William W. Hay Award for Excellence honors legacy of CEE rail professor


The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association has named its premier annual award for outstanding railway engineering projects for the late William W. Hay, Professor of Railway Engineering at UIUC for more than 40 years.

Written by

William H. Hay
William H. Hay

By Professor Christopher P.L. Barkan and Michael W. Franke (MS 71)

Given the more than century-long tradition of railway engineering excellence at the University of Illinois, it is fitting tribute that the principal North American railway engineering organization, the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) has named its premier annual award for outstanding railway engineering projects for William W. Hay (1908-1998), who was a Professor of Railway Engineering at the University of Illinois for more than 40 years.

It is no coincidence, however. The award itself was inspired by Professor Hay’s reputation for excellence as a teacher, mentor, researcher and practicing engineer in the field. More than 35 years after his retirement, Hay’s influence continues to be felt throughout the industry due to the ongoing work of the students he taught and his textbook, Railroad Engineering, that remains a standard in the field.

This year marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the creation of the Hay Award, which was established in 1999 as an initiative of the AREMA Committee on Engineering Economics and established by the AREMA Board of Directors. The purpose is to recognize outstanding achievements in railway engineering and to honor the memory of one of the Committee’s former members, Professor William Walter Hay.

Hay had a long and distinguished career in railway engineering. He completed his B.S. degree at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1931 with a degree in Management Engineering. Following graduation, he worked briefly for the Pennsylvania Railroad and a chemical company, before taking advanced coursework on railway operations at Yale University in 1932-33. He then returned to work in railway positions with the Pennsylvania Railroad, Long Island Railroad, Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad and the 8th Avenue Subway (Independent Subway System) in New York City.

With the onset of World War II, he joined the Military Railway Service where he rose in rank from 1st Lieutenant to Lieutenant Colonel, serving in both the European and Pacific theaters culminating as Chief Engineer of the Korean Railways. After the war Hay undertook further study in transportation under Professor Kent Healy at Yale University and in economics at New York University, followed by a job with the Reading Railroad.

As is evident, William Hay’s rail career encompassed much more than private sector railroads; it included transit, military rail service and overseas railroad engineering and operation. His breadth of experience gave him an exceptionally broad and cosmopolitan understanding of rail transportation engineering. This, combined with his rigorous education in engineering, economics and management, gave him unique perspective that prepared him well for the next phase of his career as a faculty member in railway civil engineering at the University of Illinois beginning in 1947.

He completed his M.S. in Civil Engineering the following year in 1948, and in 1956 he completed his Ph.D. and was promoted to the position of Professor of Railway Civil Engineering, a position he held until his retirement in 1977, when he was appointed an emeritus professor, remaining active teaching railway engineering for another 12 years.

Over the course of his 42-year career at Illinois, Professor Hay taught, mentored and motivated nearly 700 students. They have had a significant impact through their service to private and public sector rail companies and organizations both domestically and abroad. His students made many wide-ranging contributions advancing the state of the art of railway engineering and operation.

A hallmark of Professor Hay’s teaching was his high standards and expectation of excellence in his students’ work, whether it was in the classroom, or in their research. Consistent with rail industry objectives, this was defined by an emphasis on safety, service performance and reliability, in addition to innovative approaches to achieving improvements in all of these. These characteristics inspired, and in fact are the embodiment of, AREMA’s William W. Hay Award for Excellence.

Competing for the Hay Award for Excellence is often intense, bringing forth the best efforts of the organizations and individuals involved. To be competitive, submissions for the award must describe in detail how their projects fulfill all the criteria. Railroads and engineering firms go to great lengths gathering and presenting all the pertinent information in an informative and professional manner. The submissions are evaluated by a panel of judges that includes railroad engineering professionals and railway academicians using a multi-variable scoring system that ranks them on all the key parameters. The award for the winning entry is presented at the opening session of the AREMA Annual Conference. Since its inception, 23 different projects have received the award.

The nature of the winning projects varies. Some involve major new construction projects, others substantial improvements to existing facilities, and a third category are large recovery and rebuilding efforts following natural (or human-made) disasters. What they all have in common is extraordinary engineering accomplishments, often under substantial time or budgetary pressures that call for the sort of creative problem-solving that exemplifies high quality, high impact engineering efforts. Given the number of successful Illinois engineering graduates in the rail industry, it is not surprising that a number of winning entries have involved Illinois alumni, including the most recent winner, CN’s new Bonnet Carré-McComb Spillway Bridge near New Orleans, La.

Construction of the New McComb Bonnet Carré Spillway Bridge. Photo: CN
Construction of the New McComb Bonnet Carré Spillway Bridge. Photo: CN

Through the Hay Award for Excellence, Professor Hay continues to influence students. The grand nature of the winning projects and the substantial barriers that must be overcome are, by their nature, the type of engineering feat that inspires interest and admiration among young and old engineers alike. In this way, they excite engineering students’ interest and their aspiration to enter the field and participate in such projects. In addition to seeing presentations about these projects at the AREMA Annual Conference, several of the winners have been invited to present in the William W. Hay Railroad Engineering Seminars that are presented on campus.

Co-author and CEE alumnus Mike Franke (MS 71) summed up the impact of his experience studying under Professor Hay as follows, “Dr. Hay’s personal interest and mentoring of his students served as an inspiration for me to have a nearly 50-year career in the rail industry. He applied his own railroad experience to his teaching style, which focused on the practical applications of the academic side of railroad engineering and operations. That helped greatly over the years. I was happy to stay in touch with Dr. Hay after graduation and will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to study under him. The Hay Award has kept his impact on his students and the rail industry alive.”

Another alumnus, George Avery Grimes (BS 77, PhD 04) who went on to a successful career with Class 1, short line, and commuter railroads and now chairs the Technical Activities Council for the Transportation Research Board said, “Doc Hay’s love of the business, his fantastic stories about his railroad experiences, and his care for his students” were what made him so successful as a teacher and mentor.

We think that Professor Hay would be pleased with the renaissance of the Illinois railroad engineering program over the past 25 years and would take pride in the fact that his influence continues to be strongly felt among students as well as professionals in the field. The Hay Award for Excellence is a fitting and enduring legacy to his impact on the field of railway engineering. 

Christopher P.L. Barkan is Professor of Railway Engineering and George Krambles Director of the Rail Transportation and Engineering Center at Illinois. Before coming to UIUC in 1998, he was Director of Risk Engineering at the Association of American Railroads where he worked for 10 years following completion of his M.S. and Ph.D. at SUNY Albany.

Michael W. Franke retired from Amtrak in 2017. He completed his B.S. in civil engineering at Washington University and his M.S. in railway civil engineering at the University of Illinois, where he studied under Professor Hay. His successful rail industry career culminated in senior engineering, operating and management positions with several major railroads.


See the Summer 2022 issue of CEE Magazine for more information about the AREMA William W. Hay Award for Excellence projects that Illinois CEE alumni have been involved in (pages 34-36).




Share this story

This story was published July 10, 2022.