After some bad years, things are looking up for the freight rail industry right now — and that’s being felt at GE’s locomotive factory in far north Fort Worth. The plant is in the process of nearly doubling its staff, partly because of increased demand for brand-new locomotives, and partly because the factory has been overhauled to refurbish old ones.
Think of the modernization process as “Extreme Makeover: Locomotive Edition.” When you take a 20-year-old train engine and update it, sometimes you need to get creative.
“Every locomotive is different,” after years of getting banged up in service, according to Mike Bratt, who runs the sprawling factory next to the Texas Motor Speedway, so “there’s a lot more problem solving.”
Out across the factory floor, men and women climb over hulking machines. Each one weighs as much as a Boeing 767 airliner filled with passengers and their luggage. Sparks fly from welding torches, huge cranes descend from steel beams 30 feet in the air to lift huge radiator caps. The clang and bang of equipment is so loud that everyone is required to wear ear plugs.
It takes about nine weeks to complete a typical modernization, Bratt says, which is about a month longer than it takes to build a brand-new one. At full capacity, the million-square-foot factory will handle about 500 locomotives a year.
Managing the intricate supply chain needed to keep things humming at the factory takes a lot of coordination among the workers, Bratt says. That’s why the company looks for communication skills and collaboration when hiring.
“We want the assembly, the welding, the maintenance and the machining skill sets,” Bratt says. “But you’ve also got to be able to work well in groups.”
The factory opened five years ago. Not long after that, the freight rail industry slumped as less coal was being shipped and cheap gas made trucking more competitive, so railroads weren’t buying as many new locomotives. Last year, the Fort Worth factory laid off 250 workers, with the rest working reduced hours. And the future here is still murky since the company announced plans to spin off its transportation division.
But now the factory is back to hiring. The company will add about 250 new employees by the summer, and says laid-off employees will have a chance to come back.
Rejiggering the factory during the slump to refurbish and modernize the old machines helped fuel the comeback, according to Sameer Gaur, who heads GE’s modernization unit. Freight railroads want to get a bit more out of their aging fleets of locomotives.
“To be able to get the most out of the locomotive, you have makes the railroad more competitive,” Gaur said.
Gaur says companies typically want to retrofit engines that are 20 to 25 years old. Adding new technology and upgrading traction systems can add about 20 years to their service life and allow them to pull more freight using less fuel.
And these days, Gaur says, the rail industry’s outlook is better, which is driving more demand for both refurbished and new engines.
“There is a lift happening in the industry, which is very encouraging for all of us. We’re seeing demand improve, we’re seeing rail win versus other modes of transportation.”
Outside the factory, Doug Corbin from Norfolk Southern says the railroad company is moving more coal, more merchandise and more cars and trucks these days. The Fort Worth factory is in the process of refurbishing 100 of Norfolk Southern’s locomotives now. So far this year, GE’s received orders to do another 225 modernizations for other companies, as well.*
Corbin’s looking at two of his company’s locomotives sitting side by side. One is old and dinged with faded paint, the other is shiny – just off the factory floor, refurbished by the plant’s workers.
“This locomotive here can pull 140,000 pounds [of freight],” Corbin says, pointing at the older one. “That [newer] one can pull 200,000 pounds, so you can see the kind of improvement we’ve got.”
Modernizations like these are the main thing going right now at the Fort Worth plant, but they won’t be for long. The factory plans to start work this summer on a big order of 200 brand-new engines for Canadian National railway.
*This story was updated to correct the number of orders GE has received.