Column: Harvey company creating jobs by helping with high-speed rail project, officials say

Chicago Tribune Opinions 1 week ago

The fastest trains in the Western Hemisphere will ride on products made in south suburban Harvey, economic development officials said Wednesday.

Workers at LB Steel near Halsted and 159th streets are fabricating and welding wheel assemblies that will be used when Amtrak begins running 160 mph bullet trains from Boston to New York and Washington, D.C. in 2021.

LB Steel is one of many subcontractors providing components to Alstom, a French company that is assembling the new Acela Liberty trains. Amtrak is investing nearly $2.5 billion into improving service in the Northeast Corridor.

“Alstom has brought world-class technology to the United States and created 1,300 jobs,” said Roger Harris, an executive vice president for Amtrak.

Amtrak already operates Acela Express trains in the Northeast Corridor. But infrastructure improvements to tracks and stations and a new fleet of trains in production represent the “next generation” of bullet trains that will accommodate greater numbers of passengers at faster speeds, Amtrak said.

Manufacturers across the country are supplying parts for the project with final assembly taking place in Hornell, New York. Amtrak said 95% of parts for the new fleet are being made in the United States.

LB Steel is providing a steel structure for wheels, known in the rail manufacturing trade as a “truck” or “bogie.”

“Bogies are frames that support the wheels and air brake assemblies,” said David Abshire, a vice president at LB Steel. “It’s an essential part of this entire project.”

Alstrom approached LB Steel in 2016 about potentially participating in the project because of the steel fabricator’s past experience with rail projects, officials said. LB Steel occupies 450,000 square feet under roof in Harvey and also has made parts for heavy equipment manufacturers such as Caterpillar and Komatsu, Abshire said.

LB Steel had to obtain additional certification in welding to meet standards and specifications required for the work, he said. Previously, only companies in Europe were certified to do the work, he said.

“It’s very technical,” Abshire told a group of about 50 media and local officials attending an event about the project. “At this point, LB Steel is the only manufacturer in the United States that is certified to the (specific) European welding standard.”

In Europe, high-speed trains run on tracks that are banked on curves, similar to how auto-racing tracks are banked in the United States.

“We don’t have tracks that are specific to high-speed rail,” Abshire said. “When (trains) go around a curve, they have to tilt.”

That technology had to be designed and built into the truck, or bogie components that workers at LB Steel are making, he said.

“There are a lot of very complex fixtures,” Abshire said. “Everything has to be welded in position.”

The contract for LB Steel’s share of the work is for $22 million, Abshire said.

Amtrak said Alstrom is using parts provided by nearly 250 suppliers in 27 states. Alstom is building 28 of the new sets of trains for Amtrak, the company said in a release.

“Alstom is partnering with suppliers across the country for this project,” said Michael MacDonald, Alstom site managing director. “The emergence of a high-speed rail manufacturing industry here in the U.S. is becoming a reality.”

LB Steel has about 300 employees, Abshire said. During a tour Wednesday, company representatives showed how workers cut and shape steel plates using computer numerical control devices and other technology to make equipment.

The workers have good-paying, high-skilled manufacturing jobs that are important to the region’s economy, officials said.

“We understand that in order to have a vibrant economy we need to have a vibrant manufacturing community,” said Reggie Greenwood, executive director of the Chicago Southland Economic Development Corporation.

“This is the sort of thing we have to do in order to make our economy thrive in the 21st century,” Greenwood said.

Representatives of local, state and federal elected officials attended Wednesday’s announcement.

“If you want something made, you can get it made right here in our backyard,” said Xochitl Flores of the Cook County Bureau of Economic Development.

Alsip Mayor John Ryan, Dolton Mayor Riley Rogers and Richton Park Mayor Rick Reinbold were among south suburban municipal leaders attending.

“This is a great day for Harvey and for the company,” said Rick Bryant, an aide to U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Matteson. “We need more days like this in the south suburbs.”

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