UI part of railroad-engineering research consortium

UI part of railroad-engineering research consortium

URBANA — The University of Illinois will be the site of a rail transportation and engineering research center, thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The grant, given to a consortium of seven universities, will support the National University Rail Center, which will focus on education and research to improve railroad safety, efficiency and reliability.

Specific attention will be given to rail corridors shared by high-speed passenger trains and freight trains.

The center will be directed by Professor Christopher P.L. Barkan of the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who is also director of the UI's Railroad Engineering Program.

"The funds will support a number of undergraduate and graduate students working on rail research projects, and to a lesser extent, the faculty members they are working with," Barkan said in an e-mail to The News-Gazette.

"We also expect to hire a few new technical and administrative personnel to help in the research oversight, educational and administrative responsibilities," he added.

Barkan said he expects about $1.6 million of the $3.5 million grant to remain in Urbana.

A list of potential research topics to be explored in Urbana has been drawn up. Which ones will be pursued will be determined through discussions with the Department of Transportation, he said.

"In addition to the research, there is a significant railway educational component included in the proposal," Barkan said.

The grant comes as part of $77 million in Department of Transportation grants awarded to 22 "University Transportation Centers," involving 121 universities across the country.

Other campuses and universities joining the UI's Urbana campus in the rail consortium include: the University of Illinois at Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan Technological University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee.

Research projects are expected to include track and structures, train control, rolling stock, human factors and other priorities of the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads.

The UI's Chicago campus is also part of two other university collaborations that received Transportation Department grants. One is led by the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the other is led by the University of South Florida's National Center for Transit Research.

In the latter case, the UI-Chicago's Urban Transportation Center has been guaranteed $700,000 of the $3.5 million grant given to that consortium.

The work in Chicago is expected to address issues of safety, maintenance, competitiveness, livability and environmental stability in the Chicago region, Illinois and nationally.

In a prepared statement, UI President Michael Hogan thanked Gov. Pat Quinn and the state's congressional delegation for helping the university win the grants.

"Illinois has the nation's best programs in rail engineering and transit system development and operation," Hogan said.

He said the research centers will help the nation and region "prepare for future freight and passenger rail needs."

U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the nation has spent heavily on air- and highway-related research.

"Unfortunately, rail-related research has fallen behind, leaving significant workforce shortages and a gap in rail expertise," Johnson said.

Rail research is especially important for East Central Illinois, he added.

"Within this region, we have major freight-car manufacturers, high-speed rail and corridor alignment discussions going on at many levels," Johnson said. "The nature of this research has implications in all those areas."