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Next-Gen Freight Rail 2024 Conference Roundup

Written by Railway Age Staff
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CN President and CEO and Railway Age 2024 Railroader of the Year Tracy Robinson.

Railway Age’s Next-Gen Freight Rail 2024 Conference took place on March 12, 2024, at the Union League Club of Chicago.

The annual event, attended by close to 200, featured Tracy Robinson, President and CEO of CN and Railway Age’s 2024 Railroader of the Year; CN Vice President of Engineering and Railway Track & Structures 2023 Engineer of the Year Brett LaingUnion Pacific (UP) President Beth Whited; UP CEO Jim VenaGenesee & Wyoming CEO Michael Miller; and Norfolk Southern AVP Enterprise Data & Analytics Mabby Amouie, all of whom took to the stage and engaged in informal “fireside chat” conversations with Railway Age and Railway Track & Structures editors.

Beth Whited (left) sat down with Railway Age Executive Editor Marybeth Luczak to discuss her role as UP President, which she took on last summer. She not only shared how Jim Vena, UP’s new CEO, is different from other leaders she’s worked with in her 35-plus-year career at the Class I—he is bringing a new energy to the team and galvanizing it—but also her job overseeing the Washington, D.C., operations on legislation and regulation and UP’s role in decarbonization, including its alternative-fuel locomotives program and use of higher biodiesel blends. Additionally, Whited provided an update on the Phoenix Intermodal Terminal, which opened Feb. 1, and UP’s perspective on nearshoring and its investments to prepare to support additional volume. Both Whited and Vena stressed how UP’s focus on “safety, service and operational excellence” will help customers win in the marketplace.
Vantuono with Union Pacific CEO Jim Vena, who takled about the railroad’s improving service and safety metrics. He went into considerable detail about Precision Train Builder, a platform developed by UP subsidiary PS Technology for train consist makeup. Vena also candidly commented on the recent public statements issued by the STB and FRA on safety.
The event included a luncheon recognizing the 2024 honorees of Railway Age’s “Fast Trackers” 25 Under 40 awards.
Railway Track & Structures Editor-in-Chief David Lester (left) with CN Vice President Engineering and RT&S 2023 Engineer of the Year Brent Laing.
Genesee & Wyoming President and CEO Michael Miller discussed how “People Matter Most” with Railway Age Senior Editor Carolina Worrell. G&W railroads collectively have led the short line industry in safety since the early 2000s, and have also received more than 1,000 Jake Awards with Distinction from the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. These are both “tremendous accomplishments, considering that short line railroads handle significantly more switching and short line employees move on and off rail equipment considerably more than Class I railroaders,” he noted.
Vantuono (left) with Norfolk Southern AVP Enterprise Data & Analytics Mabby Amouie, who explained NS’s collaboration with the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) on Digital Train Inspection Portals to enhance rail safety across the Class I railroad’s 22-state network. The portals feature cutting-edge Machine Vision Inspection technology; GTRI engineered the hardware, and NS’s Data Science/Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Mechanical teams “built the brains behind the program.”  The Digital Train Inspection Portals are equipped with an array of 24-megapixel trackside cameras and stadium lighting. Together, this Machine Vision Inspection technology captures ultra-high-resolution, 360-degree images of passing railcars. The cameras are synced to the microsecond, taking 1,000 images per railcar on average as they pass through the tunnel at speeds up to 70 mph. The high-speed cameras are strategically placed at angles to capture things that are difficult to detect with the human eye during stationary inspections. In addition, capturing images while the train is in a dynamic state provides an inspection for various defects that cannot be done while the train is stationary.
Tracy Robinson (right), President and CEO of CN and Railway Age’s 2024 Railroader of the Year, engaged in a “fireside chat” with Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William Vantuono (left) and discussed how the North American supply chain is changing, as well as its growth opportunities. Railroads have long-term physical assets (locomotives, rolling stock, track, signals, etc.) and fixed infrastructure—lots of sunk investment. Transportation market dynamics and supply chains are constantly shifting, evolving. It’s a tough balance. Robinson elaborated on how CN is addressing this. Robinson also discussed climate change and its impact on railroads. In recent months, the climate has continued to take wild swings, and all over North America we’ve seen blizzards, wildfires, bomb cyclones and tornados, sometimes in the same area, and not very far apart. In Chicago, for example, the temperature shot up about 40-50 degrees (F) from freezing and then nosedived the next day back down to freezing. How does a railroad prepare for that? Respond and recover? What lessons have been learned from dealing with these conditions?
Railway Age and Railway Track & Structures Publisher Jonathan Chalon (left) and Railway Age Editor-in-Chief William C. Vantuono (right) presented Tracy Robinson, President and CEO of CN, with Railway Age’s 2024 Railroader of the Year award.
Railway Age Senior Editor Carolina Worrell (left) and Railway Age Executive Editor Marybeth Luczak (right) attend the Railroader of the Year dinner honoring CN President and CEO Tracy Robinson.

Supporting Organizations

Railway Age’s Next-Gen Freight Rail 2024 Conference was supported by the following sponsors: CN (gold), Piper (gold), RECO (gold), TrinityRail (gold), Plasser American (luncheon), 4AI Systems (case study), Herzog (registration), RailWorks (energy break), Amsted Digital Solutions (bronze), Genesee & Wyoming (bronze), the Michigan State Center for Railway Research and Education (bronze), Union Pacific (bronze), The Greenbrier Companies (bronze), TransmetriQ, a Railinc Brand (bronze), and Edna A. Rice Executive Recruiters (morning coffee break).

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