The resurgence of the U.S. freight railroad system is one of the transportation success stories of the latter 20th and early 21st centuries. The efficiency of North American freight rail transport is considered among the best in the world providing the nation with substantial economic, energy, and environmental benefits. Meanwhile, increasingly congested highway and air transport systems, concerns about energy scarcity and cost, and the need for environmentally sustainable public mobility and urban livability have all favored investment in modern, efficient urban, regional and high-speed intercity passenger rail systems.
Rail's inherent efficiencies enable it to meet national objectives of economic competitiveness and improved mobility, while at the same time improving safety, and reducing energy consumption, dependence on fossil fuel, environmental impact, congestion and land use.
For all these reasons both freight and passenger rail have been experiencing a renaissance over the past several decades with major private and public sector investments in new infrastructure, rolling stock and advanced technologies. Effectively planning, designing, building and operating these new rail transportation systems requires a unique combination of skills and knowledge. It is therefore ironic that while rail transport has been on the ascendency, the academic programs needed to engage faculty and educate students in the principles of railway transport and engineering have nearly disappeared.
The importance of transportation education is well recognized but for nearly six decades, funding for academic transportation programs has focused primarily on highway and air transport. This has been highly successful in attracting university faculty, supporting their research and encouraging educational efforts advancing these fields. A key element of this success has been the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) - Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) University Transportation Center (UTC) Program. This program - celebrating its 25th anniversary this year - has helped the United States develop world-class academic transportation expertise among university faculty and graduate thousands of students who have entered the workforce as highway and air transportation practitioners, providing the U.S. with international leadership in these fields.
But efficient transportation systems must take advantage of the best attributes of all modes, both alone, and as part of an integrated, multi-modal whole. RITA recognized this when they reorganized the UTC Program in 2011. Their solicitation for proposals called for a balanced, multimodal approach. The NURail principal investigators (PI) at the partner institutions are united in their belief that rail is a vital element of a balanced transportation system. These faculty, from a small group of colleges and universities around the nation, began working together in the mid-2000s, first supporting one another's development of rail programs and then, reaching out to faculty at other colleges and universities to support their efforts to expand or reintroduce rail into research and educational programs at their schools. When RITA announced the UTC reorganization, these faculty immediately recognized the opportunity and formed the consortium that developed what proved to be a successful proposal for the first-ever, rail-focused UTC in the program's history, the National University Rail (NURail) Center.
Rail transportation is fundamentally multi-disciplinary and the NURail consortium appropriately reflects this. All of the major branches of engineering are involved along with significant planning and policy expertise. Furthermore, most of the NURail PI's have substantial experience with the rail industry or public sector rail organizations. This is critically important because while understanding what is technically possible is necessary, it is not sufficient in developing an effective program of transportation research and education. Faculty and their students must understand the context and institutional constraints in which their results will be applied if their work is to have an impact. Furthermore, as mentioned above, rail functions most effectively as part of an integrated multi-modal system. The NURail PIs have experience with other modes and an appreciation and interest in rail's interactions and inter-relationships with them.
The members of the consortium are exceedingly grateful for the opportunities that the NURail Center offers to our students and colleagues, and to the nation's rail community.
Christopher P.L. Barkan
NURail Center Director