VMV Paducahbilt, a subsidiary of National Railway Equipment, is one of the oldest locomotive factories in America and one of the largest suppliers of locomotives in the world. Built in 1925 by the Illinois Central Railroad, this factory hasn’t shut its doors in 85 years. The facility, located off Kentucky Avenue, is a testament to how big rail is alive and growing.
From the outside the massive brick and steel complex making up VMV Paducahbilt looks quiet and abandoned. On the inside it’s anything but. VMV Vice-President and General Manager Bob Pedersen knows better than anyone.
“And now to build a new locomotive, and that’s in a different building,” Pedersen said. “They can be in that building about 4 months from start to finish.”
Pedersen doesn’t complain much. Not when his knee hurts, which he attributes to his rowing days at Purdue. Not when, 15 years ago, he brought his family from Chicago to work in Paducah. And not when he walks VMV’s 110 acre lot. But he will be the first to tell you how much locomotives have changed over the years. He points at a half assembled locomotive where an electrician is working on circuits.
“These are the generators that the diesel engine turns.” Pedersen said. “And then this creates the electricity that goes through the high voltage cabinet and turns the electric motors on each axel.”
VMV is known for rebuilding engines, many from the 1960’s, and giving them another 30 years on the line. Pedersen says although rail has the image of an age long gone, it’s actually keeping up with other industries, especially in the Environmental standards category.
“The thing that we’re also doing is bringing older units up to newer emissions standards,” he said. “And National Railway Equipment has its own certification for improving the emissions standards on locomotives.”
In 2008 the EPA passed new rules to reduce train emissions by as much as 90 percent. But VMV has technology for new locomotives called Generator Sets, or GenSets. GenSets use three engines instead of one, allowing a computer to determine how many engines to use at a given time that changes the amount of diesel a locomotive uses from an average of 122 gallons per hour to 68.
“Which is environmentally very friendly and we’ve built hundreds of those that have gone into the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern,” Pedersen said. “I mean we feel very strong those type of environmental issues are gonna spread throughout the country and we’ve gotta be ready for it.”
That’s great for new locomotives. But what about all those old locomotives from 30 years ago?
“National railway equipment has developed what we call Tier 0 plus technology where you can take these old engines, put different parts in them, time them differently and they run a lot cleaner without loss of horse power,” Pedersen said.
Building and refurbishing engines isn’t all they do here. Electronics, welding, wheel sets, durability testing, battery installation and that’s not half of it. There’s even a design team to create logos for customers.
Unlike other industries, VMV isn’t worried about falling demand. Right now there’s one shift for 160 workers at VMV and Pedurson says he has enough orders to add another. But he can’t find the workers.
“I mean I’ll hire boilermakers, welders, electricians and with the sophistication going so much higher than it was a few years ago it’s hard to find, especially electricians, that can become familiar with the sophistication of the locomotive,” Pedersen said.
For Pedersen Sophistication means computers. Trains, like the rest of us, have entered the digital age. And someone has to piece all of that together. In a rural market it’s not an easy position to fill. But technological advances are not the only set back. There’s also the issue of finding committed workers.
“It’s not the easiest work in the world,” he said. “It’s rough work and some of the people don’t wanna come to work everyday. I mean it’s just something that’s happening to our economy that is very different than it was many years ago.”
But unlike other transportation industries, VMV is growing. And that, he says, is partly due to the company’s global outlook.
“What our philosophy of our owner is to broaden our perspective not just from the U.S. but to go overseas, so if there is an economic slowdown in the U.S. you can offset that by something in the world market,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now. The locomotives we’re building for Saudi Arabia and Africa is really helping out the manpower and the sales and profitability of the company.”
But even though VMV exports are growing, Pedersen never forgets the legacy of trains and their importance here in the U-S. When I asked him if he thinks the rust belt is dead his response was immediate.
“Well you just walked around,” he said. It didn’t look very dead today. And this is traditional, United States smokestack industry.”