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Roanoke shop on the rise

Spring 2014

Roanoke Locomotive Shop is experiencing what shop manager Chuck Sloan describes as a resurgence.

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.

Brian Porterfield
Machinist Brian Porterfield helps
refurbish GE power assemblies that are
supplied to NS locomotive repair shops
across the system. Here he uses a drill to
tap the bolt holes of a power assembly

Pride in work

A big overhead banner in the Roanoke shop proclaims: “Safety Protects People/Quality Protects Jobs.” Roanoke employees take that slogan to heart.

When asked how employees surpassed 2 million hours of injury-free work – a more than six-year streak that ended with a reportable injury in January – machinist Brian Porterfield could not point to any single safety initiative or program.

“It’s just taking pride in what we do, really,” said Porterfield, a working gang leader. “We want to put a good product out the door so the locomotives are not out of service, and we want to do the job right the first time.“

Porterfield, who has not had a reportable injury or incident in 22 years of service, works on a team of machinists who refurbish GE power assemblies that are then shipped to NS locomotive repair shops systemwide. Shop employees have to work as a team to succeed, and co-workers look out for each other, Porterfield and other craft workers said.

“You kind of become a family,” he said. “We keep each other safe and we feed off of each other.”

Don Mott, left, machinist, and Mark Martin, sheet metal worker, work on a GE locomotive engine at the Roanoke shop.
Cecil Greene, left, boilermaker, and Sam
Epperly, boilermaker working gang leader,
work on the roof of an EMD SD40-2
locomotive cab, using a template to mark
the spot where a new air conditioner will
be installed. The Roanoke shop works on
the Dash 2 cab modifications as part of NS’
locomotive rebuild program.

Cecil Greene, a boilermaker who hired on at the shop two years ago, said emphasis on safety has impressed him since Day One. Veteran employees, he said, model good safety behavior and reinforce the safe behaviors demonstrated by less experienced co-workers.

“The first day I walked in this shop,” he said, “they were making sure I had everything on – ear plugs, hard hat, safety glasses, and jacket.”

Greene, who now serves on the safety and service committee, views injury-free service as job security – the shop’s superior safety record makes it a cost-competitive place to do business.

“Quality of work depends on safety,” he said. “If we keep everybody safe, nobody gets hurt, productivity goes up, everything goes well. The company sees that we get the work done efficiently and safely, and that means more work for us.”

Dee Myers, who will leave his job as electrician working gang leader in March to join NS’ Operations Supervisor Trainee program, said safety is tied closely to productivity at Roanoke. For example, safety and service committee members monitor work stations to ensure that equipment employees might need, such as face shields or ladders, is readily available.

“That way, people don’t have to wander away from the job to get the equipment they need,” said Myers, who has served as the committee’s assistant chairman.
“To me, that makes it less likely that people will take a short cut and use improper equipment to keep from walking to the other end of the shop.”

Active support from shop management factors big into daily safety and productivity, said Fletcher, the committee chairman.

“If there’s ever a problem or something needs to be fixed, it’s never, ‘We’ll have to wait and see’ or ‘We’ll get it when we can,’ ” he said. “It’s taken care of right then. Employees see that the supervisors actually do care, and that’s a big help. ”

During the past year, Fletcher said, the safety and service committee helped develop a shop-wide program that allows employees to identify safety focus areas, such as communication or use of forklifts or other shop equipment. Every two weeks, employees in each of the various work groups, such as fabrication shop and diesel shop, pick a topic. Then, using cards supplied by the committee, employees can record instances of co-workers demonstrating proper work behaviors associated with the focus topic. They also can point out coaching opportunities. Using the cards, employees are encouraged to reinforce safe behavior on the spot.

Employees drop the cards in collection boxes, and the results are graphed and discussed during shift safety meetings. Members of the shop’s safety and service committee lead the shift meetings, Sloan said.

“I tell employees that we have to keep reinventing our contributions to the company and we have to keep re-inventing our safety processes,” Sloan said. “When you allow things to go stale, that’s when incidents start to occur.”

Creative energy

Huerta said the shop reminds him of a startup business because of the new work opportunities coming in and the creativity of an energized workforce. Employees, he said, are working with and developing cutting-edge technology, such as the engine upgrades on the Dash 8.5. He jokingly refers to that as the shop’s “mad scientist work.”

Ideas from employees are flowing. As of February, Huerta said he was working on three separate ideas submitted recently by third-shift employees that he plans to send to InnovatioNS and enter in this year’s Ergo Cup competition.

“We have a lot of employees putting their ideas out there, and we’re taking them and making them happen,” Huerta said. “We’re building our own engines, coming up with new concepts, and rebuilding things from the ground up. The exciting thing is we’ve got people thinking 24 hours a day about how to improve the business and the way we work.”

  • Dash 8.5 remakes from Dash 8s
  • Dash 2 (SD40 and SD40-2) cab rehabilitations
  • MP15E conversions to AC power, increasing tractive capability
  • Wreck-damaged GE road units
  • GE Evolution EPA maintenance tuneups, formerly known as midlife tuneups, to replace or refurbish engine components and ensure compliance with current federal emission standards
  • GE Dash 8 and Dash 9 engine overhauls
  • GE Dash 8 electronic fuel-injection upgrades
  • Unscheduled heavy repairs on all GE engines