No More roundhouse, but tradition of excellence continues in modern shop
Employees at Conway Locomotive Shop walk through a concrete tunnel beneath Conway Terminal’s hump tracks to report to work. A sign above the tunnel reads: “Through This Portal Passes A Safe Railroader.”
These days, that motto could be expanded to include safe and efficient railroader. The company’s $40 million investment in a new locomotive repair and maintenance shop in Conway aligns with its focus on improving network speed and customer service.
“Conway historically has been a significant place for us,” said Don Graab, vice president mechanical. “This facility positions the Mechanical Department to operate even more efficiently, particularly in the context of efficient use of our locomotive assets.”
Construction began in July 2010 to replace a weather-beaten wooden roundhouse that leaked rain and snow and was designed by Pennsylvania Railroad in 1909 to repair steam locomotives – not today’s high-tech, diesel-electric workhorses. In August 2012, employees began moving into the main shop, a tan-colored metal and masonry building that occupies the roundhouse’s former parking lot. A spacious material storehouse, a wing off the main shop with convenient floor access, opened in July. A back shop for “heavy” repairs, now under construction on the footings of the former shop, should be ready in the third quarter of 2014.
Conway operated the last active roundhouse on NS’ system. While some veteran craft employees hate to see that tradition end, employees are quick to point out the improved working conditions in the new shop. They also are happy to see NS invest in Conway.
“All in all, it’s a great building – the work platforms, the pits, and the lighting are just amazing compared with what we used to have. It’s like night and day,” said Jeff Klinesmith, a machinist with about 20 years at Conway. His father and grandfather worked at the shop, and his two sons work there now, a reflection of Conway’s railroading heritage and NS’ importance as a local employer. “It’s like my dad says, if the company puts all that money into it, they plan for it to be here a while, so that’s a good thing.”
“It’s a physical show of confidence in Conway,” added Andy Acs, an electrician with five years at NS. “It’s nice to see. The potential here is superior.”
A strategic location for locomotive repair
The Conway project is NS’ first locomotive shop replacement since the Shaffers Crossing shop in Roanoke, Va., was replaced in the early 1980s, said Doug Corbin, assistant vice president mechanical. With about 250 employees, the Conway facility is the third largest of NS’ six running repair shops. NS’ locomotive shop in Chattanooga, Tenn., is the largest followed by Shaffers Crossing.
Presently, Conway performs 15 to 20 percent of NS’ locomotive maintenance and repair work. It handles routine maintenance duties for almost 400 locomotives, including many of the AC units that work the Pennsylvania coalfields. As the only locomotive shop on the Pittsburgh Division, Conway works on all of the division’s yard and local locomotives. It also takes in overflow repairs from the smaller Elkhart, Ind., and Bellevue, Ohio, running repair shops. In addition, the shop supplies locomotive power for 12 general merchandise trains that presently originate daily out of Conway Terminal’s hump yard.
“Conway is positioned on our high-volume Chicago-to-New York line and is at the crossroads of coal flowing up to Ashtabula and Sandusky, Ohio, so they’re in a strategic location for locomotive repair,” Corbin said.
NS’ move to replace the roundhouse began in 2008, when Tony Stuart, shop manager, put in a request for a new roof. Graab, then avp mechanical, traveled to Conway for a rooftop inspection and agreed a new roof was needed. However, because of the roundhouse’s age and condition, he concluded it would be more economical and strategic in the long run to replace the shop.
Said Stuart, “After 100-plus years, you can put on only so many Band-Aids. This new shop is just a welcome sight.”
Enhancing safety and productivity
Stuart, shop manager since 2004, is as proud of the new facility as his craft employees. Giving a tour of the office, he pointed out the black and gold motif of the floor tiles, colors of the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers football, Pirates baseball, and Penguins ice hockey teams. Training sessions and meetings, shoehorned into the lunchroom of the old shop, are held now in a conference room built to accommodate them. Stuart, whose second-floor office overlooks the shop floor, is bullish on the facility’s prospects.
“We’ll be able to do it all here,” he said. “There’s a rich tradition of good craftsmen producing quality locomotive repair and maintenance, and they’ve been real responsive to the railroad’s needs. I think they’ve shown Norfolk Southern what they’re capable of doing.”
As the most modern locomotive repair shop on NS’ system, the new facility enhances safety and productivity. In a nod to sustainability, the building is insulated and outfitted with a natural gas heating system that is more energy efficient than the old steam boiler it replaced, Corbin said.
Each of the main shop’s three tracks can accommodate four locomotives. Overhead gantry cranes can be positioned over each locomotive to lift heavy engine components, a big time saver. Presently, Shaffers Crossing is the only other NS locomotive shop with complete crane coverage.
“Being able to hit every spot with a crane is a big advantage,” said Zac Bidwell, a Conway machinist, who moments earlier had maneuvered a crane into place to hoist a locomotive power assembly unit. “Only certain stalls in the old shop had cranes.”
Presently, locomotives can enter and exit from only one end of the shop, sometimes interrupting work flow when units inside need to be returned to service. That issue will be remedied when the back shop is completed and the main shop’s tracks are extended to allow flow from either direction. The shop has not let the inconvenience slow production, said Timothy Adkins, senior general foreman.
“Employees have been very adaptable and made it work,” he said. In a first for NS, the shop has a three-tier wash bay equipped with two work platforms instead of one and other features such as high-pressure hot water and an engine exhaust-venting system. With the additional work platform, employees can clean the top of locomotives. The exhaust vent lets them wash dirt, snow, and ice off a locomotive’s trucks and traction motors, which can be cleaned only when the engine is running.
“We can do everything from the roof to the wheels in this wash bay,” said Dave Belin, laborer and fireman/oiler.
The wash bay is a model for NS. Since it was constructed, the Mechanical Department has built a similar one at Birmingham, is constructing another at Chattanooga, and has proposed installing them at Inman and Bellevue.
Conway’s new back shop will boast a 125-ton drop table, which will be used to “drop” complete trucks of locomotives for inspection, repair, or replacement. The work space will give employees the capacity to drop two- and three-axle locomotive truck frames, expanding the shop’s ability to work on traction motors. The old back shop’s drop table could handle only one axle at a time. The added capacity means that locomotives requiring extensive truck work no longer will have to be sent to Juniata Locomotive Shop in Altoona. Conway’s back shop also will have a mobile 35-ton crane to hoist main alternators for change-outs.
A clean, well-lighted shop
Employees comment most about ergonomic design features that make their jobs easier and safer. For example, the floor pits that machinists and electricians use to work underneath locomotives are deep enough that they don’t have to stoop and duck under rail to gain access. Work platforms lining the pits enable them to sit or stand and provide better body positioning and leverage.
The roundhouse pits did not have platforms. “You had to drag a ladder down along with your tools,” said John Thiry, an electrician. Machinist Klinesmith recalls having to squeeze under locomotives and lie down or get on his knees to work in the old back shop. “We would buy big rolls of cardboard and lay it down on the floor and work,” he said.
Electrician Steve Nath said a flashlight was needed to work in the old roundhouse pits. “The new shop is a lot cleaner and everything is lit and open.”
The new shop gave NS an opportunity to maximize efficiencies. Stuart and his staff invited craft employees to participate in several Lean events – brainstorming sessions to identify ways to improve work processes. Many of their suggestions were adopted, including ideas on where to store parts and organize tools to reduce the amount of time spent walking or searching for needed equipment.
“People want to have a voice, and they came to us with some good ideas,” Stuart said. “When they see you implementing their ideas, they want to give you more.”