Engineering alum finds rail industry is the right track for her

5 – minute read

As a project engineer for Brightline Trains, Alexandra Westphal has been fully immersed in the design, pricing and building of two history-making projects: the completed Basecamp, the high-speed rail company’s 135,805-square-foot, $100 million vehicle maintenance facility located south of Orlando International Airport; and the in-progress construction of Orlando Station, a facility that will connect Brightline from South Florida to Central Florida.


It’s not a field heavily populated with women. So how did the Florida Gulf Coast University civil  engineering alumna get here?


The tapestry of her life has been woven beautifully and lovingly with the help of three key people:


Her grandfather, Ralph Zimmerman


As a child, Westphal did not necessarily have a keen interest in engineering, trains or the railroad industry. But she was always building with toys or helping her grandfather make furniture. He loved trains and gave her a train set she still has today. Zimmerman wanted to be an engineer but never completed schooling. He served in the military, then worked for Boeing and later for a railroad.

“He really inspired me to be the best I could be and to always strive to meet or exceed my goals,” Westphal says. “I really looked up to him, and knowing that I made him proud kept me pushing through school and my career.”


Her mother, Lee Zimmerman


She always knew her daughter had a knack for math and science, so she encouraged her growth in STEM. When FGCU accepted Alexandra, she was unsure what to study.

FGCU engineering grad
"I loved design in college, especially when I took my ‘Introduction to Engineering’ course, and it showed the potential of what you could do with an engineering degree." Photo by Katie Mitzer, Brightline Trains

Her mom encouraged her to pursue civil engineering and a career in the railroad industry.


Then came something neither of them could have planned. The family moved to Colorado after Westphal graduated in 2015, and although she had applied for many jobs, nothing was falling into place. But on her mother’s first day as a dental hygienist in Colorado, her first patient was the chief financial officer of Denver Transit Operators (DTO). Their conversation about Westphal led to an interview for an internship with DTO. And so began her career in the railroad industry.


Her FGCU mentor and engineering professor, Tanya Kunberger (aka Dr. K).


“I knew during school that women were a minority within the engineering field,” Westphal says. “Seeing Dr. K so bright and cheery and excited to teach made me realize that I could accomplish anything regardless of my gender. I was also an assistant to her, and during that time, she taught me how to focus on my curriculum and guided me to think outside of the box.”


To Kunberger, engineering combines the fundamentals of the curriculum and the creativity of thinking outside the box. 

FGCU engineering grad
Alexandra Westphal has been involved with construction of Brightline's Orlando Station, which will soon provide high-speed rail service between South Florida and Central Florida. Photo by Katie Mitzer, Brightline Trains.

“I emphasize to my students that engineering problems can have more than one right answer,” she says. “The goal is to find what you consider to be the best one and be able to communicate your justification for that selection to others.


“What impressed me about Alex was she knew what she wanted to do and didn’t let anyone else make that decision for her, judge her for it or stand in her way. Successful engineers like Alex ground themselves in the fundamentals and use the experience they gain to find creative solutions and design for the future, not just the present.”


Westphal spent just four months as an intern at DTO, which performed operations and maintenance for the commuter rail in Denver. She then became a full-time systems and infrastructure engineer, which included overseeing, monitoring, inspecting and analyzing existing and future field conditions to ensure that safety and maintenance procedures were being followed. She was the main technical adviser on construction projects and assisted with developing and implementing department maintenance standards, renewal criteria and preparing engineering contracts.

While in Denver, her grandfather kept telling her there were railroad jobs in Florida – specifically at Brightline – and she should move back. In 2019, a recruiter reached out to her to discuss an opportunity to work for Brightline, and it ended with her being offered a job as a field engineer.

She had to decide within a day. While listening to the radio, a song she and her grandfather often listened to and loved – Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me” – played. Her grandfather died a few years earlier, so she felt the song playing was a sign to take this job. So she took it.


“I truly have enjoyed my careers at both DTO and Brightline,” she says. “I know I loved design in college, especially when I took my ‘Introduction to Engineering’ course, and it showed the potential of what you could do with an engineering degree. I do love structures. It was fascinating to me how all the fundamentals of math and science could produce such amazing structures and infrastructure. Over time, my love for designing and building developed further into operations and maintenance of track infrastructure, understanding the basics of curves and super-elevation to make sure the train stays on track.”


Where is Westphal going from here?


“Wherever she wants,” Kunberger says, “and I can’t wait to see her continued accomplishments.”

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