Railroad Engineering Program Overview
For over a century the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)
has been among the leading academic institutions in rail transportation
engineering. Talbot, Schmidt, Wright, Wetenkamp, and Hay are familiar
and respected names in the annals of railroad engineering.
All were UIUC faculty who made important and lasting contributions to the field. These individuals and their students represent both the legacy, and the enduring commitment of UIUC to railroad engineering.
As we enter the 21st century, a vibrant program in railroad engineering at UIUC continues. UIUC has the strongest academic program in railroad engineering of any university in North America, complimented by the largest and most diverse program of research on the topic.
The Rail Transportation and Engineering center (RailTEC) at UIUC recognizes the ever more important role of rail transportation, whether it be freight, passenger or urban transit.
UIUC is committed to further growth and development of its engineering teaching and research activity in support of the nation’s need for talented young minds and new technologies in this important transportation mode.
As a first step in rejuvenating its railroad engineering program, Dr. Christopher Barkan (formerly with the Association of American Railroads’ Research & Test and Safety & Operations Departments) was hired in a new, full-time position to direct the effort following the retirement of Professor Ernest Barenberg.
Since his arrival, Prof. Barkan’s has had two principle objectives, broadening the railroad engineering research program that was already well established thanks to Prof. Barenberg’s efforts, and expanding the UIUC educational program.
The base of support for RailTEC has been broadened by building on its core strength as an AAR Affiliated Laboratory.
Over a dozen new projects have been initiated, supported by AAR, FRA, NSF, RSI, TRB and individual railroad and railway supply companies. UIUC research results have been presented to the railroad community at a wide variety of national and international conferences and meetings in the past few years, including AREMA, AAR, TRB, WCRR, IHHA, INFORMS and many others.
In 2012, UIUC RailTEC became the lead institution of the National University Rail (NURail) Center, the first US Department of Transportation University Transportation Center dedicated to the advancement of North American rail transportation. RailTEC leads the NURail consortium of seven partner colleges and universities offering an unparalleled combination of strengths in railway transportation engineering research and education in North America.
The academic program has also undergone significant growth, expanding from one course in railroad engineering to the present number of ten, with other new classes under consideration. The core railroad courses cover a spectrum of railroad topics: fundamental economics of railroad transportation, track structure design, railroad geometric design, railroad project construction, railroad signaling and railroad operations.
Special topics classes cover additional railroad subjects and unique among these are the suite of three High-Speed Rail courses that form the RailTEC HSR curriculum. The HSR Engineering, HSR Planning and HSR Construction Management courses provide RailTEC with a HSR curriculum that is unmatched in North America and rivals that of leading rail education institutions in Europe and Asia.
Importantly, the railroad classes are offered in the context of UIUC's extraordinarily broad and deep curriculum in engineering education at all levels within the broader transportation program, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the College of Engineering.
The UIUC College of Engineering is among the largest and highest ranked in the nation with 13 departments and over 500 faculty members. Admission standards for undergraduates are rigorous and expectations of faculty achievement are high. As such it is an appropriate institution to attract, teach, and develop the best and brightest minds in engineering and direct them toward the challenges of rail transportation.
In addition to classes for matriculated students, UIUC recognizes the need for continuing education and distance learning options for the rail transportation community. To this end, many of the RailTEC courses are offered online through the UIUC CEE Online program, and UIUC has organized numerous conferences, workshops and short courses on railroad and related topics, and is interested in further development of these educational venues.
RailTEC has one full-time faculty position in railroad engineering (held by Professor Chris Barkan) and five other full-time academic staff functioning as faculty. Senior Lecturer Riley Edwards joined RailTEC in 2007 and leads the concrete railroad crosstie research program. Professor TC Kao joined RailTEC in 2008 and leads development of the High-Speed Rail curriculum as well as directing RailTEC international programs. Research Assistant Professor Rapik Saat joined RailTEC in 2010 and leads the railroad safety and risk research program. Senior Research Engineer Tyler Dick joined RailTEC in 2012 after an 11-year career as a consulting track design engineer and leads the railroad systems and capacity research along with directing RailTEC education activities. Senior Research Engineer Conrad Ruppert Jr. joined RailTEC in 2012 after a 35-year career as a track engineer with Amtrak on the Northeast Corridor and leads the railroad infrastructure research program along with directing all RailTEC research activities.
These individuals specialize in a variety of disciplines of direct relevance to rail transportation. They conduct research on new and emerging technologies, and equally important, they teach classes on engineering subjects that are vital to a well-rounded education for railroad engineering professionals.
In addition, there is a strong base of knowledge on railroad engineering topics among a number of other faculty, thanks to UIUC's 30-year tenure as an AAR Affiliated Lab. The skills of these faculty compliment RailTEC faculty knowledge and they are a major factor in the overall strength of the UIUC railroad engineering program, which is fundamentally a multi-disciplinary, cross-departmental team effort at UIUC.
Critical to the success of both UIUC and the rail transportation community is encouraging bright young students to seek education and pursue careers in railroad transportation, but there are several challenges.
By contrast to current, high-profile topics in engineering such as computers, communication, biotechnology, etc., rail transportation suffers from its low visibility with the general public, and a very limited understanding of the vital role it plays in modern society.
Perhaps even more important is the perception that rail transport is “low tech”. Ironically, rail transportation is undergoing technological revolution in a number of respects. Some of this involves use of these new technologies to rail engineering applications, while others are challenging, cutting-edge developments in traditional engineering fields that are vital to the ever-changing demands for rail transportation technology.
In either case, they represent exciting and rewarding challenges for eager and inquisitive young minds. The key is to inspire students’ interest by exposing them to these topics through classes, field trips, internships, visiting speakers, and research opportunities.
Establishment of a longer-term, reliable base of support for both the research and academic elements of the UIUC railroad program is vital to its continued success.
Attracting the most talented undergraduate students is enhanced by scholarships, conduct of research requires support for graduate students and faculty, development of new courses requires faculty time, classroom space and laboratory equipment.
A step toward achieving this goal was achieved when the George M. Krambles Foundation made a substantial donation to UIUC in support of its transportation engineering program in civil engineering with emphasis on rail transit. More recently, the CN Foundation provided a generous endowment supporting railroad engineering research fellowships at UIUC.
The railroad and railway supply industries can help ensure that UIUC continues to educate a new generation of railroad engineering and transportation professionals by supporting the continued development of its railroad educational and research programs.
There are three key ways to accomplish this: funding, internships and employment opportunities.
Funding- This is particularly important because it helps attract the best students to the program and provides the stability that enables faculty and students the time to concentrate on teaching, studies, and research in rail transportation engineering.
Internships and coops- These provide first-hand experience to students who are considering careers in rail transportation and help them develop understanding and interest in key aspects of the field.
Employment opportunities- There is a shortage of engineers in all fields today and the rail industry is competing with other industries for the best students who will receive many offers. It is vital that timely, competitive employment opportunities be available when graduates are looking for jobs, typically in the winter months for May
In short, if rail transportation is to have the talent it needs in the future, it must invest in education and research today. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been teaching and advancing the field of rail transportation engineering for over 100 years, and is committed to continuing in this role in the 21st century.