RANTOUL – A top-ranking U.S. transportation official visited Rantoul recently to see what the University of Illinois has been cooking up in pavement and high-speed rail research.
Peter Appel, the U.S. administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, toured the 60,000-square-foot facility known as UI's Advanced Transportation Research and Engineering Laboratory located on the former Chanute Air Force Base.
"I just wanted to come here to not only see what you're all up to, which is great," Appel said on Friday, "but to really point out that you're way ahead of the game in where we need to be in transportation workforce development."
The federal government allocated $8 billion for high-speed rail projects in January 2009, of which $1 billion will go to Illinois for a rail line from St. Louis to Chicago, said J. Riley Edwards, a lecturer for the UI's railroad engineering program. The St. Louis-to-Chicago rail line will be designed for trains to run up to 110 mph initially. The rail line's infrastructure should be in place by the end of 2011, Edwards said.
Appel confirmed that an additional $2 billion would be given by the federal government to high-speed rail development in the future.
Edwards and Mauricio Gutierrez Romero, a graduate research assistant in railroad engineering, work consistently with Unit Rail, a train track company that supplies fasteners and cross ties to the ATREL facility, to determine the effectiveness of the system after trains run on the track.
Edwards and Romero showed Appel a railway's fastening system and how it operated during Appel's tour of the facility.
Appel was also introduced to the equipment ATREL uses to prevent accidents caused by sinkholes in the road and learned how a UI doctoral student, Chaiwat Na Chiangmai, can mix ingredients to make asphalt.
"I've seen a lot of great innovation and research at the University of Illinois," Appel said. "It's what we do at the U.S. Department of Transportation."
ATREL director Imad Al-Qadi planned the visit so Appel could have the most interaction with the university students working in the transportation engineering program.
"This (visit) will give him something to stick in his head," Al-Qadi said.
Al-Qadi said Appel's visit to ATREL was important because "he's the research arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation."
"To get a good working relationship with him is very important," said Al-Qadi, "when he decides where the research should be done."
Said Appel, "This particular university stands out in an area that is one of the most important priorities we have in the department, which is transportation workforce development. What do we mean by transportation workforce development? We mean anticipating what we as a nation need in our transportation workforce to get where we need to go.
"We're talking major investments in high-speed rail," Appel said. "We're talking about major improvements in our use of our marine highways, our efficiency in air-traffic control. And all these systems and all these types of transportation are going to be dramatically different 10 years from now, 20 years from now."
Appel said he was also pleased with ATREL's pavement technology, which included recycled materials.
Appel said much of what he saw addressed additional goals for workforce development – environmental sustainability.
"Not only does transportation workforce for the future need to be able to work with different kind of technology that might be driving transportation today, but we need to do it in a dramatically more environmentally, sustainable way."
Appel noted that railroad engineering needed to be instructed at all levels of education and that UI was advancing in the subject more than any other college in the nation.
"Railroad engineering has been disappearing from a lot of academic programs in this country. University of Illinois is a very notable exception," he said.
Appel said the Transportation Department was planning to work with the university in a serious way to advance the transportation workforce.
"What is going to be different about transportation in the future and what do we need to do to prepare for it?" he asked.
"There's no better example of feeling like that, than with rail transportation and what's going on at the University of Illinois."