Workforce growing at GE’s Fort Worth locomotive plant

09/02/2014 8:45 PM

09/03/2014 12:08 PM

Locomotives No. 8137 and 8139 are all but ready to roll.

The General Electric train engines are freshly painted with Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway’s signature orange and black scheme. They have passed the “rain test” — during which pressurized water is sprayed onto their rooftops to check for leaks — and some time in the next few hours workers at GE Transportation’s enormous facility in far north Fort Worth will open a pair of giant bay doors and take the vehicles for a 20- to 40-mile test drive on railroad tracks connected to the factory.

If all goes well during the test drive, the GE C4 Evolution vehicles then will be turned over to BNSF for use in the railroad’s growing fleet of cleaner-burning diesel machines.

“These two locomotives likely will be hauling freight by Thursday,” Walter Amaya, plant manager of GE’s facility near the northeast corner of Texas 114 and Farm Road 156, proudly boasted as he offered visitors a tour of the facility Tuesday afternoon.

Nineteen months have passed since GE Transportation, a subsidiary of General Electric, opened the plant near Texas Motor Speedway. The operation has steadily grown and now employs more than 500 people — two weeks ago adding a second shift to meet growing demand from railroads, Amaya said. The factory now cranks out an average of 1.2 locomotives per day, he said.

Most of the company’s workers are in the locomotive factory — with roughly 300 people working a 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift, and 100 working from 3:15 p.m. to 11 p.m., Amaya said. GE also operates a separate building adjacent to the locomotive factory that specializes in building mining equipment.

One of its top customers is BNSF, which operates an intermodal rail yard just a couple of miles south of the GE plant at AllianceTexas. BNSF intends to buy 500 locomotives in the coming year, with roughly half being built at GE’s Fort Worth plant, said John Lovenburg, BNSF environmental vice president.

With just under 1 million square feet of floor space, GE’s Fort Worth facility is the equivalent of five Wal-Mart Supercenters under one roof.

Workers do their jobs in one of 30 stations, and it takes about five weeks to assemble a locomotive. At one of the first stations, sheets of steel are neatly stacked, waiting to be forged into various parts for the vehicles. Nearby, pairs of wheels and axles wait to be installed on trucks, which are then placed on the locomotive chassis in an area known as “bottomside assembly,” so-called because the chassis are flipped upside down so the workers can more easily do their welding.

Each locomotive is held together with an astounding 16,000 pounds of weld wire, Amaya said.

Not far away, engines built in Grove City, Pa., and shipped to Fort Worth are ready to be installed in a locomotive’s belly. There’s even a lone “Tier Four” engine designed to meet stricter federal emissions standards beginning in 2015.

Tuesday’s tour of the GE plant was a chance for members of the media to get a rare glimpse inside the Fort Worth facility, as industry leaders gathered for a three-day discussion on how to make railroads more efficient and sustainable. The annual Railroad Sustainability Symposium was attended by executives from GE, BNSF, Norfolk Southern and organizations such as Wal-Mart, UPS and the Environmental Defense Fund.

They discussed issues such as supply-chain sustainability, safety and next-generation locomotives.

Even topics that once seemed pie-in-the-sky, such as converting the nation’s locomotive fleet to natural gas — which would dramatically reduce emissions compared to diesel-burning locomotives — are being explored, said Blair Wimbush, chief sustainability officer for Norfolk Southern. Even so, such dramatic change is likely many years away, as it would require railroads to install a natural gas infrastructure at essentially every fueling point on their grid.

“I wouldn’t say it’s an insurmountable obstacle, if we could have locomotives that ran on a combination of natural gas and diesel,” he said. “But I don’t know what the timeline is.”

Lovenburg added that, because natural gas takes up 1.7 times as much volume as diesel, railroads would have to add a fuel car to carry a supply of natural gas — similar to how steam engines in the early 20th century had to pull along a coal car.

Deb Frodl, global executive director of GE’s “ecomagination” initiative, said hosting the symposium in Fort Worth “gives us a perfect opportunity to listen to our customers and the challenges they face.”

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