Successful 2024 Summer High School Rail Program

Approximately 120 high school students from around the globe had the opportunity to learn about railroad operations and engineering during the Summer 2024 program, “Tracks to the Future: Railroad Transportation and Engineering,” which took place at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and nine other university campuses.

The week of 24-29 June, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign hosted 25 teens from Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Brazil who participated in hands-on activities guided by RailTEC graduate students who are AREMA student chapter members. Among the numerous activities, the teens had the chance to operate a train simulator, build a small-scale version of a ballasted track, and learn why railcars are different shapes and sizes.

The highlight of the Illinois visit was the 28 June trip to the Monticello Railway Museum where the high school students were able to experience rail operations from museum volunteers, rode the rails in a caboose and open railcar, and learned about rail sensors and monitoring equipment from RailTEC’s research engineers.

The Tracks to the Future program, which began with Michigan Technological University’s Rail Transportation Program, has grown to include weeklong sessions at 10 universities around the U.S. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) funds the program and all participant costs.

The 2024 program included two sessions. The first session took place 10-14 June at Penn State-Altoona and the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. The second session took place 24-28 June at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Michigan Technological University; University of District of Columbia; University of South Carolina, Columbia; California State University, Fresno; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Oregon State University, Corvallis; and North Dakota State University, Fargo. The hybrid program featured a two-day at-home learning portion before traveling to one of the partner campuses for a two-day visit.

National University Rail Center of Excellence Kickoff Event


Launch of the National University Rail Center of Excellence on 29 May 2024.

Distinguished guests, university leaders, NURail CoE partners and students came together to celebrate the launch of the National University Rail Center of Excellence on Wednesday 29 May 2024. NURail CoE is the first academic rail research and education center of excellence to be supported by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Federal Railroad Administration.

A $5 million grant will support this consortium of nine universities and their mission is to develop solutions that will lead to a safer, more efficient, sustainable, equitable, and reliable rail transportation system in the United States and advance U.S. DOT goals. NURail CoE will attract and educate a new and diverse generation of students in railway transportation engineering, provide them with the knowledge to implement these solutions, and inspire them to pursue rail careers. One of the main efforts across all consortium members will be the development of structured programs that introduce minority and women scholars to the different facets of rail transportation.

NURail CoE is led by RailTEC at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and includes the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Delaware, Kansas State University, Michigan Technological University, Morgan State University, Rutgers University, University of Texas at Austin, and Tuskegee University.

To read more about the consortium and their kickoff event, see the media coverage below.–72020

Grainger College of Engineering Features RailTEC

(L-R), J. Riley Edwards, assistant professor, Arthur de Oliveira Lima, research engineer, and Marcus Dersch, principal research engineer. Photo Credit by Heather Coit

RailTEC was recently featured by the UI’s Grainger College of Engineering in the Engineering News. The article discusses both the upcoming launch of the new National University Rail Center of Excellence (NURail CoE) as well as the twenty-five year history of RailTEC itself. Click here to read the story.

Also included is a Q&A piece on three Civil & Environmental Engineering alums (Tom Roadcap, Nao Nishio, and Jacob Rajlick) on their experiences in the Illinois railroad engineering program, their work on high-speed rail at Brightline and why it’s important to develop new passenger rail in the U.S. Click here to read their discussion.

Upcoming Short Course on Railway Engineering

Come join us for one or both weeks of RailTEC’s virtual short course this summer. Each course will run virtually on Monday – Thursday from noon – 4:00pm (Central) and participants earn 14 professional development hours. Past attendees include rail professionals, engineers, planners, consultants and more from employees throughout the rail industry. Participants enrolled in both weeks will receive a $100 discount. For more information and to enroll, click here.

Track Engineering Fundamentals | 5-8 August 2024

Course Topics: Rail; Crossties & Fasteners; Ballast & Subgrade; Drainage; Slab Track; Turnouts & Special Trackwork; Track Structural Analysis; Track Structural Design; Track Standards & Inspections; Track Maintenance Technologies; Asset Management & Life Cycle Costs
Location: Virtual | Time: Noon-4pm CDT | Instructor: Conrad Ruppert
14 Professional Development Hours

Railroad Project Design | 12-15 August 2024

Course Topics: Horizontal Track Geometry; Vertical Track Geometry; Cross Sections & Earthwork; Railroad Location; Location Referencing & Track Charts; Project Phasing; Project Cost Estimation
Location: Virtual | Time: Noon-4pm CDT | Instructor: Conrad Ruppert
14 Professional Development Hours

Since the course focuses on three general topic areas (track structure design, track geometry/project design and train resistance/motive power/rolling stock), attendees who have a stronger background in one area can still learn about other aspects of railway engineering and the interrelationships between them. In gaining a greater appreciation for the holistic view of rail transport as a system, attendees can make better engineering decisions in the future. The short course is an excellent networking opportunity to meet others engaged in various facets of the rail industry.

Four Alumni Honored

RailTEC is proud to announce that four RailTEC alumni have recently been honored for their contributions to the rail industry.

Darwin Schafer II

Darwin Schafer II made the 2024 “10 Under 40” list published by Railway Track & Structures (RT&S). This list is released annually in April and first began in 2021 to honor young engineers that best exemplify the engineering industry. Schafer is the Vice President Rail Civil Group Manager at Benesch and was recognized for his work as a leader and technical expert for track and terminal design which has been critical to the success of numerous fast-tracked Class 1 railroad capacity expansion projects. He has personally contributed to the design of over 30 railroad intermodal and automotive terminals, both new facilities and upgrades and expansions to existing facilities. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (Illinois) with his master’s degree in civil engineering in 2008 and his bachelor’s in civil engineering in 2006. Click here to read the RT&S article.


Luv Sehgal

Also in April Luv Sehgal, a Senior Rail Engineer with Arup, received the 2024 Civil and Environmental Engineering Alumni Association (CEEAA) Young Alumni Achievement Award. The award recognizes early professional accomplishments or unique contributions to society by graduates of the Illinois CEE Department who are 35 years old or younger. Sehgal was recognized for his rapid career advancement, leadership in rail systems, and commitment to engineering excellence and sustainability, as well as his dedication to Illinois and the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance Right-of-Way Association (AREMA) and his engagement with student chapters, mentoring and workshops. He holds a master’s degree specializing in transportation engineering from Illinois and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from NIT Hamirpur in India. Click here to read the CEE announcement.


Sean Pengelly

Beginning in 2016, Railway Age magazine has recognized the top North American railroaders under the age of 40 for making an impact in their respective fields or within their companies in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The 25 individuals chosen for this award are judged on their industry experience and education, leadership skills, industry contributions and community service involvement. Two RailTEC alumni, Sean Pengelly and Jonathan Wnek, made their list in 2024.

Pengelly is an Engineer in the Projects & Development area for the Lake State Railway Company (LSRC). He graduated from Illinois in 2017 with a BS in civil engineering. While at LSRC Pengelly has led business development efforts, maintains relationships with the Michigan Department of Transportation Office of Rail and FRA CRISI grant administrators, and taken on lead roles in relation to CRISI funded projects. Many of these roles were not otherwise present at LSRC and he created the tools and resources to carry the projects forward.


Jonathan Wnek

Wnek has been in the rail industry for over 13 years and is currently a Project Manager at RailPros. He is a specialist in freight and passenger rail corridor design and has developed track design plans for projects in numerous states and supported many project areas, including track rehabilitation and track alignment. He is currently managing the Amtrak LiDAR Extraction Project , which includes extracting all track, signal, structural, station, and electric traction features and assets along the 410-route mile NEC. Wnek is a 2009 and 2010 graduate in civil engineering at Illinois. Click here to read their write-ups in the Railway Age article.


Engineering Open House 2024

EOH 2024 theme: “Aspire to Inspire”

Hundreds of visitors on the first day of the 2024 Engineering Open House (EOH) stopped by the Newmark Civil Engineering Laboratory on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus where they could experience driving a train and learn about railroad signaling systems. Illinois students representing RailTEC, the UIUC student chapter of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA), and the Illini Rail Club shared their passion for rail engineering design and railroad operations at the 102nd EOH on 5-6 April. Some of the other interactive rail exhibits included demonstrations of railway control and signaling, a train simulator, train puzzle, intermodal game and a model train layout.

During his shift working at the Illini Rail Club’s model train layout during EOH Cameron Taylor, a freshman Civil and Environmental Engineering student, encouraged youngsters to operate one of the trains. “We let people drive the trains and see how it operates,” he explained. “It’s a great learning experience to get them interested in railroading early.” Just last year Taylor was one of the visitors to the open house when he was still in high school. “When I came to the Engineering Open House last year, my mind was blown,” he said of the railroad-related exhibits. “When I was here, I learned about the RailTEC program and rail studies and thought, ‘I definitely want to come here to school.’” Although Taylor is interested in rail infrastructure and design and rail safety, he is not ruling out becoming a railroad engineer someday. “That’s on my bucket list,” he said. Taylor said he has loved trains as far back as he can remember. “It started with ‘Polar Express’ and grew from there,” he said. “I was one of those kids that waved at the engineer when the train went by.”

Daniel Kuchta, a food chemist and train enthusiast, participated at this year’s open house by demonstrating a circa 1980s railroad crossing system that he salvaged several years ago. “They tore out the train signal unit in my hometown, so I pieced it together and thought it was good opportunity to display it here,” Kuchta said. “This is my sixth year setting up here.” he said. Kuchta explained to a group of high school students that railroad crossing systems, which detect when a train approaches and activates the crossing gates, were developed for convenience as well as safety.  “The more accurate the system is when the gates go down, the less people will try to walk or drive around them,” he said. “The system makes sure everything is working properly before the gates go up.”

Canadian National (CN) Railroad’s signal department employees Jason Berner, Elliott Kaye and Jason Oldham showed visitors a live view of CN’s rail traffic between Champaign and Neoga as well as the corresponding signal system for that territory. “We are demonstrating how the two systems interact with each other,” Berner said. “Dispatchers have four to six screens of contiguous areas that they monitor to make sure the trains are going where they need to go, and the signals are working. “We dispatch trains 24/7, 364.5 days a year,” he said. “The only time off is Christmas morning.”

First-year RailTEC graduate student David Wasilewski demonstrated a system with a series of signals. “There is a current going through the track that activates the signal,” he explained. “The track is divided into sections with signals, so it protects the train in the next section from being rear-ended.” Wasilewski said being a part of the RailTEC program has been a perfect fit for him. He discovered the RailTEC program his freshman year at UIUC when he joined the Illini Rail Club. “I’ve been around trains my whole life, and I like designing and civil engineering,” he said. “RailTEC is probably the biggest rail research program with a lab.”

Check back for the dates of EOH 2025.


Barkan Quoted in AP Article

Professor Christopher P.L. Barkan, George Krambles Director of RailTEC, was quoted twice in an Associated Press (AP) article written by Josh Funk on March 26, 2024. In his article, Funk discusses positive train control (PTC) and how, in this case, PTC would not prevented the collision of three Norfolk Southern trains in Pennsylvania in early March. Founded in 1846 the AP is an independent global news organization dedicated to factual reporting. Click here to read the entire article.


Instructors Ranked Excellent

Congratulations to the RailTEC teaching team of J. Riley Edwards and Conrad Ruppert, Jr. for being ranked as Excellent by their students in the CEE 409 – Railroad Track Engineering course for Fall 2023. These lists are compiled by the University on a semester basis and reflect student ratings of instruction. The ratings are based on Instructor and Course Evaluation (ICES) questionnaire forms maintained by Measurement and Evaluation, Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning. Click here to see a listing of UI instructors who earned the distinction to be included on this list. More information on this class can be found below.

CEE 409 – Railway Track Engineering – Railroad track is the backbone of a railway network and a key element of the vehicle-track system. Its primary functions are to support and distribute train loads, guide rail vehicles and facilitate drainage. The safe and efficient movement of trains requires that track is properly designed, constructed, inspected and maintained. The objectives of this course are to provide the student with a fundamental understanding of basic railroad track engineering principles, concepts, practices and technologies. The course also includes the development of a comprehensive track design project in a team setting.  Finally, a field trip is planned to observe railroad track and engage in “hands-on” track construction and maintenance activities.

Coming this summer – International Crosstie and Fastening System Symposium

Registration is now open and sponsorships are still available for the International Crosstie and Fastening System Symposium. This two-day event will be held on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus on 4-5 June 2024 and will be held in conjunction with the AREMA Committee 30 (Ties) spring meeting on 6 June 2024. General sponsorships are available as well as a few limited Platinum Sponsor slots.

For more information about the 2024 Symposium and to register please visit our webpage. The registration fee includes symposium technical sessions, luncheon keynote addresses and dinners both nights. The Transit Keynote Address will be given by Carrie Wagener, First Deputy Chief Engineer, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). The title of her address is: CTA’s Red and Purple Modernization Phase One Project: Overcoming Challenging Constraints.

The objective of the symposium is to further international communication and collaboration on design and performance challenges and solutions for crossties and fastening systems.

Apply Now for 2024 High School Summer Program in Rail

Planning for the third iteration of the popular high school summer camp, Tracks to the Future, is well under way. Supported again this year by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) the camp has enough funding for 200 slots spread over ten different universities. Twenty full scholarships are available at each site and program registrations are rapidly filling. This camp is open to high school students who will be enrolled in grades 9-12 in Fall 2024. FRA covers the program costs, but transportation to the host sites is not covered. Need based travel support may be available.


The 2024 registration deadline is March 15, or until filled. Register for the program here or contact for more questions.

This is a hybrid program where Monday and Tuesday will consist of virtual live classroom instruction and hands-on activities. Each student will conduct these from their homes or another location with computer and internet access. Wednesday will be a travel day to the host university and instruction will continue on Thursday and Friday at one of the university host locations. There are ten different alternatives for students to choose from and staff will do their best to assign students to their preferred location.


Tracks to the Future 2024 Session I  |  June 10–14, 2024


    • Penn State-Altoona
    • University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE

Tracks to the Future 2024 Session II  |  June 24–28, 2024


    • Michigan Tech, Houghton
    • University of District of Columbia
    • University of Illinois-Champaign
    • University of South Carolina, Columbia
    • California State University, Fresno
    • University of New Mexico, Albuquerque
    • Oregon State University, Corvallis
    • North Dakota State University, Fargo