Western Illinois University: Macomb Campus
Web Tools and Search Bar
'Conducting' research, one track at a time
September 1, 2010
MACOMB, IL - - Like many college professors, Bart Jennings uses his summer break to travel.
But Jennings may be the only WIU faculty member who, when traveling by train, gets to sit in the conductor's seat.
Since 1998, Jennings has organized and led scenic passenger-train excursions two to three weeks every year sponsored by the Southern Appalachia Railway Museum, a non-profit organization in Oak Ridge (TN). This fall, over Thanksgiving, he will organize and lead trips in Texas and New Mexico.
"I negotiate with the railroad, I arrange the equipment, and when trips run, I'm the one talking on the radios with the crews," he explained. "I do it for the fun of it. I enjoy the scenery and seeing the country. Some of the most beautiful places I've ever seen were riding a train.
"I'm known for being willing to do anything to get a trip to run, from helping organize the trip to getting down and underneath the train to put it back on the track," Jennings said.
So how does a professor with a Ph.D. in logistics end up wearing the conductor's cap, so to speak?
Though riding the rails around the country is what Jennings calls a "crazy hobby," Jennings is, in fact, a railroad researcher who brings his area of expertise—which is fairly rare in academia—directly into the classroom to educate his students about transportation and industry issues in the supply chain management (SCM) field. Jennings, a professor of marketing and management in Western's College of Business and Technology, Jennings came to WIU in 2004 after a career as a civil engineer, having worked for Union Pacific. He went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, where he then taught undergraduate courses and was director of the University's railroad research office. His work involved evaluating the railroad, and determining value and cost of operating from an engineering and operational standpoint.
Riding and researching the rails
Through his continued work in consulting, Jennings has worked for more than 400 railroad companies since the 1990s alone, including training engineers for Amtrak's high-speed rail. Jennings conducts training workshops and legal consulting for the railroad industry, focusing on regulations and procedures for compliance, safety and legality.
He noted that while many people may know the names of only a few railroad companies, there are more than 600 in the U.S. and Canada.
"There are seven big ones, but everything else is relatively small," he explained. "In the railroad industry, you have companies that own several railroads, and some of those might only be 10 miles long. I enjoy seeing how companies operate and develop, how they're going to make money, and analyzing 'was this a success or a failure?' I like that the transportation field is a real-time activity, where there's always something going on, and in many cases it's very visible."
Last summer, using a laptop, Jennings taught a warehousing class online, attended a railroad convention, traveled to Labrador and Quebec, Canada, and took in the details of a brand-new railroad and loading facility. He observed trains carrying iron ore directly from mines to ports, noting that the $2.5 million locomotives consisted of 240-260 rail cars, each weighing 18,000 tons. That's compared to the 12-14,000-ton maximum weight in the U.S.
These experiences lend themselves to giving students a rare insight into the industry. As Jennings points out, Western is one of the only 40 accredited programs in the U.S. offering a supply chain management degree. Thanks to his contacts in the industry, large companies like ADM, John Deere, and DOT Foods come to Western to recruit and to hire SCM students. But these companies are also hiring his students because the students have studied the transportation industry from multiple angles. In one example, he assigns students to explore different geographic areas and research which railroads would serve them. His students also have attended conferences of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies as part of his transportation management class.
"I teach from a hands-on, practical perspective," he said. "Railroads are one of those things most people don't see—just as there are trucks on the road, and maybe you see them but don't really know the companies' names; most people ignore them. But I don't. And I teach my students to pay attention, too."
Posted By: WIU News, University Relations
Phone: (309) 298-1993 * Fax: (309) 298-1606