How History Informs the Future: Working on the Railroad with Allison Phillips

A railyard stretches towards the horizon. It’s evening and there’s a rainbow arcing over the sky.

If you think working on the railroad is just about running the engines or maintaining the track, you might change your mind after hearing what Allison Phillips has to say about her experiences.

Screenshot image from our interview with Allison Phillips.

Click a button to watch our interview with Allison Phillips:

“There’s so much more to the rail industry than just working in the yard or doing mechanical things,” she told us. “They need people to build bridges, and install sidings, and do project management and geotechnical work.”

Allison would know a thing or two about the career options available in the rail industry. She’s a third-year student at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she studies civil engineering. She has plans to eventually work in the rail industry, and has already worked three internships there, with plans for a fourth sometime in the next year. This has kept her in and around the rail industry almost since she started school.

Allison’s also the 2015 AREMA Presidential Scholarship winner. Awarded by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA), these scholarships are given to students specializing in the railway industry, like Allison. AREMA offers multiple scholarships for all kinds of students, so long as they’re interested in rail-related careers.

We sat down with Allison to talk about both being a civil engineering student and about the rail industry itself.

“What I like about civil engineering,” she told us, “is that you’re outdoors and you have the opportunity to touch a lot of lives.” It’s true that civil engineering is an incredibly broad field. There are a lot of options for students, especially in the rail industry.

Interested students could work as surveyors, taking measurements and elevations of land for new or renovated rail lines or train yards. They could be mechanics, working on either the rail cars or the massive locomotive engines; or field engineers, monitoring stretches of track and keeping them clear of debris. The options, as Allison stressed to us, are many, varied, and enough to keep anyone occupied for decades. Allison even told us that she ultimately plans to start working in the field, but not to stay there—she eventually wants to move into an office job where she can use CAD programs to design walls and sidings.

With all that in mind, we asked Allison why she decided to study civil engineering in the first place. She admits she is definitely a math and science person, but was actually more interested in literature and history when she was younger until she realized the impact of engineering on history. “History is driven by engineering. If some engineer…had not invented a railroad or an automobile, then the lives we live today would be drastically different. If certain math equations aren’t solved, then you can’t harness electricity.” This realization make her interested in civil engineering and in making civil engineering her career.

“To really understand history,” she added, “and how people work, and how people’s lives are driven, you need to understand engineering and the technical aspects behind it.”

We also asked her what drew her to the rail industry in particular, since civil engineers have the ability to work in every transportation industry with ease. To that, she told us she felt drawn to the rail industry in part because she’s always loved trains. This was especially true when she was a child—Thomas the Tank Engine was one of her favorite toys. But she didn’t think the rail industry made for a good career choice until she started attending Rose-Hulman and saw just how varied the options were.

“Civil engineering, whether you realize it or not,” she explains, “is involved in just about any aspect of anybody’s daily life.”

Erin Skoog
Fast Forward: Volume 2 Issue 6 - Rail