Penn State Altoona to Launch First Rail Transportation Engineering Program in Nation

The railroad is charging back as a transportation forerunner in our country. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the industry is expected to grow 9 percent by 2018. At the same time, the industry is losing many engineers through retirement in the coming years. Penn State Altoona is one of the only colleges in the country preparing for this shift by creating and offering a Rail Transportation Engineering bachelor’s degree program.


Engineers in the rail industry work in a wide range of technical and managerial areas, including maintenance, research, construction, operations, and project management. Penn State Altoona’s program is intended to prepare students to hit the ground running as broadly trained engineers and provide them with the skill to fast-track into management.


Penn State Altoona will prepare students for a career in the railroad industry by offering the foundation of a traditional civil engineering program. This includes courses in surveying, design, structural analysis, materials science, construction, management, fluids and soils. Gary Spiegel, retired chief operating officer of RailAmerica, relays, “As a result of the consolidation and the shifting of the work force, all of the engineering talent is about the same age – the age of retirement. So there is a significant need for trained engineers. And I mean trained engineers. Employers want engineers to know more about the railroads … with history, politics and management included.”


Recognizing this, Penn State Altoona will offer eight new, uniquely hands-on RTE courses in the third and fourth years of the program in areas such as industry and regulatory overviews, operations and safety, communications and signals, track, and mechanical systems. Students will also take introductory accounting and must complete a capstone design course in order to graduate. The first graduating class is expected in spring 2015.


“I am extremely excited about this,” adds Chancellor Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry. “It will be something truly unique in the country around which folks from government, industry and academia can rally. With Altoona’s railroading history, there really is no better place for this degree program.” Altoona, actually founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad in1849 as a site for a shop complex, has been described as the “Silicon Valley for railroads,” having set the bar for railroad manufacturing, retrofitting, testing, research and design.


Norfolk Southern Corp., which operates a locomotive shop in Altoona, has jumped on board with the program by providing a $100,000 grant to the college and donating equipment for courses, including a locomotive simulator. “As a Fortune 300 company, Norfolk Southern is focused on excellence and maintaining its position as a leader in the transportation industry,” says Gerhard Thelen, vice president of operations planning and support for Norfolk Southern. “We need creative, dedicated, enthusiastic team-oriented civil engineers who can generate new ideas and create solutions. The Penn State Altoona Rail Transportation Engineering program combines a traditional engineering education program with the skills needed to get a head start in the railroad business.”