Witnessing the birth of a diesel locomotive

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, June 10, 2010

You should have been with me today. In the company of my TRAINS colleague David Lustig, I walked the factory floor of the Electro-Motive Diesel assembly plant in London, Ont., from soup (truck delivery ramp for parts) to nuts (test for finished products). In due course, you can read in TRAINS all that we learned during this remarkable visit, including insights into EMD’s competitive strategy against arch-rival General Electric, the dominant maker of North American diesels.

I want to leave you with a few impressions. First of all, it all begins with a sheet of steel. Next to Work Station 1 sits a tractor with an elongated trailer, waiting to be unloaded. Atop that trailer are half a dozen sheets of 1.75-inch steel, sized 6 by 70 feet. This is the basic building block — the beginning — of an SD70ACe locomotive. Don’t try to lift it yourself; it weighs 15 tons. In a remarkably short period of time, EMD’s 600 or so employees in London will do their wonders, and this bedplate will leave the other side of the building as a living, breathing locomotive, to enter the adjacent paint shop and then run the outdoor test track. But this is how it all starts.
So at Work Station 1, an overhead crane lowers that bedplate onto a rack, and the bedplate is clamped so that it can be rotated into whatever position necessary for welders to comfortably begin attaching parts. Before you know it, they’ve welded on the side sills, cross-members, and end plates (which will hold the couplers). That's what is occurring in the top photo. Note that the bedplate is now upside down, allowing gravity to help apply the underside.
Adjacent to this part of the factory is the work station where trucks are assembled. I’d never seen the brand-new core of a traction motor, which is truly the business end of a locomotive, in that it transmits the energy produced by the prime mover into power that turns the wheels. Here that core is placed inside the outer housing, and this assembly is attached to gears and wheelsets that are placed on the truck assembly. Join the trucks to that former sheet of steel, now festooned with other appliances, and you can at least begin to imagine the 425,000-pound machine that will come out of all of this.
Two things in particular impressed me. One is the enormous complexity of a diesel locomotive. Miles and miles of wire and pipe and cabling and thousands of parts are either assembled from scratch here or connected inside this relatively small building. (Engines, alternators and electrical cabinets are built at the La Grange, Ill., EMD factory and are lowered into place in the final assembly).
The other is the ease with which men and women go about their work. Those of you who ever put the kids to bed on Christmas Eve and brought out the hidden boxes bearing the words “Some assembly required” will appreciate this. Yes, there are detailed drawings they can consult, and books of step-by-step instructions as well. But nobody ever looks at them. “My cheat sheets,” one worker told me, patting the little spiral notebook inside his shirt pocket that contains his own written reminders. This is particularly impressive, because one day you’ll be putting together an SD70 for Australia, the next a boxy locomotive for Europe, and the day after that, something for Canadian National. There are big differences in how each of these locomotives gets put together, but nobody I see seems confused by the process.
Of course, nobody I see looks right out of high school. These folks are primarily 40 years old or older, and *** glad to have well-paying jobs. Bob Scott, who heads the Canadian Auto Workers local representing EMD floor employees, seems almost offended when I asked the year of CAW’s last strike against EMD. It was 1996, he says, and involved EMD only because the union struck every General Motors facility. (GM in 2005 sold EMD to two private-equity funds, which in turn sold the company to Caterpillar in early June.)
One last impression:  How sweet it is to stand beside a BHP Billiton Iron Ore Railroad locomotive just out of the paint shop. The smell of freshly baked paint emanates off the SD70. Even the underframe glistens. This monster of a machine today is a thing of beauty. Let the tarp be taken off on the other side of the world and this locomotive start the first day of its working life, and it will never again look the same. Such a pity, don't you think? — Fred W. Frailey  

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