Engineering Excellence: RT&S 10 Under 40

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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Courtesy of Nattawit Khomsanit via Shutterstock

ATLANTA - Railway Track & Structures, April 2024 Issue: RT&S recognizes 10 individuals under 40 years old for their contributions to rail engineering.

As usual, we had approximately 50 nominations for the RT&S 2024 10 Under 40 engineering honors. Railroad engineering is very challenging, both mentally and physically. Mentally because of the highly technical nature of the work, physically because of the need to work in all types of weather, including scorching summers and harsh winters. While all professional railroaders work hard at their jobs, the engineering team faces special demands. The work is also very gratifying though.

As many rail engineers have told me, it’s a great feeling when you finish a project on which you’ve worked with a team for relatively short times or relatively long times to significantly improve or build new infrastructure. Rail engineering is a constant learning process as new technologies seem to become available every week. With artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data analytics making its way into the industry, it will become a more critical part of the engineer’s tool kit. Also, while there has been a lot of mechanization for various types of MOW, there is still plenty of opportunity for hands-on work. While the rail industry competes on many fronts, without first-class engineering capability, any road would be hard-pressed to operate safely.

Kate Barry
Senior Manager S&E Engineering, Norfolk Southern

Kate Barry was an honoree in the RT&S 2023 Women in Railroad Engineering recognition, so her nomination for the 10 Under 40 honor must mean that she is widely respected for her work at Norfolk Southern. Indeed, her 2023 citation for Women in Railroad Engineering read as follows: “During her twelve-year career with Norfolk Southern, [Kate] has made significant contributions to promote a safer and more efficient railroad. She began her career at Norfolk Southern as a Management Trainee before becoming a signal engineer. Throughout her career at the railroad, [Kate] has been responsible for leading significant and wide-reaching efforts that have improved the railroad’s ability to safely serve customers. Kate has shown that she is adept at navigating complexity and building effective partnerships both within and outside the company.” For this year’s 10 Under 40 honors, the person who nominated her says it best. “Kate has advanced in position and taken on greater responsibility while striving for excellence and high quality work from her team. She has always shown tremendous dedication to high-quality work and attention to detail that is well above average. As she has continued to advance, I’ve seen no reduction in her enthusiasm for quality, and I see these same traits in her team. Whenever I find an issue, she leverages the talent of her team in a demanding, yet constructive way. She is young and tough. She is also very smart. I wish we had more officers like her.”

Gary Bishop II
Director of Communication and Signals, CSX

Gary Bishop, CSX’s Director of Communications and Signals, excels in uniting and motivating team members and leveraging his innovative thinking to overcome diverse challenges. His cross-departmental collaborations have driven significant business and safety improvements across pivotal CSX projects. Notably, Gary led the upgrade of the Howard Street Tunnel’s ventilation system from manual fan to remote control, enhancing emergency response times and crew safety. He also modernized Curtis Bay operations by replacing a manual switch with a remotely controlled hydraulic mechanism, improving safety and efficiency. At Marley Neck Drawbridge/Bear Creek, his introduction of a proximity switch system ensured more reliable bridge operations. Gary’s strategic innovations have markedly advanced CSX’s safety and efficiency standards, highlighting his crucial role in the company’s success. 

Ramon Martinez Buron
Engineering Manager

In the eleven years that Ramon has been employed in the railway industry, he has always held positions in the Engineering Department. His greatest contributions have been rail and track testing projects. Ramon was one of the first Mexican Chief Operators, responsible for operating rail flaw detector (RFD) cars at Ferromex. He first joined Kansas City Southern de Mexico in the projects area, but when leaders recognized his expertise in ultrasonic testing, Ramon was tasked with creating a customized RFD car for Kansas City Southern de Mexico. In 2021, the RFD car was acquired, and the crew was hired. To date, this car has tested more than 12,000 miles across CPKC’s network. At CPKC, Ramon leads innovative initiatives in Mexico to enhance track testing, promote operational safety and reduce expenses. The most notable of these include implementing a nonstop system in Mexico. This technology has enabled increased testing frequency in the network, enhanced reliability in the detection of defects and reduced expenses. Since 2019, we have increased the total track mileage tested by 19 percent using ultrasound cars, while decreasing the cost per mile by 24 percent. At the end of 2023, the KCS 112378 ATGMS Boxcar entered Mexico. This is an autonomous test car that measures the geometric conditions of the track, allowing CPKC of Mexico to have its own equipment for the detection of geometric defects. This will increase the frequency of testing and reduce costs. Ramon is responsible for establishing the procedure for its entry into Mexico.

Andrew Davis
, DavRail, Inc.

While in school, Andrew began working at Fort Worth & Western Railroad (FWWR), a part of the Davoil group of companies, in Maintenance of Way track gangs. After graduation, Andrew went from swinging spike mauls and welding to several other positions within FWWR. As a Roadmaster Apprentice in the Rail Inspections department of FWWR, Andrew spent hours analyzing the health of 276 miles of continuous welded and jointed rail. Andrew then moved to the mechanics department, servicing over 30 locomotives each year. At this point, Andrew had developed a firm grasp of rail mechanics and the manual labor required for the industry to function. In the contracts department of FWWR, Andrew first began to cultivate knowledge of dynamic business relationships within the industry and how they support those individuals who work to maintain and expand the rails. Then, as a Government Affairs Liaison, he applied for government grants and ensured FWWR abided by regulations.    Andrew applies his knowledge by identifying manufacturers who can bring new efficiencies to the global rail market. His success in this venture is evident through Andrew’s exclusive distribution partnership with the McCulloch Group for the Western Hemisphere. By delivering innovative solutions at a fair price to countries around the globe, Andrews is set to change the world –– one railway at a time.

Aaron Harper
Lead Operational Safety Specialist
, Amtrak

Aaron has constantly provided mentorship and guidance for less experienced members of engineering, and it has proved to be valuable because he takes his own experiences both positive and negative and turns it into a opportunity for learning and incorporating safety and risk management. Aaron is a “brothers keeper” type of employee where he is always looking out for every other person working so that they remain safe and healthy. Through his guidance, I’m sure he has helped mold hundreds of track and engineering workers.

Darwin Schafer II, P.E.
Vice President Rail Civil Group Manager
, Benesch

Mr. Schafer’s work as a leader and technical expert for track and terminal design has been critical to the success of numerous fast-tracked Class I railroad capacity expansion projects. Mr. Schafer specializes in track and terminal design, utilizing his skills to contribute to the railroad industry in his career as a rail designer, a construction inspector, a project engineer, a project manager and currently as a group manager overseeing a nationwide staff of railway engineers. Mr. Schafer has personally contributed to the design of over 30 railroad intermodal and automotive terminals, both new facilities and upgrades and expansions to existing facilities. His first project was as a track designer for Union Pacific’s Global IV Intermodal Terminal in Joliet, IL. Recently, Mr. Schafer has led the design team for the expansion of Norfolk Southern’s 47th St. Intermodal Facility to expand the existing facility footprint south of Garfield Blvd. in Chicago, Ill. Mr. Schafer’s contributions to these projects included track, grading, stormwater, site, pavement and utility design. Mr. Schafer has also contributed to the design of numerous other highway-rail grade crossings, railroad yards and mainline capacity projects. In his current role as a group manager, he mentors and nurtures the upcoming generation of railroad engineers.

Rodney Smith
Project Manager, Modern Railway Systems

Rodney’s efforts have made significant impacts on multiple rail projects in nearly every corner of the United States in his 9-year career.  His contributions have led to the successful implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) on 3 different railroad properties as well as the completion and startup of 4 light rail alignments.  Rodney’s passion, tenacity, and positive outlook has given him a reputation as a project partner that will complete the toughest of tasks on time and with a smile on his face.  The following provides an accounting of Rodney’s entry into the rail industry and his contributions to date.  After graduating from Utah Valley University, Rodney began his rail industry career in 2015 when he joined Stacy Witbeck (SW), a heavy civil contractor specializing in rail infrastructure projects.  Within Rodney’s first year at SW, he was asked to transfer to Modern Railway Systems (MRS), a fully owned subsidiary of SW specializing in train control, communication systems, and systems integration. Over the last 9-years, Rodney has held several positions on many different rail projects across the United States and helped the company win the multi-billion-dollar project. 

Taylor Smith
Director of Public Projects
, RailPros

With 11+ years of Class 1 Railroad experience specializing in Public Projects, Taylor Smith is a major industry contributor who has delivered rail projects, improved safety, and helped drive decision-making. His background in Public Projects consists of corridor safety improvements, grade separation and crossing elimination work, partnership with State DOTs and municipalities on Federal Section 130 projects, mining and organizing data to identify trends, leading on-site crossing assessments for both public and private crossings, and working on quiet zones. He also has experience in capital line and terminal railroad expansion, third-party utility permitting and oversight, software and project database management, and intermodal and auto facility expansion. From 2020 to 2022, Taylor managed a ~$120 million annual Capital Expansion Plan, which entailed working with Capacity Planning to identify the system bottlenecks, Capital Planning to identify when capital funds would be available, and Engineering to properly identify the scope, delivery schedule, and cost estimates. Prior to Public Projects, he served as a Project Engineer and oversaw coordination and safety aspects of third-party public projects on railroad property.

Zachary Sullivan
Senior Director – New Rail Vehicles

Zach is actively involved in numerous rail professional organizations and is currently Vice Chair of APTA’s Passenger Rail Equipment Safety Standards Inspection and Maintenance Working Group and is also Secretary of APTA’s Rolling Stock Equipment Technical Forum. Zach and his wife are active foster parents and have (so far) adopted two children out of the Philadelphia foster care system. He is a Professional Engineer in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania Project Management Professional Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and holds an Accredited Professional  Certificate in Earned Value Management from University of Alabama. Zach’s long-term goal is to gain broad experience and expertise in executive engineering leadership to eventually drive the success of a progressive rail organization. Zach demonstrates strong leadership skills daily as he is currently responsible for directing five rail vehicle capital asset acquisitions totaling over $2.6 billion across multiple transportation modes. He oversees SEPTA’s New Rail Vehicles group of 16 engineers, designers, and managers. He plans and leads the reorganization and recruiting process to expand the group to 29 and is responsible for group performance.   

Ryan R. Van Vossen
Superintendent of MOW
, Mississippi Railroad Export Company

Ryan joined Mississippi Export Railroad (MSE) in 2021 as the Superintendent of the Maintenance of Way department. Ryan leads the maintenance and repair for all 42 miles of track that MSE owns, as well as the track operated by Alabama Export Railroad (ALE). Under Ryan’s management, MSE has installed close to 20,000 new crossties to support the increasing annual tonnage while promoting safety for its community and customers. Ryan has also made significant improvements within the compliance and safety department, completed over 10 rail grade crossing projects, and most importantly has kept an injury free record for his department.

Craig Johnson
Director – Track & Structures Thunder Bay Division, CPKC

As Director Track & Structures – Thunder Bay, Craig is a recognized leader and innovator at CPKC. He recently led a team to design and implement a new patented technology called ‘Spring Drains’. The Spring Drain is a composite geo-synthetic installation that is installed vertically between track ties to stabilize the ground. Specifically, the Spring Drain is used to repair ‘peat boils’, which cause surface defects beneath the track structure in swampy terrains in Northern Ontario. Peat boils can pose costly and unsafe consequences, including derailments. Spring Drains are both innovative and cost-effective; they can be installed on existing rail lines between trains without taking essential rail links out of service and can be completed at a fraction of the cost of traditional solutions.

Ben Miller
Director – Tank Car Engineering
, Greenbrier

Ben recently chaired the executive committee of the Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars.  This was during a critical phase as the rail industry addressed the impact of the East Palestine derailment in 2023 as well as helping to promote new technologies and safer designs while on the committee. Ben is an active community member. He has volunteered as President of his Homeowners Association for the past two years. He is dedicated to giving back to his community and improving his neighbors’ living experience. Ben has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and was introduced as the Chairperson of the Railway Supply Institute Committee on Tank Cars (RSI-CTC) in 2023. Ben’s goals are to continue growing his career and building his relationships.

Chris Roberts
Engineering Manager
, Holland

Chris has worked for Holland since 2014, starting as one of its Product Engineers. Through his 10 years at Holland, he’s worked his way to represent the Holland Transportation Technology (HoTT) Business Unit, now as its Engineering Manager. Over his time, Chris has developed new rail car product solutions as well as tweaks to its products to keep them up to date with the ever-evolving rail car market. Specifically with its auto rack rail car products, Chris has been working to ensure the Tri-Lo Chock’s new body will allow the chock to fit into Group D clearance envelope. This new chock will replace its Model 2, currently in Group C, and allow its customers to have a wider range of use to keep vehicles traveling to their next destination in rail cars safe and secure.

The April 2024 issue of Railway Track & Structures can be found here.

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