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Engineering students get an introduction to the railroad industry from a special guest.

This month, the T.J. Smull College of Engineering welcomed home a very special guest to speak to its students on campus, Ohio Northern University graduate, Tim Drake, BSCE ’76, the vice president of engineering for Norfolk Southern railroad.

His mission was clear: Introduce future engineers to the ample opportunities within the railroad industry, and find the next generation of Norfolk Southern employees. For Drake, there was no better place to look than right here in Ada, Ohio, a town that developed around two things: ONU and the railroad.

Tim Drake, BSCE ’76, vice president of engineering
for Norfolk Southern Railroad.

“It’s my belief that you are going to get a better employee out of a smaller university today than you are out of a big one. And I think that because these students are often out to prove themselves,” says Drake. “That was my approach to it. When Norfolk Southern took me on, I wanted to prove to them for 37 years that they made the right decision.”

Drake likes to share his whirlwind experience of becoming a college graduate, new husband and railroad man in the span of 10 days. He graduated from Northern on a Saturday, got married the following Saturday and started work on Monday. He’s been with Norfolk Southern ever since.

The railroad industry is experiencing a boom thanks in large part to high fuel costs and the impact these costs have had on the railroad’s largest competitor, the trucking industry. Norfolk Southern can haul one ton of freight for 420 miles on a single gallon of fuel, making the railroad the preferred mode of long-haul transportation for American industries.

“Fifteen years ago, they were asking us how fast we could pull track up,” says Drake. “Now, they are asking us how fast we can put it back down.”

As vice president of engineering, Drake is responsible for more 7,000 employees and more than 19,000 miles of track across 22 states. With demand increasing, he needs more qualified engineers to help modernize existing infrastructure, lay new track, improve communications and comply with new federal regulations. In the future, the railroad in America will be faster, safer and more efficient. Engineers will be the ones who make it that way.

Earlier this month, Drake and his recruitment team from Norfolk Southern met personally with about 20 ONU engineering majors. He shared with them the rewards of a career at Norfolk Southern – great pay, excellent training, rapid advancement, and a generous retirement and pension program – along with the challenges that come with them.

“If I stood up here and told you that it wasn’t a full-time commitment to an industry, I wouldn’t be selling you right,” he told the students. “When you work on the railroad, it’s a lifestyle. You have to really love it. It becomes part of your soul.”

Drake credits his wife – the daughter of a railroad man, herself – with “putting up” with a career that saw their family relocate 11 times in his first 16 years with the company.

Relocation comes with advancement in the company. As managers gain more responsibility, they also gain territory and must move accordingly. Travel also is integral to a new employee’s first year of training. According to Drake, Norfolk Southern wants to make sure that its managers are trained in all aspects of the railroad. Regional considerations come into play when talking about these responsibilities. For example, the Appalachian region offers different challenges and, therefore, requires different training experiences not offered by the flat, straight track of Northwest Ohio. New employees can expect to spend time in many areas of the country (east of the Mississippi River) during that first year.

For those students who want to see the United States and have a passion for what they do, there may be no better time to join the railroad industry than right now. A majority of the current managers and executives are nearing retirement. The opportunity for promotion and advancement within the company is immense, and word is spreading.

Just last year, two ONU engineering graduates took positions with Norfolk Southern and are currently in training and doing well. As for the students who attended Drake’s presentation, we’ll have to wait and see.

“I didn’t know anything about the railroad before today,” says Elizabeth Gall, a senior electrical engineering major from Pittsburgh, Pa. “It seems like it’s a big industry with a lot of growth potential.”

For sophomore mechanical engineering major James Crawford, an internship or co-op with Norfolk Southern is something he plans to look into further.

“Ideally, I would like to work with transportation or energy, and the railroad industry is a combination of the two,” says the Medina, Ohio, native. “It really captures everything I am interested in doing and seems like it could be an adventure.”

Drake will not measure the success of his trip to ONU on whether or not Crawford and Gall end up as Norfolk Southern employees. For Drake, simply being here and bringing the opportunities from a corporation he loves to the students of the school he cherishes are more important. Both Crawford and Gall appreciate that.

“I think its pretty cool that he came all this way just to speak to us. Sometimes, being from a small university, you get discouraged that bigger companies aren’t coming to look at you,” says Gall.

“I’m grateful that Mr. Drake came here to speak with us today, because, if not, I wouldn’t know about these opportunities. Bringing it right to campus is really beneficial to us as students,” says Crawford. “And I think it also speaks about the school as a whole. Our graduates are able to succeed at these high-level positions and remain committed to the University so that they come back to help the next generation.”

To learn more about recruiting opportunities in the College of Engineering please contact