We Get the Best Field Trips

I’ve written in the past about the meetings the ASLRRA Technology Committee have in the fall, and the cool places we get to go and see as part of our meetings.  This week was no exception, as following our business meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, we went on a little rail-related excursion.  No, we didn’t go to Tower 55, the famous UP yard, or any of the numerous other facilities in one of the busiest railroad towns in the country.  No, we got to go to the GE Transportation locomotive factory and the BNSF Network Operations Center.I’ve been to GE’s other locomotive plant in Erie, PA and it is what one would think of as a “traditional” locomotive facility, because it has been around for over 100 years, and originally built steam locomotives.  Because of that, you wouldn’t exactly say that the facility has modern ergonomics or manufacturing flow.  The facility is laid out over 300 acres, and because they have needed to build new models, they have modified or updated buildings that were built sometime in the early 20th Century.The new facility is more akin to being in an airplane factory.  You could practically eat off of the floors, and everything is in one building.  A one million square foot building.  I have never been in a building that made big locomotives look small.  It was impressive, to say the least.  The six hundred employees in the plant take sheet metal and thousands of individual components, and in just over forty days turn out a completed locomotive.  And how soon do the locomotives go into service?  Well, when the crew picks them up from the plant, the units could be on a train hauling revenue freight a couple of hours later.Our other stop that day was to the BNSF Network Operations Center (NOC) at BNSF headquarters.  It is really impressive when you walk into the facility with four passenger cars on each side, and a visitor welcome center that rivals a number of museums that I have been in.  The NOC itself is very impressive.  It is a big circular room with workstations for almost all of BNSF’s dispatching and network operations people (their only distributed dispatching is on joint facilities with UP), and when you add in the big projection screens picture something like a big version of Mission Control or the bridge of the Battlestar Galactica.  Another very large and impressive facility, but one that will be getting some updating.What are they going to be doing?  Well, when the facility was built, computers and displays were much bigger devices.  Now, with the equipment being smaller, they actually have too much space in between the desks, and can utilize the space better.  So what are they going to do?  Late next year, they move everyone out to a temporary location for about nine months or so, renovate the place, and bring everyone back.  Simple, right?There was a common item at both locations:  the people.  Both places were run on the backs of their employees, and the pride in the work that they did.  At the locomotive facility they were very proud of their “Moonshine Shop” where employees could submit ideas for tooling to improve the assembly process, and an internally funded crew of people would bring those ideas to reality.  At BNSF, like many railroads, it was the employees with 30 and 40 years of experience trying to keep a very busy system flowing smoothly.What’s up next for the Technology Committee?  Don’t know at the moment, but there are a lot more cool places to go.---By Steve Friedland
steven-fb.jpgSteve Friedland is a child of the railroad industry. Following summers and vacations working on the track gang for the family-owned Morristown & Erie Railway, a 42-mile New Jersey short line, he started full-time in 1994. He has worked in all areas of the railroad, including track, mechanical, signals, and operations, and currently is a member of the management team for the company as director of operations in Morristown, N.J. In 1999, he founded Short Line Data Systems, a provider of railroad EDI and dispatching software, AEI hardware, and management consulting to the short line industry. He currently serves as the ASLRRA representative to the AAR's Wireless Communications Committee and is chairman of the joint AAR-ASLRRA Short Line Information Improvement Committee. He also is a member of the ASLRRA's board of directors.