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>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 
in Roanoke."

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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