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'Hanging tubs' is a spirit-filled process

Fall 2014

Charlie Clifton and John Dougherty
Carman Charlie Clifton operates a CombiLift to maneuver a tub into position, while John Dougherty monitors during retubbing activity at 38th Street.


On a sunny August morning, carmen at Norfolk’s 38th Street Car Shop were hard at work “hanging tubs.” One of them, Jerry Zollars, a 35-year shop veteran, wore a white paper jumpsuit with “Tub Dude” written on the back. On other days, he’s “Tub Man” or “Tub Master.” For the past 15 years or so, Zollars has worked mostly in training and administrative duties, but this summer, he was asked to help get the Top Gon retub initiative off the ground.

His debut as Tub Dude reflects the shop’s enthusiasm for the work.

“This is a really good program,” Zollars said, “and we’re happy to have it.”

Jerry Zollars
Jerry Zollars, aka “Tub Dude,” helps align a tub at 38th Street.


All down the line

NS carmen have replaced the C-shaped bottoms of coal cars before, including cars damaged in derailments. Their challenge on the Top Gon initiative has been to develop a standard work process on a larger scale.

Since starting the retub work this summer, employees at the 38th Street and Portsmouth car shops have created an assembly-line approach to do the work safely and efficiently. Along the way, they’ve made adjustments, including modifying existing tools and creating their own devices. Virtually all of NS’ SPIRIT values are at play, employees said, from safety and teamwork to innovation and performance.

“From the gang leaders down, we’ve pretty much had to manufacture a system – there were no blueprints to go by,” said carman Sean Kennedy. “Every day it seems that another employee is coming up with something that sheds a little time off a job, saves a little bit of lifting, or saves something somewhere.”

Gary Maddix, Dan Cremeans, and Billy Cole
Portsmouth carmen Gary Maddix, standing left, Dan Cremeans, kneeling, and Billy Cole work on a Top Gon retub in Portsmouth. Maddix bolts the tub into place, while Cremeans lowers a lift table used to position the tub. Shop carmen designed a rolling base for lift tables to eliminate the need of a crane to move them around the shop.


“We’re all out there working as a group,” said Randy Walker, a Portsmouth carman. “When we come across an idea that might help us, we just follow through with the process to see if it does.”

Carmen start with cars whose tubs have been removed off-site before they are transported to the shop. An NS vendor fabricates the replacement tubs from 3/16th-inch steel sheets bent upward on each side, forming what is known as a “C” channel.

Still in the early stages of work, the shops continue to evolve the process. On the morning in August, Zollars, aka Tub Dude, was part of a team that moved the steel tubs from a flatbed trailer to a staging area outside a shop building. An employee operating a CombiLift – a specialized forklift with pivoting wheels – maneuvered the tubs under the cars. After that, carmen working inside and outside of the cars installed fasteners on the corners.

From there, each car was moved inside a shop building where carmen finish bolting the tubs down. In all, about 250 bolts are whirred into place with fastener guns. Next, carmen use jacks to pull the cars’ end caps snug against the tub. With the tub secure, carmen weld protective metal hoods to cover the center sill, which runs the length of the car providing support.

After that, carmen inspect the cars’ slope sheets on each end and patch as needed. Finally, carmen inspect the wheels and trucks and test air brakes. If those items pass muster, the cars are ready for service.

Employee ingenuity at work

Shop employees have put smarts and sweat into the work.

“Before we actually got any tubs, we brought a car in to try to figure out the easiest way to put a tub in,” said Harvey Barlow, a carman with about 25 years at 38th Street. Through brainstorming with co-workers, he is credited with developing the “Barlow,” a push-button device with an air ram. The ram, coupled with a shop-designed tool to brace it, pushes the side of the car outward, enabling the team to easily lift and install the tubs.

“We have employees constantly coming up with ideas,” said Bobby Carlow, general foreman at 38th Street. “Some work, and some don’t. Sometimes you come up with an idea to get your feet off the ground, and then you find through the process that there is a better way to do something.”

During the fall, employees were working on innovative tools to replace the use of jacks. The come-along jacks are used to move the coal cars’ end caps back and forth before and after tub installation. Trying to improve on that, carmen Scott Kuczynski and Jay Caris have developed two different prototype tools that could be options. Kuczynski crafted an adaptor tool for use in combination with an air ram, allowing employees to work outside the car rather than inside to push the end caps back into place. Caris’ device involves a spreader bar and straps that he dubbed the “hodag” – named after a woodlands creature of Wisconsin folklore.

 “They encourage us that if we have an idea to bring it up,” Kuczynski said. “We’re looking for ways to save time and improve safety.”

In Portsmouth, shop employees designed boxes to hold water coolers and tools they need while working inside the cars.

“We can lift them in and out of the cars with a crane instead of handling all the tools separately,” said Dan Cremeans, a Portsmouth carman.

Portsmouth employees also crafted what they call “rail sliders,” pieces of finished metal that enable carmen to maneuver lift tables between tracks inside the car shop without using a crane.

“It’s faster, and you can make better use of the crane rather than tying it up moving tables,” said carman Gene Powell.

Craft employees at both shops said they appreciate the opportunity to contribute to NS’ success through the retub program.

“We take great pride in what we do,” said Jason Strange, a 38th Street carman. “We want to put out a quality product, and we know by doing this, it’s going to help the business.”

Charlie Clifton
38th Street carman Charlie Clifton uses a shop-designed Barlow ram to push the car wall away from the side sill in preparation for installing a tub. The push-button ram is supported by an angle brace the shop built, one of several innovative methods carmen at 38th Street and Portsmouth have designed for the retub work.
Dave Sykes and Micah Cassell
Dave Sykes applies bolts to a tub at 38th Street, while carman Micah Cassell welds a hood cap into place.

Putting safety first

Employees at the 38th Street and Portsmouth car shops have accumulated impressive safety and work records. In March,
the approximately 116 craft employees at the Portsmouth shop achieved 1 million employee-hours without a reportable injury, while the approximately 135 employees at 38th Street were approaching six years without a reportable injury in October.

Between them, the shops’ employees repair and maintain virtually every kind of railcar on NS’ system, from gondolas and hoppers to high cube boxcars, coil steel cars, and machinery flats.

“We can repair any type of car, we can weld anything, and we can rebuild anything – we’ve shown it over and over,” said
Jim Welch, senior general foreman with
37 years at 38th Street. “We could build cars from scratch if we had to – that’s the talent we have.”

Welch said letting employees play a larger role in the planning and execution of projects contributes to improved working relationships and to a more positive work environment. That dovetails with the goals of NS’ behavior-based safety program.

“There was a time when management decided every step of the work, and employees had no ownership,” Welch said. “That created an atmosphere of negative attitudes. Now we’re handing much of the process over to our employees and they’re coming back to us with a game plan. My role is to free these employees to be thinkers.”