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From interior design to sustainability: a conversation with Amtrak’s Kara Oldhouser

Kara appeared on an episode of the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability Series


For Kara Oldhouser, what she describes as the ‘catalyst moment’ for her career in sustainability came after working in the commercial and architectural design space. Having studied interior design, she now had the chance to blend aesthetics with engineering and construction – and, with interest in environmental design increasing, Kara found herself drawn to learn more. She did a master’s in environmental studies and, after working with the built environment for a few years, joined Amtrak – the National Passenger Railroad of the U.S. – in 2017. Kara’s first position at Amtrak was in the real estate department – a development she describes as ‘a funny little story’: ‘The Environment Sustainability team sat right next to me and I became fast friends with everyone in that department,’ she recalls. ’90 days after starting [...] it was clear that my path was really meant for the sustainability manager position at the time’.


Seven years later, Kara is their Director of Sustainability – and Gov Kandola, who leads our Transport & Logistics team, was pleased to catch up with her for an episode of the Venari Podcast’s Sustainability series to discuss Kara’s career, Amtrak’s sustainable initiatives, and how this subject will influence future developments in her sector.


Preparing for the changing climate

Unfortunately, extreme weather events have become increasingly common in recent years – a phenomenon that can wreak havoc on transport, among other things. Within Amtrak’s sustainability division, there are two primary focus areas, as Kara explains: mitigation and resilience/adaptation. ‘We’re about to kick off a national climate vulnerability assessment, which I am really excited about’, she notes; Amtrak have already started surveying the Northeast Corridor, which is, as Kara is quick to note, fully electric in contrast to diesel-operated host railroads on the network. Operating across the entire U.S. means Amtrak will be exposed to a wide range of climate hazards, and Kara underlines the importance of understanding the nature of these as quickly as possible ‘so that we can start to change our operations and responsiveness.’


Modernising operations

While rail is, famously, one of the most sustainable forms of transport, Kara notes that replacing Amtrak’s diesel locomotive fleet will be challenging: ‘those locomotives aren’t the same that [run in] a place like London or inner cities’. Running parallel to the obstacle posed by innovation is the question of investment – for, as Kara says, ‘we can innovate all day long, but if we don’t have the capital behind us to do it at scale, it’s going to be really hard to make that happen, especially given our size.’ Partnership represents the third pillar for Amtrak to address to this end. ‘We have to figure out ways to collaborate, to share the risk and to share the innovation.’


In-house efforts

Kara credits support from Amtrak’s leadership and executive teams – in addition to the board – as having a positive influence on the company’s sustainability efforts. She also notes that the passion and engagement Amtrak employees have shown is something the organisation is ‘trying to channel into a more purpose-driven way of operating, and I think it’s been really effective.’ In recent years, Amtrak have also focused on data to better understand their environmental impact, and this transparency has helped them ‘to drive change within the organisation.’ These three aspects – leadership, employee engagement, and data – have helped not just Amtrak’s net-zero strategy, but also their broader efforts to improve sustainability and promote corporate social responsibility.


Always innovating

Serving millions of passengers per year as the U.S.’ National Passenger Railroad is no mean feat, so Amtrak are constantly looking for ways to innovate their tech offerings to streamline the passenger journey. ‘Whether it’s around things like automated ticketing or in-cab signalling or ways to improve operational efficiencies, that is going to be critical for us to be able to continue to operate effectively,’ Kara explains. This extends to the transition away from fossil fuels, too; technological innovation will ‘is just going to be critical for us.’ Partnerships will be key for success here, and Kara cites Amtrak’s arrangement with the Rail Passengers Association to this end. ‘We meet once a quarter, share best practices, what’s working, what’s not working. We share our challenges and it’s been a really fantastic space to be in.’ Amtrak also hold a partnership with the Europe-based International Union of Railways and form part of a wider, global group called the EcoMobility Alliance, which is ‘focused on sustainability and transportation and how we can move to a more sustainable future together,’ she explains.


Continuous improvement

Passengers who want to support Amtrak’s sustainability drive are encouraged to ‘ride everywhere, and bring your friends,’ as Kara puts it. However, she stresses that the organisation is focused on continuous improvement, and that customer feedback is an essential element of this process. It is ‘really important for us to be able to understand what’s working, what’s not working, what are the pain points, what are the things that we can do differently or better,’ Kara notes. Amtrak passengers – don’t say you haven’t been told!


If you need help placing sustainable executive talent in the transport and logistics sector, please get in touch. We’ve got you covered! 


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