Railcar repair service providers adapt to changing customer needs

A technician welds the underframe of a tank car at the recently expanded American Industrial Transport Inc. facility in Brookhaven, Mississippi.
Photo – American Industrial Transport Inc.

By Michael Popke

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all segments of the rail industry, including railcar repair operations. In the wake of economic challenges, staff shortages and fluctuating rail traffic, some service provider workshops have pivoted to meet evolving customer needs.

“It’s hard to predict what customers will need each year, but it’s easy to predict that those needs will vary and change,” said American Industrial Transport Inc. (AITX) Vice President of Repair Services John Ward. “We build our extensions, processes and customer services by planning options and flexibility. This philosophy has been tested over the past 18 months. “

In the better news department, AITX – which also provides rental and data services – acquired the car rental business of The Andersons Inc. in August.

To keep pace with customer demand, railcar repair companies are opening new stores, expanding mobile repair operations, and strengthening customer relationships.

“Requests for repairs range from bad ordering and damaged car needs to rental return and more recently the preparation of new leases,” said Midwestern Railcar Repair President David Smook. “Our business stems from long-standing customer relationships and is trending upwards. “

It doesn’t seem that Northern Plains Rail Services saw a significant decline in business, but that could be due to the company’s regional location in the High Plains and Midwest, said Brock Lautenschlager, director of sales and marketing for the company.

“There have been shortages in the supply of components for the railcars, although we have been able to address them,” he said.

In late 2020, Northern Plains opened the Grand Plains Rail Center, a railcar maintenance and repair shop in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Served by BNSF Railway Co., the site completes the company’s Erskine, Minnesota facility, which includes a repair shop, enclosed sandblasting building, full-service paint shop, and an extensive parts and materials inventory. weather resistant.

“We expect demand for railcar repairs to continue in the upper Midwest,” Lautenschlager said. “We have started working on articulated intermodal wagons in this workshop, which is going well. It is also available for transshipment activities, railcar storage and specialized switching. “

In July, AITX announced a $ 24 million expansion of a repair facility in Brookhaven, Mississippi, which will allow the shop to provide a full range of services, including coatings and heavy repair work. The Mississippi Development Authority helps extend a railway siding. AITX also purchased a new storage facility in Clinton, Indiana earlier this year.

Shown: Air and carbon arc gouging at Midwest Railcar Repair’s facility in Brandon, South Dakota.

Midwestern Railcar Repair

“As we approach 2021, we have clearly seen that the company is undergoing major changes, [and] it was important for us to try to see around the curve and invest in trades that deliver unmatched customer value, ”said Ward. AITX and Northern Plains have also invested in their mobile repair networks.

“We are seeing an increasing demand for mobile repair business,” said Lautenschlager. “This has been a good area of ​​growth for us. Mobile repair can be faster, which means less downtime for railways, and customers also don’t have to pay to move a car to and from our shop. “

Financial and logistical challenges may cause some railways to postpone car maintenance. This is another reason for the rise in mobile repairs, Ward thinks.

“We were able to partner with customers to customize mobile service plans, so the risk of postponing full service work could be mitigated with a suite of mobile options,” he said. .

Midwest Railcar Repair also reports regular mobile repair work. But the company doesn’t anticipate an expansion of mobile working in 2022, Smook said.

While railcar repair companies may have approached 2021 cautiously, they are cautiously optimistic for the year ahead.

“The biggest challenge for [Northern Plains], and I think for every industry, hires people, ”Lautenschlager said. “The workforce will continue to be tight as we approach 2022. We’ve been able to get by so far, but I think we’ll have to do a little more work to find the right people.”

And repair shops will have to find them because the work is expected to keep coming – eventually.

“[The] the prevailing trend has been that our customers continue to purchase cars from our network and move their businesses forward. In full-service facilities, we don’t see much of a difference in the types of activities, ”Ward said.

This business includes bad ordering and coating projects, as well as tank car requalification work – a segment that Ward says will continue to grow over the next several years.

Michael Popke is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wisconsin. Email your comments or questions to prograil@tradepress.com.

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Sylvia F. Hernandez