EMployees excel in service and safety
When he walks the floor of Norfolk Southern’s Roanoke Locomotive Shop, Raul Huerta, a third-shift general foreman, sometimes thinks he’s working at a startup company.
“I feel like I’m on the ground floor of something big going on,” said Huerta, who started working at the shop two years ago after stints at the Shaffers Crossing, Juniata, and Kansas City locomotive shops. “Everything we’re doing here is building for the future. Everything we’re doing matters.”
During railroading’s steam era, the formerly named Roanoke Machine Works, opened in 1883 by NS predecessor Norfolk and Western, earned a reputation as the South’s premier builder of locomotives. The shop produced the famous Class Y, Class A, and Class J steam engines, known as the “Magnificent Three.”
These days, the shop is experiencing what shop manager Chuck Sloan describes as a resurgence using leading-edge 21st-century technology. The facility’s employees have taken on an important new role in NS’ growing locomotive rebuild program, essentially recycling 25-year-old locomotives into like-new machines. Along the way, they have developed capabilities unique at NS and within the industry.
“We’re bursting at the seams with opportunities to contribute to Norfolk Southern, and that’s our goal in life,” Sloan said. “We always look for new ways to enhance our value to the company and its shareholders. We don’t directly generate revenue, but the work we’re doing is saving the company millions of dollars in the maintenance of our locomotive fleet.”
Even better, shop employees have helped the company raise the bar on safety. Last October, the shop became the second NS work group – Enola Locomotive Shop was first – to achieve 2 million consecutive hours of reportable injury-free service.
Roanoke shop employees say they were practicing behavior-based safety long before the positive changes occurring in NS’ operating culture gave them a name to call it.
“Our safety committee members are on the front lines every day looking and checking for things, but we’ve got regular employees who aren’t on the committee out there doing their jobs, and if they see something, they speak up,” said Kevin Fletcher, a boilermaker and chairman of the shop’s safety and service committee. “The participation of people on the shop floor has been key.”
Nobody does GE like Roanoke
Roanoke’s craft employees – machinists, pipefitters, electricians, boilermakers, laborers – specialize in overhauling and repairing GE locomotives, which comprise roughly 75 percent of NS’ road fleet. The shop now applies that expertise to such projects as the Dash 8.5, NS’ first locomotive rebuild project involving GE engines. The first 4,000-horsepower Dash 8.5 unit, reusing the frame of a 1980s-era GE locomotive, rolls out this year, and three more are underway on the shop floor. The Dash 8.5 features a custom wide-body cab and high-tech engine upgrades that make it more fuel-efficient and cleaner burning than the older locomotives.
As the company’s road fleet of GE Dash 8, Dash 9, and Evolution series locomotives ages, Roanoke shop is expected to play an increasingly important role in overhauling and rebuilding them. The rebuilds cost roughly half of buying new.
“If capital rebuilds are going to be a viable option for the future, as our CEO has challenged us to develop, we’re going to be looking at the GE fleet for opportunities,” said Don Graab, NS vice president mechanical. “That’s where Roanoke’s special expertise comes into play.”
Graab describes the Roanoke shop as a “center for excellence” on GE locomotives. The shop currently is the only non-GE facility developing full-repair capability on Evolution series engines, he said. The company also is outfitting Roanoke to repair AC-locomotive traction motors, making it the only shop on NS with that ability, Graab said.
Last year, Roanoke added a $1 million line-boring machine to its repair arsenal – the only one of its kind in the rail industry – that has given the shop the capability to repair GE engine frames that before would have been scrapped. The company saves a minimum of $155,000 for each frame salvaged, Sloan said.
The capabilities at Roanoke are complemented by the expertise and innovative workforce at the larger Juniata Locomotive Shop in Altoona, Pa., where craft employees focus on overhauling and repairing EMD-manufactured locomotives. NS launched its locomotive rebuild program on EMD yard and local-service engines at Juniata and has since introduced the SD60E to the fleet. The SD60E road locomotive is a rebuild of the SD60 EMD and features ground breaking technology, including a novel engine- cooling system patented by NS.
Combined, Juniata and Roanoke equip NS with a competitive one-two punch. NS is the only Class 1 railroad that operates two full-time shops for heavy repairs and overhauls, known as back shops. The key is that Roanoke and Juniata have carved out their own niches, minimizing duplication of efforts, Graab said.
“I’m a believer that shops excel when they have specialized work groups focused on defined tasks,” Graab said.