Grainger engineers are bringing high-speed rail to the U.S. at Brightline


Grainger engineers are bringing high-speed rail to the U.S. at Brightline

Interviewed by Michael O'Boyle

We caught up with three Civil & Environmental Engineering alums on their experiences in the Illinois railroad engineering program, their work on high-speed rail at Brightline and why it’s important to develop new passenger rail in the U.S.

Brightline began operations in 2018 as a passenger railroad connecting Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to West Palm Beach, Florida. It has since expanded to connect Orlando, Florida, to Miami. In addition to being the only privately owned intercity rail in the United States, it is the first privately owned “higher-speed” passenger rail, covering a 235-mile route in 3 hours, 25 minutes and reaching a top speed of 125 miles per hour. Its sister company Brightline West has begun construction on a true high-speed rail with a top speed of at least 186 miles per hour connecting Las Vegas to southern California.

After passing through the Illinois program in railroad engineering based around the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center, or RailTEC, three alums of the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department in The Grainger College of Engineering work at Brightline: Nao Nishio, B.S. ’15, M.S. ’18; Jacob Rajlich, B.S. ’20; and Tom Roadcap, B.S. ’17, M.S. ’19. We caught up with them and talked about their time at Illinois and their work in the rail industry.

Tom Roadcap, (B.S. '17, M.S. '19)

Tom Roadcap
B.S. ’17, M.S. ’19

Jacob Rajlich, B.S. '20

Jacob Rajlich
B.S. ’20

Nao Nishio, B.S. '15, M.S. '18

Nao Nishio
B.S. ’15, M.S. ’18

What is your role at Brightline?

Nishio: I’m currently a manager of engineering technology. I work on the maintenance side of things for the Florida line, where I try to incorporate the latest technology to monitor track status and schedule repairs.

Rajlich: I’m a project engineer. I work with Nao, and I oversee maintenance-of-way operations for a 40-mile stretch of rail outside Orlando.

Roadcap: I’m also a project engineer, but I work on the construction team. I worked on the Phase II expansion of the Florida line connecting West Palm Beach to Orlando as well as managing several safety enhancement projects. I’ll likely move to Las Vegas soon to work on Brightline West construction.

How did you first become interested in railroad engineering?

Nishio: I was always interested in buildings and roadways, so I came to Illinois to study civil engineering. Then, one day in a transportation engineering course, Chris Barkan, the director of the railroad engineering program, walked in and presented the research being done at RailTEC. At the end of the class, I walked up to him and asked how to get involved. I got an opportunity to participate in undergraduate research, and from there I entered the master’s program.

Rajlich: I grew up in Champaign County, Illinois, and I actually got to meet Chris Barkan through a high school program. I attended some RailTEC group meetings, and I even attended a few conferences with the RailTEC contingency as a high schooler. So, very early on, I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I studied civil engineering at the University of Illinois, and here I am.

Roadcap: I didn’t really think about rail as a career until my first year at Illinois. I entered the university as undeclared thinking about studying philosophy or music. I found a job as a student assistant at RailTEC. By the end of the following fall semester, I knew that this was the place I wanted to be, so I transferred from undecided into civil engineering and began participating in rail research.

How did your experiences with the Illinois railroad program shape your career paths?

Nishio: The rail professors and the RailTEC researchers teach you so much that you need to succeed in the industry. It’s not just the coursework and research. They teach you the right way to speak in front of a group and give a presentation. They send you to conferences to present your work. You’re introduced to working professionals and industry leaders.

Roadcap: It’s those introductions and connections that lead to internships and jobs at railroads, design firms, suppliers, even construction contractors. RailTEC students are exposed to all of it.

Rajlich: We’re introduced to the industry at a very early stage. I remember attending a conference as a freshman and getting to talk up the chief engineer of capital projects at CSX Transportation.

Also, for me, there’s a small thing that sticks out. Every single RailTEC meeting or event begins with a safety briefing. It’s not like other environments where you just get down to business. The first rule of every railroad is “Safety is of the utmost importance in the discharge of duty.” When I interned at the BNSF Railway before my senior year, they called on us to do briefings. Everyone else was like, “What am I supposed to say here?” while I could jump right in.

Roadcap: There are so many ways to learn about the industry at RailTEC if you just show up curious and ready to work. Learning from everyone in the program prepares you well to hit the ground running on Day 1 of an internship or a full-time position in the industry. Not only that, but there are opportunities to get involved in rail research and rail-related community service.

How did you come to work at Brightline?

Rajlich: I graduated in May 2020 right at the peak of COVID, so it was an uncertain time for me. I wound up moving to Shreveport, Louisiana, to be the manager of transit planning, designing bus routes and schedules. Six months in, I got a call from someone I knew through RailTEC. He told me that Brightline was looking for someone to develop and manage their maintenance program, and that he thought I would be a good fit. I applied, and I’ve been here ever since.

Roadcap: I graduated in December 2019, and I had an offer from the Union Pacific Railroad to enter their July 2020 training class. Due to COVID, they wound up cancelling the class. I got a call from Brightline the next day. I moved out to Las Vegas to work on Brightline West for almost a year, but then I was asked to come to Florida to help with construction on the Orlando expansion.

Nishio: I started out working in freight rail at the Canadian National Railway, where I implemented several autonomous track geometry systems on trains and worked on intermodal facility development. When a position opened at Brightline to implement an autonomous track measurement system on one of their higher-speed passenger trains, I came, and the rest is history.

What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on at Brightline?

Nishio: I developed a system that collects track infrastructure information while riding onboard revenue trains that are actively transporting passengers. Since our trains go at high speeds, the track needs to be safe and smooth for our passengers to have a comfortable ride. This system collects data on the track geometry as the train moves, and we use the data to plan track maintenance. In addition, this system is fully autonomous. We think that this is the first of its kind in the U.S. and possibly the world.

Roadcap: After I came to Florida, I worked first on construction of the new track for our Orlando expansion. It was incredibly exciting to create a new high-speed line where there had been nothing before.

Then, there was an opportunity to move up and become responsible for all the grade crossings – the places where roadways cross our tracks at grade. The corridor has many grade crossings already, and I worked alongside local partners and the Federal Railroad Administration to upgrade them and add numerous safety improvements. That work is complete now but I continue to work with local cities and counties to plan and install further enhancements to keep our grade crossings as safe as possible.

Rajlich: I’m responsible for the day-to-day maintenance of a 40-mile stretch of track outside Orlando. When I got here in 2021, it was just civil groundwork, and we built a railroad. I helped to develop the maintenance standards and procedures. I created the contract for handling bridge, signal, structure, right-of-way and track maintenance. And now, I get to see all that work pay off.

Why is it important to develop high-speed rail?

Rajlich: We need options. For so long, travel in North America has been dominated by the automobile to immense environmental and social consequence. When I see railroads, I see a new option that takes up minimal space – you can run a lot of trains on a relatively small amount of infrastructure – and runs very, very cleanly. High-speed rail in particular has the potential to fill a travel niche for distances that are too long to drive but too short to fly.

Roadcap: It’s certainly having a positive impact on the environment, but it’s also having an impact on the way people live and travel. You’re a lot more productive on the train than you would be driving. You can nap, read a book, do some work or talk to the other passengers. We constantly hear stories from riders that Brightline has changed the way they live, work, or commute, and it shows in the ridership and revenue numbers we are seeing. I would encourage anyone visiting Florida to come take a ride and try it for yourself. Riding Brightline is a great experience.

Nishio: There’s been a lot of investment in passenger rail across the globe. While freight rail companies have been investing in the United States for two centuries, we are just now finally starting to invest in passenger rail here in the way we ought to. We have the opportunity to demonstrate effective, efficient high-speed trains in North America. Right now, Brightline is unique, but I hope it is only the start of a larger trend.

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This story was published May 2, 2024.