RailCats puts students on track for growing industry

By Allison O’Connor

The railroad industry is thriving, and UK is preparing students for career opportunities in the field of railway engineering.

UK established RailCats, a student chapter of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association, in October 2011.

Mike McHenry, a UK graduate student, is the founding president of RailCats, which is one of only five chapters in the United States. It aims to promote railroad engineering while educating students about opportunities in the field, according to a press release.

“We have been able to schedule field trips and speakers about the railroad industry, which ties into the goals of the group — promoting railroad industry and careers and opportunities,” McHenry said.

On a recent trip to R.J. Corman Railroad, students were able to get a more hands-on experience by seeing exactly how the locomotive, controls and switches work.

“There are very few schools in the country that have researched in this area,” McHenry said. “A lot of railroads have done their own research hopefully more students can get involved.”

Jerry Rose, a civil engineering professor, has been present from the beginning of the railroad program. He has mentored about 30 graduate students and several doctoral students in railroad engineering.

With the efforts of Rose and many others, UK is becoming a leading university in the field of railroad engineering, according to a press release.

UK’s railroad program began about 30 years ago with Rose and a group of students who entered a contest sponsored by the National Asphalt Pavement Association and the Asphalt Institute.

With the help of Rose, the students submitted the winning project about the benefits of using asphalt in railway trackbed construction and maintenance.

After the success of the student project, Rose established the initial “Railroad Facilities Design and Analysis” class available to students interested in civil engineering.

“The industry has begun to grow and expand in recent years and so did our efforts,” Rose said.

In the past 12 years, research funding from various agencies has supported both graduate and undergraduate students in rail associated research projects.

Reginald Souleyrette, who joined the UK Civil Engineering faculty this year, is the Commonwealth Chair Professor in transportation engineering. He came to UK after 18 years at Iowa State and has an interest in railroads and intermodal transportation, which is the movement of freight using multiple sources of transportation.

Souleyrette said there are a couple of factors making railroads more important today.

“Highways are more congested with freight, and our airports are very congested and it’s very difficult to fly,” Souleyrette said. “Railroads are the most economical way to move freight and they are more environmentally friendly.”

Railroading is becoming an attractive career for young engineers for many reasons, Rose said.

The extra added capacity of putting in more railroad tracks will require more engineering, Rose said.

The same thing is true in the urban areas.

“That requires a lot of engineers and once the tracks are in place it requires a lot to keep it operating,” Rose said.

Railroads now have more to offer because they can move both passengers and freight.

“The amount of freight continues to increase and the passenger miles do, too,” Rose said.

Railroads are now reducing the congestion on the highways and has become more efficient in moving material longer distances by rail than on the highway. A single train could take 100 trucks off the highway, Rose said.

The rise of fuel costs will actually benefit the railroads. For longer distances, which is more than 500 miles, the railroad is more competitive in moving freight.

“As fuel costs climb, the cost differentials between truck and rail continues to increase,” Rose said. “The overall cost of transportation goes up and it decreases the amount of mileage, where rail becomes competitive.”