Career of the Month
My group designs new tracks and track revisions for Union Pacific’s 23-state rail network, which currently encompasses 30,000 route-miles. Our capacity requirements change over time, as new industries emerge or businesses’ transportation needs change. To meet demand, we may install new tracks, or add a second main line, or a siding that allows trains to pass each other. We may also expand railway yards—where loads on trains can be readjusted before trains head off in different directions—or intermodal terminals, where containers are moved between trains and trucks.
I use science and math on a daily basis to design this infrastructure. Physics is used to determine the forces encountered by a train traveling through horizontal and vertical alignments. The considerations are similar to those you have to account for when driving on roads—the forces on trains change depending on the steepness of the grades, and whether they’re going straight or traveling around corners. We have established standards we have to follow, which are based on scientific formulas, but we also have to evaluate if we can go against the standards on specific situations when circumstances call for it.
The railroad industry is self-funded, so when projects are needed, the pace is fast. Days are busy, with a constant stream of new ideas and problems to solve, and that suits me well. My favorite part of the job is seeing my designs constructed. My least favorite part is logging long or late travel days in order to be able to cover enough ground when visiting projects across the large network.
The highlight of my career has been working my way up from project manager to the head of the railroad’s design department. More generally, I like to solve math problems, and because every project is different, I’m constantly looking at different ways to do things, in order to complete projects as quickly as possible. As a transportation company, we look at things differently than an engineering firm would, and that’s what makes working in this industry exciting. We don’t design things to a level of 100 percent, in a way that completely eliminates risk. We want to add capacity as soon as possible, in order to be able to provide our services in a cheaper and more timely way.
I was always good at math in school, but didn’t give much thought to science. I happened to attend a Women in Engineering Day at Purdue University, which sparked my interest, so I applied and was accepted. I had to pick a major after my first semester, because I was getting ready to enroll in a co-op program, which alternated semesters of full-time work (like a long-term, paid internship) with semesters of full-time coursework. I chose civil engineering and went to work at an engineering design consulting firm.
I thought I would work on roadways and structures, which intrigued me because you see these things all around you. I didn’t know anything about railroad engineering until I was assigned to work in the design company’s railway-focused department. I worked with a survey crew, which I eventually ended up running. After surveying a site, we would head back to the office to draw up plans.
Because I never took a summer break in college, it took just one additional year to get my degree while enrolled in the co-op program. After graduation, I went to work for the same company. I first worked at a railroad construction site in Macon, Missouri for a year. I tested soil and observed the contractors, making sure the construction was done correctly. I then transferred to the company’s Chicago office. Over time, I worked for three design consulting firms, always focusing on railroad projects, and then came to work at Union Pacific.
An engineering degree is beneficial for understanding the science behind what we design, as well as solving problems. Aside from physics, math and data analysis skills are the most useful. Learning to write effectively, as well as conflict resolution, are also invaluable as you move through your career.
Find a mentor wherever you go, be empathetic, and work hard. The railroad industry is vast and has opportunities for many types of engineers. Think about what lifestyle you would prefer. Some jobs, such as those responsible for track maintenance, operate 24/7, 365 days a year, and are more demanding of people’s time, but very rewarding. My job is more 9-to-5, but most office-based engineering work gets farmed out to design consultants, while vendors provide construction services.
If you see someone with more work experience doing things that interest you, and you like how they are approaching things, ask them if they will be your mentor. If they agree, then you can both navigate your way to what you want the relationship to be on a practical level. I chose to ask a woman, because that’s what I felt most comfortable doing when I was first getting started. In the past, some people made ignorant comments that felt intimidating, but as I’ve gained more experience, and as the industry has become more diverse and inclusive, it’s become a non-issue, and I don’t even think about the fact that I’m a woman in the industry anymore. I just go to work, do my job, and everyone works together and is generally respectful to each other.
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