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A Locomotive is Not a Train

story by Katherine Emery

The sun rises on the corner of 16th and Kentucky, at the National Railway Equipment (NRE) Paducah facility. As 7 a.m. nears, employees gather to clock in for the day. Long fingers of steam rise from coffee mugs.  The original time-card machine and a newer electronic thumb scan hang side by side, a reminder that history and innovation live under the same roof.

The thrum of the morning creation begins. Since 1925, this facility has built and remanufactured locomotives.

It would be easy to focus solely on the beauty of these steel wonders because of their sheer, shiny magnitude. Workers disassemble, test and clean parts of a locomotive. The enormous Lego-like pieces are reassembled and painted. Some of the tools were hand-crafted in the early 1900s and are in perfectly good working order.

"The first time you see a locomotive fly, you just can't believe it," says Ron Short, Corporate Director of Quality Compliance. A booming 250-ton overhead crane springs to life: a crane operator sits 80 feet above, and two men in white jumpsuits attach hooks to the locomotive below. Slowly, the 200-ton locomotive rises and is guided into a bay four doors down.

Complying with safety standards, the facility doesn't allow tours. Many longtime residents aren't aware that Paducah hosts one of the few locomotive manufacturing plants in the country. The work yard is filled with old locomotive bodies and parts, all of which will be repurposed or sold for scrap metal. NRE has recycled since 1925.

"I never dreamed I'd get to work here," says Jackie Duncan, who has been at the facility for 22 years. "This was one of the best-paying jobs." There are many third- and fourth-generation family members who work together. Their memories of the facility in the early years keep the history rich with stories. “My mom used to bring my dad lunch,” says Ron. "All the employees would sit along the wall and eat lunch out of their black pails." "What about the time your mom sent Alpo for your dad for lunch, and fed the dog the chili?" says Bo Warren.

Ron watches as a new locomotive is moved out of the facility and says, "Trains will never go away; they will continue to evolve. There are certain things that only a locomotive can do and always will."

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Will Hendrickson stands beside a locomotive switcher and watches employees arrive in the morning. The pipes above were once used for steam engines, and to deliver steam power back to the city of Paducah.

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Employees gather and visit, waiting before the 7 a.m. clock to begin work.

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Employees return to a locomotive after an overhead 250-ton crane has moved it to a new bay. In the early 1900s, this facility was the largest employer in Paducah, with an estimated 1,400 employees.

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Johnny Jones, 77, retired a few years ago, but then came back to work. "I enjoyed all the people I worked with. When I retired, I'd wake up in the morning and there was nothing to do. Everybody was working. I wanted to work."

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Rex Neihoff sets down his mask after welding a replacement sheet on the body of Rio Tinto II, a locomotive built in 1970 that is being remanufactured. Rex has been at NRE for 20 years.

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During lunch break, Tim Doyle reads the newest Star Wars book, Ahsoka. Tim works as an engine mechanic. "I do all the dirty work," he says.

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A tree grows in what once was the blacksmith shop and now contains scrap materials to be tested, cleaned and remanufactured into locomotives. NRE has recycled since 1925 and remains committed to greener practices in the locomotion industry.

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Richard Sawyer welds the main frame crankshaft bore, which is the heart of a locomotive engine. He received advanced certification for this particular job. Richard has worked at NRE since 1976, and his son works in the wheel shop.

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"I've welded. I've done engine rebuild, I've built traction motors. I've done it all," says Monica McNeill, who has worked at NRE for 30 years. Throughout her time there, she has witnessed a change in company name: "Illinois Central, VMV, NRE, they've all been good to me."

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Rodney Bumpus, left, and Stefan Sains work to take out the main lube pump in a locomotive engine. "A locomotive is not a train. It is a locomotive, until it is pulling a car. Then it is a train," says Bob Pedersen, vice-president of NRE.

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A lone locomotive sits in a bay, waiting to be transferred to the rails for client delivery. This facility has experienced the evolution in the locomotion industry. NRE is one of the few manufacturers of new environmentally compliant locomotives. "If this building could talk, it would blow your mind with what it has seen," says Ron Short.