Repairing the rails

America’s railroads are more important than ever, and young workers should take notice.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Koppers Railroad Structures (KRS) is a company that many in Dane County don’t know much about, but considering that the nation’s freight movement is often a precursor of good or not-so-good economic times, perhaps they should.

Mike Tweet, vice president, has commuted to and from Oconomowoc for the past 25 years — by car, he laments. He joined Madison-based Osmose Railroad Services in 1994 as a civil engineer and bridge inspector. The company was later purchased by a private equity group that sold it to Koppers Inc. in 2014.

Tweet is nearing his fifth year at the helm of the KRS division in Madison. On any given day, most of its 140 employees travel around the country inspecting, engineering, repairing, and replacing railroad structures to ensure the safety of America’s train bridges and tracks.

A lymphoma survivor thanks to a UW Health doctor and a stem-cell transplant that saved his life, Tweet is an ardent supporter and board member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which has sponsored the Light the Night Walk at the Duck Pond (set for Oct. 10) for the past four years. With his life back on the rails, he recently shared some industry insight.

IB: What does KRS do?

Tweet: Our company’s history started in Madison to treat and extend the life of timber railroad bridges. A bridge is defined as a structure spanning over 10-feet in length, and currently there are over 100,000 railroad bridges in the U.S. alone, and 140,000 miles of railroad track that we help repair and maintain.

It’s estimated that 800 miles of timber bridges remain scattered throughout the U.S., including one at Warner Park. Many are over a century old and built for steam locomotives. Despite their age, they were extremely well constructed. With proper and regular maintenance, a 100-year-old bridge can last at least another 50 years.

IB: How important is freightrail to the U.S. economy?

Tweet: Very! One third of everything exported from this country travels on rails. Five million tons of freight moves on our tracks every day. Imagine if all of that had to travel on semi-trucks and the impact that would have on our highways! Railroads have downsized through the years, but the tracks remaining are very, very busy.

IB: Who regulates the railroads?

Tweet: The Federal Railroad Administration regulates everything, from the tracks to inspector qualifications, to the train signals. By federal law, tracks are inspected annually and sometimes weekly or even daily. Deficiencies must be taken care of and fully documented.

Larger railroads usually have their own engineering and inspection teams, but there are hundreds of short-line railroads, like Wisconsin & Southern, that may not have the staff or budget, so they call us.

IB: Who owns the tracks?

Tweet: Most U.S. track is privately owned, with the exception of Amtrak, found mostly on the East Coast. Wisconsin & Southern is the main line here and connects to several larger lines, like Canadian Pacific or BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe), which is actually owned by Warren Buffett.

IB: What should businesses know?

Tweet: Modern freight trains are very efficient and clean when their emissions are compared to the trucking industry hauling the same tonnage in freight. Many people don’t reaize that UPS and FedEx use rail to ship products cross country, especially around the holidays.

The industry also offers tremendous career opportunities for civil engineers or IT professionals. Koppers recently purchased two drones to be used for bridge inspections that will eliminate some safety hazards and collect photos and data that would be extremely difficult and dangerous to collect otherwise.

Several years from now it will be interesting to see how far they come!

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.