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Rail News Home Mechanical

April 2013

Rail News: Mechanical

Sustainability: Freight car builders explore ways to make operations more environmentally friendly

— by Robert J. Derocher

When a mating pair of ospreys started building a nest on a crane last year at the Greenbrier Cos. Inc.'s Gunderson rail-car manufacturing plant in Portland, Ore., plant managers were faced with a choice: try to shoo the birds away by disrupting the nest-building or make accommodations elsewhere for the birds. It was a potentially costly decision. If the nest was fully established, it could not be disturbed under Oregon law — and would render the crane useless for months.

After consulting with the local Audubon Society, Gunderson managers called on a plant employee to construct an alternative perch near the crane that could accommodate the ospreys and their nest.

"We had this big, burly guy who just adopted these ospreys. He built them a roost in less than a day," says Dave Harvey, Greenbrier's director of environment, health and safety. "Ten years ago, that probably would have never happened."

It's a tale worth telling, Harvey says, because it reflects the company's commitment to environmental stewardship — balanced with cost consciousness. It's a balance that Greenbrier and other freight-car builders continue to try to strike. And for some builders, it is a philosophy that is gaining traction as they realize cost benefits from making environmentally conscious decisions, and that going green doesn't have to mean going into the red.

Building In Sustainability

The union of environmentalism and economy sometimes begins with the buildings themselves. That thought was a factor for FreightCar America Inc. officials as they scouted for a new freight-car production facility, says spokesman Bruce Harmon. The result? The builder expects to start producing flat cars, gondola cars and open-top hopper cars later this year in Cherokee, Ala., sub-leasing a portion of a three-quarter-mile-long building from Navistar Inc. The sublease agreement was announced in February.

"It's probably the most energy-efficient, environmentally sensitive railroad plant in the country," Harmon says of the facility, which opened in 2008. "The cost savings was a big part of the attraction. We wanted to have a quality facility, not only for environmental reasons, but also for productivity."

Reducing Footprints

Originally built to accommodate rail-car production by National Steel Car Ltd., the 2.2-million-square-foot building sits on more than 600 acres and boasts several environmental features that also translate to cost savings, Harmon says, including: energy-efficient lighting; reflective roofing to cut heat usage; expansive windows to reduce lighting (and lighting costs); recycled rainwater; low-flow toilets and sinks; power-producing wind turbines; tankless water heaters; and more efficient stormwater control.

FreightCar America also has agreed to work with Navistar to provide some pre-fabricated material, reducing fabrication waste at the plant, Harmon says. FreightCar America also utilizes a major supplier less than 15 miles away, which will trim fuel usage and shipping costs.

Daily plant operations and maintenance also contribute to a company's environmental footprint, something freight-car builders continue to try to reduce. At American Railcar Industries Inc. (ARI), high-efficiency T5 fluorescent lights — which offer increased candle power while using fewer kilowatts than older metal halide lights — have been installed at the builder's six rail-car production plants, says Senior Vice President of Operations Mike Williams.

Other green measures ARI has taken include soft-start motors on exhaust fans, and air compressors and blast units to reduce energy spikes associated with startup. The builder also is cutting forklift fuel consumption by relocating material closer to the point of use, and plans to install heat exchangers on furnaces to recover waste heat, Williams adds.

Meanwhile, Greenbrier has reduced energy usage by 15 percent to 20 percent during the past few years, largely by replacing halogen lighting with more efficient light-emitting diode (LED) lighting at the Gunderson plant, Harvey says. The company also uses propane fuel, which is cheaper than diesel fuel, to power forklifts.

Greenbrier also has some unique structures that factor into the greener mix. Some buildings have habitat or eco-roofs, which feature flowers and other plants in soil that help reduce stormwater runoff, reduce pollution emissions and improve air quality.

The roofs contribute to the area's ecosystem, too, by attracting "beneficial" organisms and animals, and lowering the temperature of stormwater runoff, which also helps plants and animals, Harvey says.

At Union Tank Car Co., officials closely track disposal costs and trends at all of the builder's manufacturing and repair facilities while aggressively pursuing recycling opportunities, says Dave Herrin, manager of environmental compliance.

"Every job has an environmental coordinator [who] arranges for recycling and makes sure everything is in compliance," he says.

Leaner And Greener

As the technology improves, freight-car builders plan to continue to refine the lean manufacturing techniques they've implemented. Lean manufacturing techniques emphasize waste reduction and the use of fewer resources, with the aim of favorably impacting production costs and the environment.

At Greenbrier's Gunderson plant, lean manufacturing has helped reduce freight-car construction costs by 10 percent during the past two years, Harvey estimates. Now, Greenbrier officials are looking at the possibility of implementing similar environmental initiatives at the company's plants in Mexico and Poland, he adds.

"We have a laser-like focus on handling materials only once," Harvey says. "We closely track performance to reduce re-work."

ARI has implemented a submerged arc flux recovery system through which 90 percent of the flux is recovered for re-use, ARI's Williams says. Shielding gas regulators have been installed on gas metal arc equipment to eliminate pressure spikes when the trigger is activated. And in foundry operations, sand usage has been curtailed by adding more castings to core boxes. ARI also plans to reduce compressed air usage 20 percent by fixing leaks, reducing air applications, adding storage and inter-connecting multiple shops.

One of the biggest environmental thorns in the sides of freight-car manufacturers is paint — or, specifically, the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted as vapor by many paint products. Several state and federal environmental regulators have imposed stricter limits on VOC emissions, prompting builders to become more vigilant about reducing emissions.

Union Tank Car has worked with paint suppliers to cut the amount of hazardous waste solvent in half compared with previously used paints, Herrin says.

The builder also has acquired improved plural-component paint equipment that helps reduce emissions, as well as leftover paint that must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

"Before, we'd mix up 30 gallons of paint [in a container] and we'd end up with leftovers that we'd have to dispose of," Herrin says. "Now, it mixes right up in the [paint] gun with a lot less waste."

Greenbrier has been able to find paints with VOC substitutes that have slashed the usage of hard-to-dispose solvent from about 1,000 gallons per year to 20 gallons, Harvey says.

It's a big factor in cutting Greenbrier's waste generation in half during the past three years.

"That does add up to some significant money," he says.

FreightCar America officials, too, continue to seek paint and equipment designed to reduce VOCs.

"We've upgraded the paint shop in all of our plants to meet all standards," Harmon says. "We've gone to more water-based paints."

Employees As Resources

Freight-car builders also have turned to employees for environmental help. From waste-spotting to attitude adjustments, employees in virtually all areas of plant operations are key to finding and carrying out successful green ideas and programs, they say.

"They generate the ideas, analyze their merits and pursue them until their solutions are implemented," ARI's Williams says. "In every case we implemented, our sustainability initiatives have not only reduced our consumption, but have also improved worker satisfaction and productivity."

Greenbrier's Harvey agrees, adding that it's up to company leaders to nurture a work environment in which employees can step up and make suggestions and changes that are environmentally and economically beneficial. Harvey cites the Gunderson plant's response to the osprey nest as a prime example of that shared responsibility.

It also reflects what many freight-car builders know: Environmental and financial decisions can go hand-in-hand, but not without patience, technological awareness, and a willingness to experiment and try new ideas.

"It's [also about] paying attention to the details," Harvey says. "It's the day-to-day blocking and tackling that's led us to the improvements we've seen."

Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based freelance writer. Contact us at with comments or questions.


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