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Train engine gifted to Penn State Altoona

Locomotive donation valued at $50,000

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski / The Norfolk Southern SD60I locomotive gifted to the Penn State Altoona Rail Transportation Engineering program sits in the Curry Rail Services yard in Hollidaysburg.

The constant clamor on Altoona’s train tracks has gone, yet the city holds the railroad close. Now, some people tied to the industry believe in a local renaissance, driven forward by a donation.

Bryan Schlake is an assistant professor in the Rail Transportation Engineering program at Penn State Altoona. He has a vision for the future of the RTE program and the community as a center for railroad engineering research and innovation. His vision is driven by the long, intertwined fate of Altoona and the railroads.

“Labs in Altoona in the early 1900s developed standards that were used across the world at the time,” he said. “Some are still in use today.”

On March 31, the RTE program and community took a step forward toward this vision, according to Schlake. The Norfolk Southern Foundation donated a diesel electric locomotive to Penn State Altoona. The in-kind donation was valued at $50,000 according to Schlake.

Schlake said the donation creates long-term opportunities in research and innovation in an industry he describes as “the silent backbone of our nation’s economy.” The locomotive could, for example, be used to develop technology for quick repairs on engines. Schlake gave an example:

A locomotive breaks down on the track. Someone in charge of maintenance grabs a device and uses an app to record what parts they believe may be malfunctioning. The app then either uses artificial intelligence — AI — to help identify what the issue(s) may be. It might also link to someone off-site who can offer guidance based on the app’s analysis.

Innovation has been critical to the RTE program since its inception in 2010.

According to Schlake, it is the only undergraduate program that covers freight cars and locomotives in depth. Because of this, he said he had to design his curriculum because there was no text book when he joined in 2014.

The curriculum, Schlake said, will improve because of the donation of the locomotive. Tying past to present, he discussed a time when those who wanted to learn about railroad engineering became apprentices and spent time inside the locomotives to understand them.

“A lot of it was hands on,” Schlake said. “We’ve gotten away from that.”

He hopes to combine the theoretical and the hands-on learning so a student can discuss, then see the mechanisms and control systems first hand. He said this first-hand education can be immersive, and tie into the long-term innovations like AI, augmented reality and equipment location tracking.

Colin Seitz from Lancaster will enter his senior year at Penn State Altoona, enrolled in the RTE program and studying civil engineering. Seitz said the donated locomotive will be used in university’s mechanical practicum class this fall semester.

“I don’t know of any other college that allows the use of a full locomotive in its curriculum,” he said. “Being able to inspect a full-scale train in person is a unique opportunity.”

Schlake highlighted the success of the program to date: Graduates of RTE can be found in all seven of the Class 1 railroads. The Class 1 railroads are BNSF Railway Co., CSX Transportation, Grand Trunk Corp. (Canadian National’s operations), Kansas City Southern Railway, Norfolk Southern, Soo Line Corp. (Canadian Pacific’s operations) and Union Pacific Railroad.

Philip Merilli is the retired vice president of engineering for Norfolk Southern and an advisory board member for the RTE program since 2010. Merilli said for this interview, however, he was simply speaking as an Altoonan with a deep passion for the railroad.

As a fourth-generation railroader, his family has lived the peaks and troughs and changes in the industry throughout a century and into a new millennium.

“I want my family and my kids’ families to know there is an opportunity to continue in the rail industry,” he said. “That’s my hope.”

Merilli said the rail industry won’t look like it did back in early- and mid-20th century — railroads have changed. He said technological advancement has become their focus and his hometown is now poised to take advantage.

“Demand for railroads is always going to be there,” he said. “Riding down I-80, you’ll see there’s no more room for trucks.”

“The history of Altoona being so entwined with the railroad, it makes sense for it to happen here.”

The nuts and bolts

Schlake described a modern locomotive as “a massive computer on wheels,” explaining that contrary to the perception of an old steam engine, these are high tech machines. He shared the following description:

The SD60I locomotive donated to Penn State has a 3800 horsepower, 16-cylinder, 2 cycle diesel engine that can supply a maximum of 100,000 lbs of continuous tractive effort to the rails. It has six powered axles with D87 traction motors (rated at 1205 amps), giving the locomotive maximum speed of 70 mph.

The high capacity extended range dynamic brake system allows the locomotive transform the kinetic energy of the train into a braking force up to 81,000 lbs, that is dissipated as heat energy.

General Motors built the locomotive in 1995. The weight of the locomotive is currently about 350,000 lbs (empty).

Penn State Altoona is storing the locomotive with Curry Rail services in Hollidaysburg on a no-cost, long-term lease, according to Schlake. It has been renamed “PSU 2020.”

Mirror staff writer Dom Cuzzolina is at 946-7428.

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