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Courses Help Railroad Industry Stay On Track
November 1, 2008

With merely one gallon of fuel, a train can move one ton of freight 400 miles.

Despite such astonishing fuel efficiency, the railroad industry shrank dramatically in the 1970s when highways became the preferred form of transportation. Today as fuel prices soar, trains again are becoming an attractive method for moving freight – and people – across the country.

As railroads make a comeback, so must railroad engineers. Currently, there are few undergraduate or graduate programs in the United States that teach engineers to design, build and maintain railroads that are safe, efficient and consumer-oriented.

However, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) offers a comprehensive continuing education program. Directed by engineering professional development professor emeritus C. Allen Wortley, the UW-Madison Railroad Engineering Program began in 2001 when Prof. Wortley developed a survey course that covered civil engineering fundamentals of the rail industry. More than 120 people from around the country came to Madison to participate, and Prof. Wortley knew he was on to something.

The National Center for Freight and Infrastructure Research and Education (CFIRE) at UW-Madison offers scholarships for government officials who attend the courses. CFIRE director and UW-Madison civil and environmental engineering professor Teresa Adams says the courses address an important need. “We need to provide more professional capacity for railroads,” she says. “Lately, there has been a push from railroads to renew their workforce.”

One topic of interest in the United States is commuter rail systems. While the country has a strong freight transportation system, commuter rail is not as common or well-developed as in other countries.

That could change if other schools do as Prof. Wortley hopes and launch their own railroad engineering programs. He would like to see several universities in the United States and Canada develop their own railroad research and education.

“Although ‘railroading’ is nothing new, there are new problems to be solved with new materials, methods and technologies,” he says.

UW-Madison may be the first to adapt Prof. Wortley’s model to undergraduate education. CFIRE is currently developing railroad components for introductory civil and environmental engineering courses.

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