Ivy Leaf - Winter 2010

Embracing the past to engineer the future

By Sherry Sullivan


There are some things in this world that make perfect sense: fly fishing in the renowned Fisherman's Paradise on the banks of Pennsylvania's Spring Creek, delicious lobster fresh off the boat in Boston's North End and fields of corn in the black, fertile soil of Iowa. Where else would you go to know the quintessential experience?

So many regions of our country offer something unique that is grounded in both historical and modern-day relevance. For those who have grown up in or near Altoona, Pennsylvania, it is an industry that lives through several generations — the time-tested world of rail.

"Altoona and its surrounding area, Logan Valley, have come to symbolize the rich history, evolution, and influence of railroads in the United States. Today Altoona is most notably the home of the historic landmarks of the golden era of railroading, including the Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark and the Allegheny Portage National Historic Site," writes Penn State Altoona Professor of History Brian Black in his contribution to the magazine Pennsylvania Legacies, entitled "Getting a Move On: Transportation Revolutions in Altoona."

Many saw that golden era of railroading come and go ... only to be applauded in the exhibits of museums or in oral history. Today, many are seeing it return. And for Penn State Altoona, it means a new opportunity is at hand.

"If you think about the railroad industry in 1900, it was the equivalent to the information technology industry today," explains Dr. Christopher Barkan, director of the Railroad Engineering Program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former researcher for the Association of American Railroads. "It had a very significant role in the rapid expansion of our industrialized society. Thankfully, our country is starting to rediscover rail, but there is almost no academic infrastructure to support this."

Now, thanks to a proposed rail and transit engineering (RTE) program at Penn State Altoona, that infrastructure is beginning to emerge in the heart of where it all began.

Building Up Steam

The inspiration of State Representative Rick Geist, the proposed RTE program has been in the incubation stage for several years. A champion of technology within Blair County, Geist serves as chairman of the House Transportation Committee and has been awarded for his efforts in creating the Ben Franklin Partnership, one of the nation's longest-running technology-based economic development programs.

"Altoona was once the Silicon Valley for railroads," Geist recalls. "We set the bar and populated other industrial cities in the areas of manufacturing, retrofitting, testing, research, and design. Now Penn State Altoona has the opportunity to play a major role in the training and development of the future leaders for the industry. I believe it will be the training ground for America. I cannot say enough good about it, and I am so proud of the work being done at Penn State Altoona to keep this moving forward."

Once the idea was introduced to Penn State Altoona Chancellor Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry, the project took on a sense of relevance, priority, and excitement that has reverberated throughout many channels. With continued participation from Representative Geist as well as project leadership from Associate Professor of Engineering Andrew Vavreck, the team has been, as they like to say, "building up steam."

"I am extremely excited about this," Bechtel-Wherry states, as she reflects on the past three years of developing this bachelor's degree program. "It will be something truly unique in the country around which folks from government, industry, and academia can rally. Many in the industry are excited about the potential of this program. We are especially grateful to Norfolk Southern for its $100,000 grant and the donation of equipment, including a locomotive simulator. With Altoona's railroading history, there really is no better place for this degree program. I am optimistic for the future of this program, as well as the potential economic impact for our community."

Filling the Pipeline

On July 2, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, legislation that established The Pennsylvania State University and sixty-eight other academic institutions. Their charter was to "encourage institutions of higher education nationwide to add engineering, mining, agriculture, and other applied sciences to existing courses of studies that were grounded in arts and letters."

"Today," explains Rich DiEugenio, special assistant to the President for governmental affairs at Penn State, "the practical application of higher education is still our responsibility and our mission. This rail and transit engineering program is an initiative that will enable professionals in our academic setting to produce a very practical outcome. At every turn, I have seen only a positive reaction."

To better understand the potential practical application, Vavreck began accumulating knowledge resources and putting together a formal proposal based on the needs and opportunities in the industry. "We understand that the rail industry will experience a significant upswing once the economy begins to improve," Vavreck explains. "Just by embracing the green, cost-effective nature of the technology ... the ability to move a ton of freight more than 400 miles on one gallon of fuel ... we will see rail take off. And, when you consider the fact that railroads and suppliers are going to be losing many engineers to retirement over the next five to ten years, we knew we needed to start to fill the pipeline."

Preparing new college graduates to address the demand, however, is a significant challenge for industry given the current lack of academic focus on rail. In looking at twenty-two different universities identified by major railroads as sources for engineering-trained supervision, the Penn State Altoona team found that only five listed courses devoted to railroads. Today, only three academic programs are sponsored by the Association for American Railroads as affiliated labs, designed for the study, development, and application of new and emerging technologies to solve rail industry problems. In what some would consider a surprising move, the University of Illinois, considered to be the leading program nationwide, has offered its full support of the proposed RTE program at Penn State Altoona in an attempt to address the crippling needs of the rail system.

"The whole nature of the academic world is the dependency on funding for research," states University of Illinois' Dr. Chris Barkan. "For the past fifty years, that emphasis has been on highway and air within the transportation industry. In order to succeed, attract funding, and effectively transfer this technology down to the new generation of engineers, we have to have some good-natured competition between programs nationally. This is really the opportune time for Penn State Altoona to revisit its past in rail transportation. I would like to see ten or twenty other universities doing the same thing."

Six Degrees of Separation

In the worlds of rail and transit, one cannot go far before understanding that it is a small world after all, one of self-proclaimed "train geeks" (their words, not mine). And, born out of that culture is a genuine passion for the "iron horse" and related forms of rail transportation. It is a community, and it is upon that community that Vavreck called for expertise.

First, Vavreck reached out to the retired chief operating officer of RailAmerica, Gary Spiegel. Once responsible for the management and operations of forty-two RailAmerica short lines and regional lines that operate over 7,100 miles in twenty-four states and six Canadian provinces, Spiegel offered a 38-year career in the railroad industry as well as enthusiasm for the project.

"After getting the call from Penn State Altoona, I began making calls to my contacts in the industry," Spiegel says. "You see, in 1976, there were fifty-one Class I — or large — railroads. Today, there are six. As a result of the consolidation and the shifting of the workforce, all of the engineering talent is about the same age — the age of retirement. So, there is a significant need for trained engineers beginning in 2010. And I mean trained engineers. Employers want engineers to know more about the railroads ... with history, politics, and management included. This began our framework for the RTE program."

One of Spiegel's calls was to a colleague, Charlie Marshall, the former president and chief operating officer of Genesee & Wyoming, the operator of short line and regional freight lines in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. Marshall, in his role as consultant, provided a valuable service by exploring the demand, assessing the needs of the industry in order to adequately prepare program graduates, and providing input to Penn State Altoona faculty regarding the formalized plan and curriculum.

"This project is very interesting to me," Marshall comments, "because this seems to be the time when everything is coming together to make it right. On the demand side, the railroads are hungry for trained, professional engineers. Transit agencies are the same way. But, on the supply side, do kids want to be railroad engineers? My answer to this would be to look at the excitement created in other parts of the world with high-speed passenger rail — places like Japan, India, South Africa, Italy, and Germany. This is really the time to catch up and get ahead. I think that many will want to be part of that growth."

Classroom in the Round

American industrialist Jean Paul Getty once said that "getting results through people is a skill that cannot be learned in the classroom." Considering a classroom in its traditional form, he may be right. But, in the case of the RTE program, "classroom" has come to mean something completely different.

Welcome to 1300 Ninth Avenue in Railroad City, also known as the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum.

As the project continued, Gary Spiegel's seat on the museum board became pivotal as the proposed RTE program began to take shape. Specifically, the museum began plans to build out space to house the Penn State Altoona labs on its property. These labs are in the form of a locomotive roundhouse and pits where mechanical laboratory activities can be conducted. An additional 5,000 square feet has been designated by the museum as available for other Penn State Altoona RTE lab activities and to house the Norfolk Southern simulator. Additionally, an operating railroad lab would ideally be established on an existing light-density line.

"We all seem to be here together by some mysterious force," notes Larry Salone, executive director of the museum. "We are so fortunate. Being given the opportunity to take a nonprofit museum and work with Penn State Altoona is everything a museum could ask for."

The Penn State Advantage in Motion

The proposed program already is creating a buzz on campus and beyond. Approximately one dozen students have expressed their desire to enroll in such a program and the college hopes to admit the first eighteen freshmen into the major for the fall of 2010 pending program approval. With significant input by the college's faculty toward the proposed curriculum, the Penn State Altoona RTE development team has designed a major that gives students the foundation of a traditional civil engineering program, including courses in surveying, design, structures, materials, construction, management, fluids, and soils. Eight new RTE courses are added in the third and fourth years in areas including industry and regulatory overviews, operations and safety communications and signals, track, and mechanical. To graduate, students complete a capstone design course during which they use the range of their training in a team-based design project.

Additionally, as the program matures and the faculty base expands, opportunities also exist to address the needs of skilled labor through continuing and online education, certification programs, and seminars to strengthen specific skill sets and conduct critical training in areas such as safety.

Recently, I visited with Steve Chrismer, a Penn State graduate in civil engineering who is a principal engineer in track geometry for Amtrak. One of the last students to come out of Penn State's former railroad program of the '70s and early '80s, Chrismer has lived the railroad life from grandchild of a roundhouse worker to student to researcher to engineer. "My whole family was in the railroad industry," he reflects. "But I was told it was a dying industry. I want to tell kids today that it is not a dying industry. For the past twenty years, training was really done on the job. No one started with the knowledge. I was one of the lucky ones to get a jumpstart, and now they can too."