In the Chicagoland area, the home of ASSEMBLY Magazine for the past 60 years, freight trains are a daily fact of life. It’s hard to drive anywhere without encountering at least one long train with numerous cars pulled by powerful locomotives.
Most of those massive machines are made by General Electric Co., the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel-electric locomotives. The company has been a leading force in the railroad equipment industry since the early 1900s. For the last 35 years, it has been the world’s No. 1 locomotive builder.
Many of GE Transportation’s past achievements emerged from its legendary assembly plant in Erie, PA, which has a long, rich history. Building 10 at the factory is considered to be hallowed ground, because it has been the birthplace of more than 25,000 locomotives.
But, in recent years, the company has been ramping up activity at a new state-of-the-art factory in Fort Worth, TX. The complex covers 71 acres and includes a 250,000-square-foot plant that assembles AC wheel transmission axles and control boxes used in electric-haul mining trucks.
The five-year-old GE Manufacturing Solutions (GEMS) locomotive plant boasts more than 1 million square feet of floor space. A flexible assembly line allows operators to build brand new machines alongside refurbished units.
In fact, remanufacturing has become an important part of GE Transportation’s business strategy. It serves a way to combat the cyclical nature of new locomotive demand.
The modernization program can take an old, tired locomotive and transform it into a modern machine that features cutting-edge technology. The makeover option is increasingly popular with GE’s customers, including the largest freight-hauling railroads in Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Assemblers who also build new locomotives update well-worn machines that are sometimes more than 20 years old. Tasks range from simple changes, such as control system upgrades, to complex restorations, such as the comprehensive transformation of an aged DC locomotive into an AC locomotive outfitted with state-of-the-art digital technology.
“Some of these locomotives are 25 years old and they’re in a midlife crisis,” says Pascal Schweitzer, vice president of services at GE Transportation. “They come here for an extreme makeover. When they leave, they will be ready to roll for a couple more decades.
“We’ve seen our modernization program grow 20 times since 2015,” claims Schweitzer. “With the increased demand, [our] Fort Worth facility is now the world’s largest locomotive modernization facility.”
Over the last decade, GE has transformed more than 2,000 locomotives for customers worldwide, including all Class 1 railroads in North America. According to Schweitzer, benefits include 10 percent fuel efficiency gains, maintenance and repair expense reductions of up to 20 percent, a 40 percent increase in reliability and a 50 percent increase in haulage ability.
“The outcomes these modernizations offer to our customers create the ability to realize significantly more value out of existing locomotive assets, which has been game-changing,” says Schweitzer.
“Our customers know what’s best for them, and when demand rises, they’ll buy new locomotives,” adds Sameer Gaur, general manager for global services product management at GE Transportation. “But, this modernization program allows them to get the most out of their existing assets. We are bringing these locomotives into the 21st century.”
To take advantage of such optimization, Canadian Pacific Railway Co. had 30 modernized locomotives delivered in 2017. An additional 80 are on order and are scheduled to be delivered later this year. BNSF, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific are also on track to have part of their aging fleets modernized by GEMS this year.
Another company that’s benefitting from the rebuild program is Norfolk Southern Corp. The $11 billion railroad operates a 20,000-mile network that stretches from Chicago to Jacksonville, FL, and New Orleans to Philadelphia.
Norfolk Southern connects other major cities such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Charlotte, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. It serves 27 automotive assembly plants, 53 intermodal terminals and all major ports on the Eastern seaboard.
To handle heavy freight traffic that includes automobiles, chemicals, coal, lumber, petroleum, steel and intermodal shipping containers, Norfolk Southern relies on a fleet of 4,000 locomotives. Many of those machines were made by General Electric.
“This rebuild program aligns with [our] strategic values for responsible stewardship of resources,” says Doug Corbin, assistant vice president and chief mechanical officer at Norfolk Southern. “[It] will modernize and improve our locomotive fleet, adding service life, increasing freight hauling capacity and enabling us to reduce capital spending requirements for new locomotives by efficiently refreshing our existing assets.
“Our goal is high productivity,” adds Corbin. “Some locomotives can be modernized; others can’t.”
Among other benefits, the makeover allows Norfolk Southern to use two locomotives instead of three to pull trains, and reuse the spare units elsewhere. The company is scheduled to have GEMS modernize a total of 100 machines this year.
“We can increase productivity, burn less fuel and get another 20 years out of the locomotives,” claims Corbin. “Modernizations (MODS) will most likely be a strong portion of our capital spending for a number of years.”
In addition to shipping old locomotives off to GE’s Transportation’s Fort Worth factory, Norfolk Southern rebuilds some machines at company-owned facilities in Altoona, PA, and Roanoke, VA. Both of those historic shops date back to the steam locomotive era.
GEMS ships one kit per week to Norfolk Southern for those in-house rebuild projects.
“It is more than just the structure,” says Mike Patton, general manager of North American locomotive operations. “Each kit is a fully outfitted section of the locomotive, including cab interiors and wiring, that is ready for the customer to install.”
In addition to every corner of North America, GE locomotives are hard at work in other parts of the world. The company’s machines can be found in countries such as Angola, China, Colombia, Egypt, England, Indonesia, Mozambique, Pakistan and South Africa.
GE Transportation builds several types of locomotives for its global customer base. In fact, the Fort Worth plant exports many of the machines that it builds. GE also operates factories in Brazil, India and Kazakhstan that assemble locomotives for local use.
While remanufacturing is becoming increasingly important for GE Transportation, its core business is still making new locomotives. Over the past two quarters, the company has received more than $3 billion in new orders.
In fact, it currently boasts a backlog of more than 1,700 machines for customers ranging from the Canadian National Railway Co. to the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. Earlier this year, GE Transportation also signed a $1 billion multiyear contract to provide new locomotives to Ukrainian Railways.
Many of the machines GE builds at the GEMS facility in Fort Worth share common electrical architectures and use similar mechanical components, but there are some differences. For instance, because track gauges vary from country to country, some locomotives demand different types of truck sizes and wheel arrangements.
International locomotives also have slightly different types of bodies. That’s one reason why an ES43BBi in Brazil does not look the same as an ES40ACi in South Africa.
GE’s most popular machines for domestic use are the ES44AC and the ET44AC, which are operated by every major freight hauling railroad in North America. The Evolution Series locomotives feature a diesel engine that complies with the EPA’s strict Tier V emission regulations.
The turbocharged four-cycle, 12-cylinder GEVO-12, which is assembled at a GE factory in Grove City, PA, produces 4,400-hp. That facility recently underwent a $70 million expansion, including a separate building dedicated to remanufacturing services.
The fuel-efficient GEVO engine produces less emissions and can operate longer between overhauls. It also uses enhanced cooling and high-strength materials to improve reliability and allow for future increases in power and efficiency. State-of-the-art Evolution Series locomotives can haul 1 ton of weight more than 480 miles on 1 gallon of fuel.
The typical ES44AC or ET44AC machine is 75 feet long, 16 feet tall and weighs 426,000 pounds. Each of its six axles is attached to 43-inch wheels. Approximately 210,000 parts make up a locomotive, including more than 6 miles of wiring. Each machine is held together with 16,000 pounds of weld wire.
All GE locomotives feature a modular design that helps streamline assembly. Each of the five main subassemblies is preassembled and tested on feeder lines, then moved around the factory by a network of heavy-duty overhead cranes.
“We have subassembly lines for auxiliary cabs, blower cabs, main cabs, radiator cabs and trucks,” says Michael Bratt, GEMS plant manager. “They are aligned with the takt times of the final assembly line.
“There are some subassembly lines doing more than feeding final assembly,” Bratt points out. “The main cab, auxiliary cab and blower cab subassemblies are producing kits for customers as well. So, there are more of those cabs in subassembly than there are locomotives in final assembly.”
Cabs are wired and plumbed on the subassembly lines. When they reach the final assembly line, operators only have to integrate electrical and pneumatic systems. Each cab is manually welded to the platform. Assemblers also use battery-powered tools to fasten parts inside and outside of locomotives on the final assembly line, which has four workstations.
“This particularly applies to the main cab (where the engineer and conductor sit) and the auxiliary cab (which sits right behind the main cab),” notes Bratt. “Those sections are outfitted complete with insulation and wire installations, and tested before entering final assembly.
“This approach simplifies the installation process,” adds Bratt. “Additionally, it allows us to test the cabs on a modular level, enabling us to confirm the systems are working before final assembly.”
The backbone of all GE locomotives is a flat platform that performs a similar role as a car chassis. It’s fabricated from 80,000 pounds of structural steel. The platform rides on a pair of three-axle trucks separated by underslung fuel tanks than can hold up to 5,000 gallons. Each of the 10-foot-wide cabs is welded onto the bare platforms.
The modular subassemblies include an operator cab that’s attached onto the front part of the platform. It contains bucket seats, controls, electrical panels, communications equipment, HVAC systems and air brake equipment. The roof of the cab contains small antennas and satellite dishes. A nose attached to the front of the cab houses an entry door, a toilet, headlights and sandboxes.
An auxiliary cab is attached behind the operator cab. It contains electrical components, inverter banks, AC traction circuitry, battery boxes and dynamic brake assemblies.
The next modular subassembly, the engine cab, houses the heart and soul of the locomotive—a powerful 12-cylinder V-type diesel prime mover, in addition to an engine exhaust stack, an alternator and an alternator blower.
The last piece of the complex puzzle is called the radiator cab. It features large roof-mounted radiators, radiator fans, intercoolers and air compressors.
“The modular design primarily pertains to the main and auxiliary cabs,” says Bratt. “While this design approach helps streamline the final assembly process, it also helps with test and validation.
“The sections are tested on a modular level before entering final assembly,” explains Bratt. “It’s easier to confirm the systems are operating correctly at this level before they are installed on the locomotive. All systems are tested once again when assembly is complete.”
A battery-operated tug pulls locomotives down one of three parallel tracks that comprise the final assembly line. The entire process operates with a pulse method.
“The benefit of the pulse line is that we have the tools, materials and team members in place every time a locomotive moves into that position,” says Patton. “Efficiency is gained by providing standard work for the assemblers.”
After a machine is fully assembled, it’s pulled onto an outdoor transfer table and then laterally moved a few feet to the paint shop, which can accommodate four machines at a time. After locomotives emerge with a fresh coat of electrostatic water-based paint, they go through a workout on a 3-mile-long test track.
General Electric’s Fort Worth plant typically receives batches of up to 10 locomotives at a time to modernize. Most of the units that receive a makeover are Dash 8s, Dash 9s and AC4400s.
Overhaul activity takes place in the same parts of the GEMS plant where new locomotives are built. However, the modernization work forced GE
engineers to reconfigure the flow of some assembly lines and the overall plant floor layout.
New locomotive manufacturing typically flows in one direction on the final assembly line, from east to west. And, the subassembly lines flow from south to north.
Old locomotives enter the factory from the exit and move west to east, then north to south. A dedicated track inside the plant is reserved for incoming machines, which are thoroughly washed and drained of fluid before they get stripped down. Subassemblies then move backwards into the factory, against the flow of new components, before starting down the assembly line just like new locomotives.
“Fortunately, the final assembly portion of the build is a similar process regardless of whether the locomotive is new or a MOD,” says Patton. “The order of assembly remains the same: auxiliary cab, followed by main cab, radiator cab, engine, blower cab and engine cab.
“Building a brand new locomotive involves a lot more standard work compared to a modernized locomotive,” Patton points out. “Modernized locomotives need to be approached on an individual basis.
“No two locomotives are the same, especially in the inspection and teardown phases,” claims Patton. “Once the modernized locomotive enters final assembly, the build process is similar to a new locomotive, which provides manufacturing efficiencies.”
To address the new vs. rebuild challenge, Patton and his “mod squad” team applied lean manufacturing principles. That plays a key role in enabling the plant to be flexible enough to produce both types of locomotives on the same assembly line.
“Lean manufacturing is at the core of our production strategy,” says Patton. “The plant was originally designed and built with efficiency, flow and flexibility in mind. Our team culture is based on 5S, which continues to be a key focus area.
“In preparation for the rebuild program, we hosted 3P (production, preparations and process) exercises to determine the most efficient way of handling both new production and modernizations,” explains Patton. “We modeled the plant to determine the best production flow and layout. For example, we allocated one line solely for teardown work, while the other lines focus on locomotive assembly.”
Once all the locomotive components (new or modernized) enter the final assembly line, the process is generally the same. This minimizes disruption to the production line and provides as much standard work as possible for assemblers.
“We also worked to educate the team regarding the older locomotives that need to be modernized,” says Patton. “Up until the modernizations started, most of the team was only familiar with new locomotive builds.”
Rebuilding a locomotive typically takes an average of nine weeks. By comparison, it only takes an average of five weeks to build a new locomotive.
“A modernization requires more work,” says Patton. “The team must inspect and tear down the locomotive before assembly can begin. Additionally, each modernized locomotive is different and has individual characteristics that must be addressed, such as different maintenance and operating histories.”
“Working through the individual needs of each locomotive takes extra time,” adds Patton. “Every unit has its unique characteristics that must be addressed. No modernized locomotive is the same.”
Operators remove cabs, trucks, engines and other parts. Employees then sand off old paint, check for corrosion and clean out engine cylinders. Platforms also receive significant rework to make sure that new cabs and trucks will fit.
Based on regulations, the upgrades can’t exceed more than 50 percent of a locomotive’s value. That’s why the machines are outfitted with a remanufactured engine, not a new one.
One key part of the upgrade involves switching out the traction motors powering the wheels from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) technology. AC motors give the engineer more control over the wheels, improving their adhesion to the rails and enabling the locomotive to handle more cargo.
Since AC motors are much faster, they give more control over the wheels. The locomotive is able to pull a longer train uphill more efficiently in all kinds of weather conditions.
“In a DC-to-AC modernization, the locomotive will get new trucks with AC traction motors,” says Patton. “For locomotives that already are AC, we remove the trucks and cycle them through the subassembly line. We make some minor updates, install some sensors and repaint the trucks.”
Another important step in the rebuild process is attaching new cabs that provide updated controls and digital technology, which improves locomotive performance. That includes installing state-of-the-art sensors and digital systems that enable railroads to remotely monitor, track and troubleshoot their machines.
The sensors can monitor up to 250 parameters, including vibrations, engine temperature, voltage and pressure. A set of algorithms then crunches the information and flags potential problems to GE Transportation operators working in mission-control-like centers, complete with banks of monitors and a large interactive LED screen displaying a map of the world and the position of each locomotive.
The software creates a digital twin of each locomotive and uses it to spot potential problems and suggest a solution or a maintenance schedule. GE’s advanced technology package includes a Trip Optimizer train control system, which is designed to analyze routing and cargo data, and to calculate optimum speed and fuel consumption levels.
To see locomotive rebuilding in action, check out this video.
To learn more about locomotive manufacturing at General Electric, check out these other ASSEMBLY articles: