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All aboard! Rutgers, rail agencies partner to attract next generation of engineers

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A partnership between Rutgers University and railroad agencies is training future engineers and other rail professionals with an eye toward improving safety.

Rutgers University Professor Xiang Liu joined the school’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2014 and founded the Rutgers Rail Program. Its mission: to work closely with the rail industry to improve its safety and operational efficiency via cutting-edge R&D and education-driven workforce development.

Liu is a true evangelist for rail transport done right. He contends that well-executed transit systems can widen business-development opportunities for state-based companies.

Toward those ends, he argues that a strong workforce is critical. So it’s of great concern that half of the nation’s railway engineers are likely to retire in the next decade with no great way of training their replacements.

“Although we have the busiest rail network in the nation, there is essentially no rail education there in the university curriculum for several decades,” Liu said.

Until now. Liu is putting together a first-of-its kind Rutgers program of rail research and education, and the list of agencies pitching in to help is long.

To wit: New Jersey Transit, PATH, Conrail, Amtrak, Norfolk Southern Railway, CSX Transportation, Metro-North Railroad, New Jersey Shortline Railroad Association, Federal Railroad Administration, Association of American Railroads, American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association.

Lisa Torbic, a spokeswoman for NJ Transit, said its partnership with Rutgers is a welcome answer to a host of current and emerging needs in areas including track infrastructure, rolling stock, train operation and system safety. 

“The effort convenes the top-tiered researchers at Rutgers from multiple disciplines such as civil engineering, electrical, computer and mechanical engineering and information science to conduct implementable rail research and provide timely technical support,” Torbic said. “We look forward to continuing this relationship and the ideas, research and strategies that come to fruition.”

In addition to the Rutgers program, NJ Transit has a locomotive engineer training course that stretches over 20 months and features a rigorous curriculum and high standards.

Liu said he’s gratified that connections finally are being struck that connect college resources and agency needs.

“Due to this disconnection between industry and academia, the students have no idea of what the railroad is and how it operates,” he said. “And the industry has many well-paid, promising positions unfilled.”

Liu said the rail industry’s engineering and operations needs are complex, involving specialized, advanced technologies such as positive train control, sensors, big-data analytics and knowledgeable operators.

“The latter is really important for the future of the rail industry, because you may get the best technology from the marketplace [and] cannot simply get the best talent overnight,” he said.

Rutgers is offering four rail-related courses:  Track Infrastructure and Safety, Train Operation and Signaling (to be offered in spring 2019), Introduction to Rail Transportation and Rail Safety and Risk Analysis. More are expected to be added to address additional industry needs.

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David Hutter

David Hutter


David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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