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Rose-Hulman to Help Address Need for Advancing Railroad Technologies

January 25, 2012

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology will begin educating the next generation of railroad engineers as part of a consortium funded by the Department of Transportation. And in a way, by helping address the nation's need to advance our transportation system into the future, the Institute steps back into its past.

        Train on Tracks

A New Frontier: "The railroads are experiencing a comeback, and there are great opportunities for an exciting and rewarding career in railroad engineering," says Jim McKinney, Roland Hutchins Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering. (Photo by David Honan, a 2005 civil engineering alumnus)

Chauncey Rose, an entrepreneur and builder of railroads, came to western Indiana in 1817.  He joined others in seeing the need for trailblazing engineers to bring commerce and prosperity to the region through the expanding railroad industry.  Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose-Hulman) was formed in the late 1800s to help forge the new frontier.

Now, more than a century later, Rose-Hulman will be part of a multi-university consortium establishing the National University Rail (NURail) Center, based at the University of Illinois (Champaign- Urbana).  The idea, funded through a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, will focus on rail education and research to improve railroad safety, efficiency and reliability.  Particular focus will be on challenges associated with rail corridors in which higher-speed passenger trains share infrastructure with freight trains.

"The railroads are experiencing a comeback, and there are great opportunities for an exciting and rewarding career in railroad engineering," states Jim McKinney, Roland Hutchins Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering.  He is Rose-Hulman's principal investigator to the NURail University Transportation Center (UTC).

"College level courses in railroad engineering were eliminated at most colleges following WW II.  This lack of railroad engineering educational opportunities coupled with a large number of retirements within the industry have caused a great demand for the next generation of highly educated and specialized engineers within the railroad industry," McKinney said.

McKinney James        

Principal Investigator: Jim McKinney, Roland Hutchins Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering, is leading Rose-Hulman's participation in the NURail University Transportation Center.


"Also, an expanding railroad industry could benefit America's interstate highway system by taking long-distance carriers off roadways and putting them on rail."

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, a member of the House Transportation Committee, told The Urbana News-Gazette that the nation has spent heavily on air- and highway-related research, at the expense of rail service.

"Unfortunately, rail-related research has fallen behind, leaving significant workforce shortages and a gap in rail expertise," Johnson said.

The railroad system is believed to be a vital link to America's continued development through urban mass transit, shipping coal to generate electricity throughout the country and shipping products (grain/wheat) from America's agricultural heartland to markets.

The NURail Center will be the first University Transportation Center focused solely on rail, and the proposal received broad support from a large number of public, private sector, and international rail organizations.  Other colleges joining Rose-Hulman and UIUC in the project include Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan Technical University, University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Kentucky and University of Tennessee.  

"(Rose-Hulman) was sought out to participate because of our reputation in undergraduate engineering education.  If we're going to address some of the underlying issues in the railroad industry, we need engineers that are educated in this career field," McKinney said.  "This project involves a wide spectrum of educational institutions with one goal: Setting the course for this advanced transportation system.  The opportunities are endless."

Rose-Hulman's part of the project will include the introduction of a new interdisciplinary railroad engineering course during the 2012-13 academic year.   The course will be taught by McKinney with assistance from other Rose-Hulman faculty who will introduce elements of electrical and mechanical engineering.    Civil engineering students have completed senior-year design projects for Indiana Rail Road and CSX Railroad.

"I see a lot of student interest being developed in the area of railroad engineering," said McKinney, a member of the Terre Haute/Vigo County Railroad Committee and the Terre Haute Urbanized Area Railroad Corridor Study.  "Railroads attracted a lot of people toward careers in civil engineering.  Now, they will be able to combine those two interests together in this interesting field."

        Civil group on trail

Leading The Wave: Civil engineering alumnus David Honan (left) is now a rail project engineer at HDR Engineering, Inc. in Bellevue, Wash.  He was part of a senior design team in 2005 that helped establish aspects of Terre Haute's Heritage Trail system.  Professor Jim McKinney (right) was mentor for this project.

David Honan, a 2005 Rose-Hulman civil engineering alumnus, is one professional engineer who is enjoying a rewarding career as a rail project engineer.  An internship with CSX Transportation helped pave the way for his employment at HDR Engineering, Inc. of Bellevue, Wash.

"Rose-Hulman's contributions to this exciting project will come from the many great minds on campus, which will produce the type of creative responses that are essential for these kinds of studies," Honan said.  "Railroads and rail-based mass transit are finally becoming household topics of discussion as awareness grows over how important those modes are to the U.S. economy and to mobility in urban environments.

"With large rail infrastructure projects in planning or construction phases across the country, it's increasingly likely that Rose-Hulman graduates will find themselves with opportunities to be involved, and possessing specific technical knowledge about rail design will provide them a strong advantage over their peers pursuing the same job openings," he said.

The NURail project is part of $77 million in DOT grants to 22 UTCs, involving a total of 121 different universities across the country.  The UTCs conduct research that directly supports the priorities of the DOT on transportation-related issues such as shared rail corridors, innovations in multimodal freight and infrastructure, bridge inspection methods, and reducing roadway fatalities and injuries.

Dr. McKinney, quoted in Inside Indiana Business.