Norfolk Southern’s iconic “Top Gon” coal cars – a name inspired by the 1986 “Top Gun” movie starring Tom Cruise as a Navy fighter jet pilot – are getting renewed life on the rails.
Built to move export, domestic metallurgical, and industrial coal, thousands of the gondolas have become rusty and worn. As coal volumes began dropping in 2012, NS’ Mechanical Department started retiring the cars, storing them on tracks at NS’ Lamberts Point Coal Terminal to be sold for scrap.
Now, under an innovative initiative launched by mechanical, many of those cars will continue hauling coal. The department teamed with NS’ coal business group to work on a lower-cost alternative to buying new coal cars. It started when the coal group asked mechanical to take a closer look at the cars being identified for scrap.
Calvin Cox, assistant vice president mechanical, who oversees NS’ railcar maintenance program from Atlanta, traveled to Norfolk to scope out the situation. During the visit, he walked the yard tracks with four mechanical supervisors at Lamberts Point: Ray Jones, director piers and facilities, Jim Welch,senior general foreman, Bobby Carlow, general foreman, and Lewis Carbaugh, mechanical supervisor.
Wearing protective hard hats and steel-toed boots, they walked from car to car. They quickly spotted a trend. Most of the car bottoms, known as tubs, were rusted and cracked, especially around “weep holes” designed to drain water. In that condition, a heavy load of coal could break through and spill, derailing a train. Mechanical employees, they concluded, made the right decision to pull those from service.
What stood out, though, was that except for the tubs, the cars still seemed roadworthy. As they talked, Jones joked offhandedly that they should call a bathtub relining company. Everybody laughed – and then a bulb seemed to click on.
Hey, maybe Jones was on to something.
“It made sense, not necessarily to line the tub, but to put another tub in the car,” Cox said.
“We said, ‘Shoot, we can do it,’ ” said Carlow.
Cost-efficient and meets customers’ needs
Fast forward to the fall, and that fact-finding visit has evolved into the Top Gon “retub” program. Not long after his Lamberts Point trip, Cox met with carmen at Norfolk’s 38th Street Car Shop and at Portsmouth Car Shop in Ohio and asked them to help develop a process for installing new tubs. They have delivered.
“This is a brand new process for us, so we challenged them to tell us how to get it done,” Cox said. “The collaboration with the craft employees has worked very well. They know what it means for business, and they know that the ideas for making this work are coming from them. They have come up with great ideas to do it in a very efficient and safe way.”
The retub initiative is a good story for NS. It is saving the company money and meeting coal customer needs. It also is an example of how employees have integrated a sustainable business practice into operations. Top Gons targeted for the initiative were “rebodied” in the 1990s, a process that involved replacing the entire structure above the trucks and wheels. Giving them new tubs extends their usefulness even longer.
David Lawson, vice president coal, praised the Mechanical Department’s ingenuity for developing the retub idea and for helping his group respond to market needs.
“It contributes to the ease of doing business with Norfolk Southern, and we want to make it as easy to do business with us as possible,” Lawson said. “Customers respect and reward this type of ingenuity.”
The retub program, he said, offers NS flexibility at a time when the future of U.S. coal faces uncertainties because of environmental regulations, low-priced natural gas, and abundant global supplies of coal.
“This is a very innovative and cost-efficient approach that provides us with a lower-cost alternative to buying new cars,” Lawson said. “We expect to get a number of years of extended life out of cars that otherwise would be retired and sold for scrap.”
Norfolk Southern achieves efficiencies, controls costs, and reduces environmental impacts by integrating sustainable business practices into daily operations. That drives value for shareholders, customers, employees, communities, and suppliers.