, there was no one designated to specifically handle southern California — a region that's home to more than half the state's population.
But Valdez is not one to turn down an opportunity, and she figured it couldn't hurt to consider the railroad. When the job was officially posted in early 2005, she decided to apply.
"I met with the person who is now my boss, and I was very open and honest about what I felt was missing in southern California," she says.
What, exactly was missing?
"In Los Angeles County alone, there are 89 cities and we impact a lot of them," says Valdez. "There was no one here that had an understanding of all the local issues relative to railroads in their specific cities."
Her input made its way up to Chief Operating Officer Jim Young, who now serves as the Class I's chief executive officer, president and chairman. Young interviewed Valdez for the position — though she made sure she walked away with a better understanding of Young and his philosophies, as well.
"Mr. Young really impressed me by his honesty and understanding of the difficult job that needed to be done in southern California," she says.
Knowing she had support from the top of the company, Valdez couldn't turn down the job when it was offered.
Today, Valdez oversees public affairs for Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and Ventura counties. The top issue she deals with? Train horns.
"'Why do trains have to blow their horns at 2 a.m.?' That's my biggest complaint," says Valdez.
She addresses such concerns by, quite simply, listening to area residents and explaining to them why engineers have to sound their horn, regardless of what time it is.
"Engineers aren't blowing their horns to wake you up; they're required by law to do it," she says. "That's part of my job responsibility — to work with communities and give them an understanding of why we do what we do."
Weed control is another hot topic in southern California, which has a 12-month growing season. When residents began complaining to Valdez about crossings that had been blocked by overgrown weeds, she relayed the problem to execs at UP's Omaha, Neb., headquarters.
"There needed to be an understanding that this is a different kind of environment and we have to treat it differently," she says.
Her call was answered. UP since has changed its weed abatement program in the area, namely by dedicating more resources.
"It's not just about the weeds," she says. "It shows the community we do care, and it has a ripple effect."
But Valdez's job duties extend far beyond horns and weeds. She's required to have a knowledge about all things UP and how they'll affect local communities, from hazardous materials transport to positive train control.
"Just when you think you understand everything, a new issue comes up like PTC that has me learning a whole different aspect of communication — radio technology, bandwidth," Valdez says. "Who'd know I would learn so much about bandwidth?"
Or railroads, air quality, environmental processes and transportation planning, for that matter.
"I love that about this job," she says. "It's always challenging you to learn more and understand more, and that's fascinating to me."