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."