This rail car being manufactured at the CAF USA production plant in Elmira Heights is almost ready to have the roof assembly added to its shell. / JEFF RICHARDS / STAFF PHOTOMade in the Twin Tiers: Wheels rolling at CAF USA
Work force could exceed 300 at Elmira Heights facility
Sometime during the first quarter of 2013, Amtrak — the interstate passenger train service company based in Washington, D.C. — expects to receive its first allotment of new stainless steel rail cars from CAF USA's sprawling manufacturing facility in Elmira Heights.
And when the new train cars are put into service, they will represent one more product that's made in Chemung County, but seen and used by people traveling by rail up and down the East Coast.
Over the next several years, CAF USA's welders, electricians and assemblers will crank out about seven rail cars for Amtrak each month, as the company works to complete a five-year $298 million contact signed in June 2011. The deal calls for CAF USA to provide Amtrak with 130 train cars — 25 sleepers, 25 diners, 55 baggage cars and 25 baggage/dormitory cars.
The contract breaks new ground for the Elmira Heights manufacturer because it requires the new cars to be built from scratch. In previous contracts, CAF USA's workers refurbished older subway cars for its customers, which over the past decade have included transit companies in Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Sacramento.
"The early cars will go to Philadelphia, where they'll be checked and inspected by Amtrak to prove they will perform at the designated speeds," said Mark Smith, CAF USA's operations vice president. "The remainder will go to Hialeah, Fla., for commissioning."
At the same time the Amtrak contract work is taking place, CAF USA's employees will also be working on a $153 million contract for 39 light rail vehicles for Houston METRO. Unlike the Amtrak contract, the car shells for the Houston contract are being made by an outside company and will be shipped to Elmira Heights for final assembly, which includes installing propulsion systems, wheels flooring, door and all of the auxiliary equipment. The vehicles are part of a new fleet that will service the new light rail lines Houston METRO plans to build. The completed vehicles will be delivered by special truck carriers to Texas.
"The Houston contract is smaller and will be done before the Amtrak contract," said LeRoy Paige, CAF USA's operations manager. "The Houston work should be done by 2015 and the first car shell is due here in November."
With the heavy overhead cranes left over from its days as a steel fabricator and its large buildings with ample floor space, the former American Bridge plant on East 18th Street in Elmira Heights was transformed to its current use in 1986.
Over the past 26 years, the end product coming out of the 400,000- square-foot facility has remained constant, even if the companies that have operated the facility have not.CAF USA, the American affiliate of Spain's Construcciones Y Auxiliar De Ferrocarriles SA, isn't the first company to make rail cars there. In July of 1986, Sumirail, a subsidiary of Japan's Sumitomo, leased space at the facility to handle a $150 million subway car refurbishing contract for New York City's Transit Authority. The company worked on the transit cars for three years but closed in September of 1989 when it failed to win any new contracts. Some 500 workers were idled.
The following month, Sumirail and ABB Traction Inc. of Lawrenceville, N.J., created a joint venture to satisfy contracts with public transit companies in New Jersey and Baltimore. Production, which later included work for Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, resumed at the Elmira Heights location. Employment peaked at about 630 workers until 1994, when work at the facility slowed and layoffs were again implemented.
Sumirail, a junior partner in the joint venture, dropped out of the partnership, and in 1995, ABB Traction merged with Diamler-Benz to form ABB Diamler-Benz. The new company, which changed its name to Adtranz, then went to work on a $328 million contract to build 220 subway cars for Philadelphia's transit system.
Adtranz hit a peak of about 700 workers in 1998 before layoffs hit as the company neared completion of the Philadelphia contract. With no new work on the horizon, the company in September of 1999 announced it was closing the facility and putting it up for sale.
CAF USA purchased the property in December 2000. Its work for Washington, Pittsburgh and Sacramento, with subcontracting job with Siemens for Boston, lasted through 2009.
"Between 2009 and 2010, things here were very quiet," said Smith. "Our work force dropped down to about 10, just a core group to keep the facility open. Then in August 2010, we were awarded the Amtrak contract, and it should take us to 2018."
A shiny future
In order to make the Amtrak cars, particularly the stainless steel shells, CAF USA has installed additional overhead cranes, CNC metal cutting and robotic welding equipment — one reason for the time lag between the company getting the contract and the actual start of the production work. About 100 employees, welders, quality assurance and purchasing staffers, have also been hired.
By the end of the year, said Smith, that number is expected to reach between 250 and 300, with the peak number for the project expected to be about 350 employees.
The sides of the Amtrak cars, the shiny exteriors the public will see as the cars travel on the train tracks, are being made in-house and welded to the interior frames and floor rails of the cars. The end caps and the stainless steel roofs, also made at the Elmira Heights facility, are then attached. After spray foam insulation and sound dampening materials are applied, the completed shells are then tested in a high-power water spray booth to ensure they won't leak.
Currently, Smith said, a team from CAF's headquarters is teaching their American counterparts how to put the car shells together. But as time progresses, the Spanish trainers will return home and their trainees will be responsible for instructing the new workers the company will hire.
The completed shells will then be moved to another building at the factory, large enough to hold 14 car shells — be they Amtrak or Houston cars — on stands. In addition to this final assembly building, CAF USA is also installing an electrical shop where wiring harnesses, consoles and module equipment will be put together.
The final assembly building is where workers will install the electrical wiring, upholstered seating, beds, and cooking and dining facilities. The completed cars will then be attached to the wheel assemblies, which are provided by an outside vendor.
The final step involves a static testing of all the systems — air conditioning, electrical, lighting and communications.
In order to get the finished cars to Amtrak, CAF USA and Norfolk Southern are working on a deal to transfer about a mile of unused rail spur to get them to the Norfolk Southern rail yard off Woodlawn Avenue in Elmira.
"We'll use our own equipment to push the cars to the yard," said Smith. "They'll be completed cars and will be running on their own wheels."
I'm glad to see Amtrak is continuing the use of corrugated stainless on the exterior of their new fleet of cars. It's a much classier look than the smooth-side Horizon coach look. I can't wait for this new equipment to go into service!