If you’re interested in trains and the railroad, Altoona is a perfect place to get your fix. After all, the city was founded by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1848 as a hub for its growing railroad empire. Nearly two centuries later, there are still dozens of places to explore the area’s rich rail history in the city itself, neighboring counties, and even states.
This is a boon to students studying rail transportation engineering (RTE) at Penn State Altoona and those in the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) Student Chapter.
This registered student organization exposes students of any major to real-life engineering applications through guest speakers, field trips, seminars, networking, and travel to an annual conference. Some of those experiences have turned into pretty cool volunteer opportunities for student train enthusiasts.
Joey Carter is president of AREMA and just one of the dozen or so students who volunteer through the organization at the Altoona Railroader’s Memorial Museum. “The people there have been great to work with, and they're glad to have our help. It's great for us because we get the chance to do real railroad work, plus it’s a lot of fun.”
The partnership started about two years ago because, fittingly, an AREMA member had connections with the museum’s executive director. Students do some maintenance and landscaping, but the most significant thing they are involved with is the restoration of an old caboose from the Penn Central Railroad.
Students work at the Roundhouse, where the caboose is kept, at least once a month, where they assist in the dismantling and rebuilding of the brake rigging. They have also gutted the inside and started some painting.
“I see volunteering as free bonus education,” says Garret Blum, who plans to get into the mechanical side of the industry, such as maintenance and engine inspections.
“I've learned so much more about railroads and how they operate by volunteering, and I found that I really enjoy it.”
AREMA members happened upon another opportunity when they took a trip in the spring of 2022 to the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. In talking with the staff, students found out about volunteer positions in several areas. Jumping on the availability, they spend time working on things like landscaping and maintenance of the building and grounds.
But they also build and maintain the track and wire of the trolley system and inspect components to ensure they’re working correctly. Further, they help replace, build, and maintain the track itself, mostly spiking, which using use spikes to affix rails and baseplates to rail ties. They also shovel and lay down ballast, the aggregate on which railroad ties are laid.
Students are able to see and learn about the trolleys in the museum’s collection, some of which are from the 20s and even earlier. They get to assist in the restoration and maintenance of a few of them. “They're very unique and historic pieces of equipment. Being able to work around them is pretty cool,” says Blum.
Of great fun in particular for the students is occasionally getting to operate the trolleys for passenger rides.
This past February, the museum’s held its Winter Spectacular, at which several students volunteered. Unique pieces of equipment that aren’t normally on display were made available to the public so they could see the collection in its entirety. There were tours of the facility and, of course, train and trolley rides throughout each day. Some students worked as switch tender, a railroad yardman who tends and operates the rail switch to ensure trains go onto the correct tracks. Some took turns as train conductors while others were on board taking tickets, greeting passengers, and sharing the history and fun facts throughout the rides.
“You never know who you’ll meet on the trolley. You get to hear great stories and tell stories of your own. It’s nice to connect with others who share a passion for trains,” says Carter. “It teaches you a lot about people skills, too, something outside of just doing railroad work.”
Yet another chance for students to get involved came during the fall 2022 semester when a group took a road trip to the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad in Cumberland. They took a ride on the train, then were offered a tour of the maintenance facilities. During that tour, some of the rail crew mentioned that the organization is always looking for volunteers. Several students were immediately interested and have been traveling at least once a month, sometimes more, to help. They do some maintenance and work on rebuilding a section of the track, along with assisting in a passenger car rebuild. They also get a chance to work on an old steam engine—all because they wanted to take a train ride.
“When we started out there, I thought that since we are just volunteers, they’d have us doing small projects around the railroad,” says Blum. “But right away, they let us work with their 1309 steam locomotive. I think it’s really cool that they trust us with the responsibility of working with such a unique and historical machine.”
These three different places to volunteer each offer unique experiences that students can apply personally and professionally. Students take what they learn in the classroom to the field and what they gain in the field back to the classroom.
“It’s all good hands-on training for us, and I like seeing everybody in AREMA enjoying the work,” says senior Nicholas Martino. “Our members have a lot of different railroad interests, and the industry is so broad that there’s something for all of us. It reflects well on the program and opens so many new doors for us.”
Zach Rudisill agrees. He started out in the RTE program and then decided to study business with a concentration in management and marketing instead. Because AREMA is open to any student in any major, Rudisill is still a member. “I like that it's it gives me opportunities I wouldn't have just by being in the business program. It’s fun for me, and it gives me the opportunity to build connections within the railroad industry without being in RTE.”
Carter says, having always known that he wants to work in the rail industry, it was an easy decision to come to Penn State Altoona and enroll in the RTE program. “I’m almost three years into it now, and I can say I made the right decision. I never thought I'd be able to do this much, and I love every minute. I would not have it any other way.”