RSI Profiles: Mike Rush, AAR Safety and Operations

Michael J. Rush is senior vice president - safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the world's leading railroad policy, research and standard setting organization for the freight and passenger railroads of the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Rush serves as the industry's liaison with regulatory bodies including the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security. Among other responsibilities, Rush oversees the rail industry's homeland security plan, environmental protection and safety programs, and tank car safety standards and design.

Rush has 36 years of experience at AAR and most recently was the organization's associate general counsel. An expert in regulatory law, Rush represented AAR in various regulatory agency activities including hearings and proceedings as well as drafting comments, briefs, oral arguments and Congressional testimony.

A graduate, with honors, of the National Law Center, George Washington University, Rush received a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, from Wesleyan University.

Below is a Q and A with Mike Rush.

Q. You were named SVP - Safety and Operations in 2015, but have been a part of AAR for more than 35 years. How has the industry changed during your tenure?

A. From a structural perspective, the industry looks very different. When I joined AAR in 1980, there were over 20 Class I railroads, if I recall correctly. The industry had recently experienced major bankruptcies. The Staggers Act had not yet been passed.

Today, the industry is much healthier. Major bankruptcies are a thing of the past. From an industry-wide perspective, the infrastructure is in much better shape. The traffic mix has changed, with intermodal and bulk traffic growing tremendously. Importantly, the safety record has improved dramatically.
Technologically, the industry has changed in important ways. Better materials used in infrastructure, innovative wayside detectors, and the use of big data to improve the reliability of rolling stock, for example.
Q. As an expert in rail industry safety and operations, what in your view are the top two challenges the railroads face today?

A. From an operations perspective, looking down the road capacity is always a concern. Currently, we are seeing a downturn in railroad traffic. That won't always be the case. Keeping up with railroad demand when business picks up will be an issue. The changing portfolio of railroad business will also will also continue to create capacity challenges.

From a safety perspective, the industry has shown dramatic improvement in its safety record since enactment of the Staggers Act, including significant improvements in recent years. One concern is that government regulations do not get in the way of further improvement. Automated inspection technologies show great promise. However, many current regulations require manual inspections. It is important that our government regulators support innovative technologies that can make the industry even safer than it is today.

Q. For RSI members who may not be familiar with the AAR, why is the AAR different from other trade associations in Washington?

A. Many trade associations are pure lobbying organizations. Representing the industry before Congress and the Administration is an important mission of AAR but hardly the only one. Given the interdependent nature of the railroad business, where rail cars often have to travel on two or more railroads to get to their destination, AAR plays a vital role by issuing interchange standards governing railroad equipment that ensure rolling stock can move from one railroad to another safely and efficiently. AAR's Railinc subsidiary plays a crucial IT role with respect to the exchange of operating information among industry companies that facilitates interchange. AAR's research subsidiary, Transportation Technology Center, Inc., is the world's foremost railroad research facility and, in addition, provides valuable hazardous materials training to emergency responders.

Q. How does the AAR work with the Railway Supply Institute to advance the common interests of the railroads and their suppliers?

A. The Railway Supply Institute and its members play a vital role in railroad transportation. Many RSI members are associate members of AAR, serving on AAR committees that set standards. These RSI members bring unique expertise and an important perspective to these committees.

Q. Tell us about your family and how you balance a demanding career with your interests outside of work.

A. I have a wonderful wife and three adult children. When I was younger, I liked to coach sports which required a lot of balancing. One advantage I had was serving the industry as a lawyer, which enabled me to work from home at night after coaching was done. Another thing I did was to associate myself with another coach who could cover when I was unavailable. With those days behind me, balancing is a lot easier. My wife has a very busy life and so we are understanding of the demands placed on each other. 
Interview conducted by Carol Steckbeck, RSI Media Consultant,