Michigan Tech Rides the Rails into the Future

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

The closest railroad track is a narrow-gauge loop that transports tourists around the Houghton County Historical Museum grounds in Lake Linden. But Michigan Technological University is betting on the future of rail transportation in this country and the world by establishing a Rail Transportation Program (RTP) within the Michigan Tech Transportation Institute (MTTI).

CSX Transportation, one of the largest freight railroad companies in North America, recently signed a partnership agreement with Michigan Tech, donating $33,000 in 2008 for the new program with continuing support in following years. "CSX recognizes the importance of rail engineering programs as the rail industry continues to flourish, providing unlimited opportunities for new engineers," said Lisa Weldon, CSX's manager of professional recruiting. "It is an exciting time to join the industry, and I look forward to our new relationship with Michigan Tech."

Negotiations with other companies, such as Union Pacific Railway and several engineering consulting firms, are under way. All the companies share a goal: to train a cadre of technologically skilled employees with hands-on experience and a passion for the potential of rail transportation.

"The railroad industry is hungry for young people with training and interest in rail transportation," said Pasi Lautala. A research assistant professor at MTTI who earned his Ph.D. at Michigan Tech, Lautala has been named director of the new program.

He brought the railroad bug with him when he came to Michigan Tech from Finland in 1996 as an exchange student working on his Master's degree. The son of a locomotive engineer, Lautala had grown up in a culture that embraced rail transportation as a sustainable public transit alternative as well as an efficient way to move freight.

The United States "forgot" rail transportation for decades, but the rest of the world kept right on developing it, Lautala observed. "Rail transportation is about to enjoy a renaissance in this country," he said. "It's an alternative that makes sense, and it is something that this country is going to need."

"The use of railroads to move freight in the United States has grown tremendously in recent years, and its growth is expected to continue," said William Sproule, professor of transportation engineering at Michigan Tech. "There is also renewed interest in passenger rail service, especially in urban areas, so there are exciting opportunities all over the rail industry."

Growing numbers of Michigan Tech students seem to agree with them. In 2004, Lautala established an international summer program in railway engineering, called Summer in Finland. In its first four years, 62 students from six different disciplines have completed the intensive five-week program, a collaboration among Michigan Tech, the Tampere University of Technology, and the North American and Finnish railroad industry.

In 2005, enthusiastic students at Michigan Tech established a Railroad Engineering and Activities Club (REAC). It became the first student chapter of the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association and now has more than 30 members. Last year, REAC hosted more than 100 students, faculty members and rail industry representatives at its second annual Railroad Night, and the club is expecting an even greater turnout at this year's Railroad Night, scheduled for February 19.

"My first REAC meeting was the result of a childhood obsession with trains," said Bill Sawin, president of REAC in 2006-2007. "Michigan Tech's rail and Summer in Finland programs turned this old interest into a previously unforeseen career opportunity." Sawin, a 2007 Michigan Tech graduate in civil engineering, works as a design engineer with Norfolk Southern.

The University has made a three-year commitment to help fund the rail transportation initiative. In addition to Summer in Finland, the University is offering three rail-related courses on campus: introduction to railroad engineering, track design and construction, and public transit planning and engineering.

Lautala hopes to see the initiative grow into a multi-disciplinary certificate program in rail transportation. His enthusiastic vision for the future includes a Rail Transportation Enterprise or rail related projects within the current Enterprise Program, where a student-run company tackles real-world challenges with funding from industry. He also foresees faculty research projects that cross departmental lines, internships and co-ops, and more support of many kinds from the railroad industry.

Michigan Technological University is a leading public research university, conducting research, developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering, forestry and environmental sciences, computer sciences, technology, business and economics, natural and physical sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.