Roanoke Shops in the news
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Sat Jun 11 08:28:31 EDT 2005
Friday, June 10, 2005
Rail story gets new chapter
NS shops rolling again
By <mailto:lois.caliri at roanoke.com>Lois Caliri
The Roanoke Times
Thursday's christening of an aluminum rail car signaled a new heyday for
Norfolk Southern's East End shops.
Gone are the days when hundreds of workers spent the better part of their
lives building and overhauling cars and locomotives. Stretching from Third
Street to 14th Street Southeast, the shops were the heart and soul of the
railroad's local operations.
Now, there's new blood. A new company. Four hundred new jobs.
FreightCar America, with financial help from the city and state, has gutted
the car shops and paved the way for new production. Workers are making six
coal cars a day. Soon, they'll be up to 10. The Illinois-based company
leases the shops from NS.
The shops have been idle since August 2000, when carmen and signalmen
became the latest employees to "hit the streets," railroad language for
being put out of work. The jobs of 55 signalmen were abolished, and 228
carmen were laid off indefinitely at that time. They were union workers,
and when they crossed the bridge they knew they weren't returning.
The people who worked there - nearly 3,000 at peak employment decades
ago-were the city's lifeblood. The workers always touted the East End Shops
as the best in the country.
Now, there's a new pride.
A little more than 150 welders and fitters - nonunion employees of
FreightCar America - make aluminum cars at a time when demand for coal is
up. Next to China, the U.S. coal industry is the second largest producer,
said Coal News, a trade publication.
"This is great stuff," said David Goode, NS chief executive officer.
"I know how proud the people were," he said, referring to his former shop
employees. "I know how great they were.
"Today is a chance for that great tradition to be reborn."
So it is for Randy Honaker, a worker whose dad, Doug Honaker, retired last
year from NS as a machinist and local chairman of the machinists union.
"It's different. I never thought I'd be working here, where my father
worked," Randy Honaker said. "It's a different company, but it feels like
you're still with the railroad."
Scott Flowers, a worker from Roanoke, said he's proud to be part of a job
that's surrounded by pride and a lot of history.
"We're not competing with an overseas company. The cars are made right here
FreightCar's president, John Carroll, said he considered opening a plant in
Mexico because of cheap labor there. But "we saw the quality of work here
[in Roanoke], and workmen and NS' willingness to lease the jobs" were
driving forces behind his decision to come to the Star City.
"We spent a year and a half looking in Mexico. But we would have had to
ship raw materials back and forth. There's no coal in Mexico. And the
people in Roanoke are more efficient workers. They produce more than the
workers in Mexico. Efficiency is the key."
Gov. Mark Warner also sweetened the pot.
The state gave FreightCar a $200,000 grant and the city matched it. In
turn, the company said it will create at least 400 jobs while investing at
least $5.5 million in improvements and equipment.
Virginia competed with Illinois and Indiana for the project award.
The other states provided incentives, but "Virginia may have been a little
quicker," Carroll said.
The majority of the workers are local, and FreightCar officials said they
were blown away by the quality of the 1,500 applicants.
One worker from Roanoke, Stan Sharples, said he was in a dead-end job
before joining FreightCar. "I feel really fortunate."
FreightCar means job security to Benjoir Days, a female fitter. "My husband
starts Monday and I'm elated we can both work in the same place." When she
heard the company was hiring, she enrolled in a welding class at Patrick
Henry High School with the hope of getting hired.
"They're dedicated. They want to work. They appreciate the jobs given to
them, and the way they respond to supervisors is just awesome," said Stacey
Daker, human resources supervisor.
"I never worked so hard in my life," said Leeanne Hesson. But the "people
are really good. All I have to do is just ask when I need help." Asked what
it's like to be a female in a male-dominated industry, she smiled and said,
"I think they run a little more when I say, 'help.' Other than that, I'm
one of the guys."
Brent Cash car pools with a co-worker on their commute from Rockbridge
County. Two other workers commute from West Virginia, 2 1/2 hours each way.
"It's a good-paying job," Cash said. And "it's a daylight job. Good
benefits. It's a whole new experience."
Hourly workers can earn between $10.91 and $16.83, and rapid advancement is
available, said Ken Bridges, senior vice president of operations.
Some workers said they were told by management that as long as they
produced quality cars the company would make money and they'd have job
Eric Dooley of Vinton, a former NS worker, was laid off twice when he
worked for NS in the old car shop.
"It's different now. A whole lot of changes," he said. He welcomes the
opportunity to do more than one job. "It gives me a little more
understanding of how everything goes together," he said. When he worked for
NS each worker had a specific job.
"I learned a lot more with FreightCar," Dooley said. "There's a lot more
opportunity to learn and expand."
Earl Heim echoed that sentiment.
"I appreciate John Carroll for giving us the opportunity and for bringing
in jobs," Heim said. "I hope to put my B.A. degree from Roanoke College and
my job experiences to work here at FreightCar."
The company recently posted a first-quarter profit, reversing a year-ago
loss. It was helped by sharply higher orders and an increase in sales. Net
income after preferred stock dividends rose to $1.6 million, or 22 cents a
share, from a loss of $4.2 million, or 62 cents a share, a year earlier.
Sales jumped 86 percent to $165.8 million from $88.9 million in 2004. The
company credited its results to an increase in freight-car deliveries, a
higher backlog and its continued effort to cut costs.
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