ON the face of it, Lisa Stabler might seem an unusual choice to head TTCI, as the first 20 years of her career were spent in the automotive industry, but as soon as you look a little deeper you see why. Stabler switched to rail in 1999 when she joined BNSF Railway. She eventually became assistant vice-president for quality and reliability with BNSF, a job which brought her into regular contact with TTCI's Pueblo test centre, and in July last year, Stabler was appointed vice-president of operations and training with TTCI.

Stabler clearly has a very agile mind - she has a mathematics master of science degree from Wright State University and a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Dayton. Stabler is certified by the American Society for Quality as a quality manager, quality engineer and reliability engineer, and she has a Six Sigma Black Belt.
"I'm very excited, this is my dream job," she told me in Minneapolis. "I like learning and being part of an organisation that is dedicated to learning."

Stabler believes her appointment provides a good opportunity to assess the future direction for TTCI, particularly the split between the work which it does for members of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), of which TTCI is a subsidiary, and other companies and railways around the world. "I think it is time to step back and see what our role is in the world," she says.

Nevertheless, Stabler recognises the importance to TTCI of doing work for others. "It's important for us to see what others are doing - our knowledge doesn't just come from Pueblo or the United States. There are a lot of good ideas that have been researched in other parts of the world, and if the US starts to move to a shared [freight and passenger] service, we don't want to plough ground that has already been ploughed. I have no use for ‘not invented here' - if it has been invented that has benefits for us."

Stabler says she is encouraged by the amount of knowledge-sharing that takes place between railways in North America and with suppliers. "It's much better if everyone adopts a solution as everyone benefits," she says.

I asked Stabler what she sees as TTCI's main strengths and weaknesses. "TTCI has two strengths: its people and our facilities," she replied. "We have a wonderful team of individuals who are either well qualified or who grew up through the school of hard knocks."

Paradoxically this is also connected with one of TTCI's weaknesses: in the next five years between 20 and 30% of its staff will retire.

But, as Stabler points out, it's not just the numbers - the people coming up for retirement represent crucial skills. "We need to plan for this now to ensure we don't lose our knowledge base," says Stabler. "We are trying to understand where our critical needs are, so we can have an orderly transition. For example, Roy Allen announced his retirement in December 2010, the job was advertised in January and I was named as the new president in June. This meant we had a good hand over, and Roy has helped a lot to achieve a smooth transition."

The test facility at Pueblo, which is owned by the Federal Railroad Administration and operated and maintained by TTCI, occupies a 135 square-km site and has 77km of track. TTCI is able to test vehicles, track components and signalling equipment, as well as to evaluate vehicle stability, safety, endurance, reliability and ride comfort. Its mission is to accelerate the use of clean, safe and efficient technology for railways.

For example, the Fast facility is able to generate between 1.36 and 1.63 million gross tonnes per day to accelerate component life to understand life-cycle costs better. "We can replicate real world situations without having to worry about the impact on customers," Stabler explains.

"We have made some improvements for the Positive Train Control project and to prepare for higher speed operation. We have a lot of land available to put in more track if we need to. The key for us is to maintain our ability to be a real world test bed for our AAR members and to help them become cleaner, safer and more efficient."

Because TTCI's focus is on the needs of its members, Stabler says TTCI does not need to worry about growing its business or setting policy. "We are scientists and researchers and our goal is knowledge. We get asked a lot of questions, and we answer them. Our job is to anticipate what questions are going to be asked of us and what answers we will give."