As the U.S. begins to focus more and more on the importance of alternative forms of travel to the personal vehicle, Dr. Pasi Lautala would like the country to become more acquainted with rail — both freight and passenger.
Lautala came to the U.S. from Finland in 1996 to study civil engineering at Michigan Technological University; more than 10 years later, he found himself starting the university’s Rail Transportation Program (RTP), which launched last September. The program — one of only a couple in the nation — began to take shape in 2004, when a group of students went on a trip with Lautala to Finland as part of an international summer program in railroad engineering.
“As soon as we ran the program for the first time, we started realizing quite a lot of interest from the students. They started asking how they could work for this industry,” explains Lautala. “We also started seeing quite a lot of interest from the rail industry, because it was exactly the time when the rail industry started picking up.”
Lautala adds that after they ran the program a second time, the university began discussing making it a permanent piece. Thus, the RTP was born.
Lautala explains that the program has three objectives; to increase students’ awareness of rail transportation, to get engineering graduates to consider switching to the field, and to develop research and student projects with the rail industry.
“There’s much more attention being paid to rail transportation both on the freight and the passenger side,” says Lautala. “I think what you’re going to see in the next few years is that the amount of research opportunities in rail transportation is going to grow. At the moment, there are very few academic people who can do such work.”
After only months, the program is beginning to gain traction with both the industry and the university. Rail freight transportation company CSX donated $33,000 to the program last January and will also participate in developing the program. Lautala says that gaining industry support is two years in the making and a necessary component to the program sustaining itself, since the university will only fund a little more than half of the program over the next three years.
“When we went to the university and told them we wanted them to invest in our program it was kind of on the basis that we are also going to get the industry to invest,” Lautala says. He adds that in the initial stages railroad companies were reluctant because the program was being run by a Ph.D. student and because it is a conservative industry by nature. With the program succeeding quite quickly, however, the rail industry has begun to take notice and other investments appear to be on the horizon.
There are also currently four research proposals already in the works that the RTP may participate in, including a Canada-Alaska rail study and a collaborative project with the University of Wisconsin on the feasibility of rail lines between Michigan and Northeast Wisconsin.
Lautala says that while the university has made a three-year commitment to the program, it has only two of those years to show that it has made strives to reach its goals.
“I want to try to build mutually beneficial industry partnerships and get commitment of continued support from the industry,” says Lautala of his goals for the program. “I’d also like to secure continuous lab projects for our students and create good visibility for the program to the point where I could maybe say that some students decided to come to Tech because of the program.”
Lautala adds that short-term goals, include securing a room dedicated solely to the program and materials to build a good library covering a range of rail topics. The ultimate goal for Lautala, however, is to help other universities develop their own programs.
“I’m hoping there will be other universities who’ll get interested in rail transportation and develop something similar or different,” he says. “I’d like to use some of my expertise and experience to help these universities develop a program and help the industry to get others involved.”