Many of them have seen better days. They arrived here after years of service, their coats dulled by the elements and their steel skeletons worn out from work. But within a few weeks, they will be scrubbed clean, rebuilt and rejuvenated in the latest fashion, equipped with sensors and digital technology, and ready to haul coal, timber and other goods across North America. “Some of these locomotives are 25 years old and they’re in a midlife crisis,” says Pascal Schweitzer, vice president of services for GE Transportation. “They come here for an extreme makeover. When they leave, they will be ready to roll for a couple more decades.”
Unlike rebuilding a single house for a TV series or souping up a vintage automobile, this is an extreme makeover at scale. Advances in new train technology as well as sensors and software have made the overhaul market extremely attractive to the freight rail industry: Over the last decade, GE Transportation has “transformed” more than 2,000 locomotives for close to 30 customers around the world. Schweitzer and his team overhauled 170 locomotives and kits in Fort Worth last year alone, and they have orders for some 1,000 more from large railroad operators like Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific and others. But Schweitzer says he’s just getting started. “It’s a huge business opportunity,” he says. “We’ve seen our modernization program grow 20 times since 2015.”
GE Transportation’s core business is still making new locomotives. A few years ago, it unveiled the first freight train engine that meets the U.S. government’s strict Tier 4 emission standards, and last month it signed a $1 billion deal that includes plans to upgrade and build new locomotives for Ukraine. “Our customers know what’s best for them, and when demand rises, they’ll buy new locomotives,” says Sameer Gaur, general manager for global services product management at GE Transportation. “But this modernization allows them to get the most out of their existing assets. We are bringing these locomotives to the 21st century.”
The idea makes a lot of sense. An overhaul can lower the amount of fuel a locomotive needs by 10 percent, increase reliability by 40 percent and boost its ability to haul cargo by 50 percent.
In mid-March, a dozen or so Norfolk Southern locomotives in various states of overhaul and assembly have been moving across the factory floor. The railroad — which owns 19,500 miles of track on the East Coast, employs 30,000 people and runs some 4,000 locomotives — asked GE to overhaul 100 train engines this year. Among other benefits, the makeover allows Norfolk Southern to use two locomotives instead of three to pull trains, and reuse the spare units elsewhere. “We can increase productivity, burn less fuel and get another 20 years out of the locomotives,” says Doug Corbin, assistant vice president for mechanical matters at Norfolk Southern. He says that “modernization will most likely be a portion of our locomotive capital spending for a number of years.”
The makeover is an industrial undertaking. After they arrive in Texas, locomotives wearing Norfolk Southern’s trademark black-and-white livery wait for their overhaul outside the plant. Once they’re inside the cavernous factory — GE’s largest locomotive plant in the world — workers remove the locomotives’ cabs, trucks, engines and other parts. Over the course of the rejuvenation treatment, GE crews sand off old paint, clean out engine cylinders and install sensors and new digital systems that will allow the railroad to remotely monitor, track and troubleshoot the machines.
One key part of the upgrade involves switching out the traction motors powering the wheels from direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC) technology. That’s because AC motors give the engineer more control over the wheels, improve their adhesion to the tracks and allow the locomotives to haul more cargo. “Since the AC motors are much faster, they give more control over the wheels,” Gaur says. “The locomotive will be able to pull a longer train uphill more efficiently in all kinds of weather conditions.”
The disassembled components move along separate paths through the massive factory and meet again on the opposite end, where workers put them back together, kind of like Legos. Finally, a battery-operated tug pulls the rebuilt locomotive to a giant closet for a fresh coat of paint and back out into the Texas sunlight. The whole process takes about nine weeks.
But not all locomotives have to travel to Texas. The workers here are also sending shrink-wrapped “kits” to Norfolk Southern’s depot in Virginia, where another GE team is helping the railroad rebuild locomotive engines at home to meet demand. “The demand for the service is huge and we are trying to move as fast as we can,” Gaur says.
The refurbished locomotives join some 23,000 sensor-laden GE train engines riding the rails — some as far away as Brazil and Kazakhstan — and sending data to GE Transportation’s digital service centers. Depending on the vintage of the locomotives, these sensors monitor between 50 to 250 parameters, including vibrations, engine temperature, voltage and pressure. A set of GE algorithms then crunches the information and flags potential problems to operators working in the mission-control-like centers, complete with banks of monitors and a large interactive LED screen displaying a map of the world and the position of each locomotive. The software creates a digital twin of each locomotive — its virtual representation — and uses it to spot potential problems and suggest a solution or a maintenance schedule. “We are actually talking to the locomotive as it is running,” says Vic Russo, services executive at GE Transportation. “This is a learning system. As we get feedback, it will give suggestions on what the fix to the problem might be.” Says Gretchen Hosler, technical support specialist at the center: “It’s basically a troubleshooting guide for the customer based on the data you get.”
Russo says that in the future, train operators will be equipped with augmented reality glasses and other tools that will make the communication even more interactive, and that customers will gladly sign up for a service that keeps an eye on an asset — be it a jet engine, a power plant or a locomotive. “We are now able to help the customers manage their locomotives so much better,” Russo says. “That’s a huge upside.”