The Havre, Montana Locomotive Shop



The railroad is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year business, and no equipment bears more of the load than the locomotive.

BNSF owns and operates nearly 7,000 locomotives, with about three-fourths of these in through-freight service. The over-the-road machines haul freight on average more than 300 miles per day – about 100,000 miles a year. The typical BNSF locomotive has a life of 35 years before being retired. In that time, a locomotive will travel between 3.4 million and 4.8 million miles, equivalent to almost 200 trips around the earth’s equator.



Companies such as General Electric and Electro-Motive Diesel (a subsidiary of Caterpillar Inc.) build these locomotives to last, but given the rigorous workload and ongoing technological improvements that enhance efficiency, they must undergo routine maintenance, repairs and even complete overhauls. BNSF employees also regularly inspect and test these locomotives, as required by BNSF and by Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations.


A diesel engine is among the components that are replaced during a major overhaul, which is conducted on each road fleet locomotive every six to eight years.


BNSF has 11 system locomotive shops; one of these is at Havre, Mont., which helps keep the engines that power trains moving safely and efficiently, thus help ensuring that customers experience outstanding performance and consumers receive the goods they need.


An exterior and interior view of BNSF’s Havre, Mont., Locomotive Shop, one of 11 system shops across the network.


The town of Havre largely owes its existence – and its name – to BNSF predecessor Great Northern Railway (GN). In 1890, GN founder James J. Hill arrived in what was then the community of Bullhook Bottoms on the Montana plains, halfway between Seattle and St. Paul, Minn. Hill was convinced that this was the ideal location to build a locomotive shop. Within a few years, the area’s population was on the rise, and Hill asked the town’s founding fathers to come up with a more appealing name for the city.


The first name suggested was France. Just 45 miles from the Canadian border, many of the original Bullhook Bottoms homesteaders were French, but they all turned down the suggestion. After much debate (the first meeting ended in a brawl), the original Bullhook Bottoms homesteaders agreed to rename the city Havre after founding father Gus Descelles’ parents’ hometown in France.


Today, Havre is the county seat of Hill County. Many who work at the shop and in the terminal are among a long line of railroaders, with third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation employees working there.


Since the construction of the original GN locomotive shops in the late 1800s, when the shop maintained steam locomotives, technology has dramatically changed locomotive designs and features. Today’s diesel units are more efficient and more reliable than ever before, but equipment still requires service, and the Havre facility makes an important contribution in ensuring that BNSF locomotives are in top condition.


Locomotive wheel sets await rebuilt traction motors during an overhaul.


In addition to the daily inspections by train crew members and Mechanical employees, locomotives undergo planned maintenance every 184 days on average. Additionally, FRA inspections are performed as required. Every six to eight years, each road fleet locomotive undergoes a major overhaul that entails replacing the locomotive engine, alternator, traction motors and other worn components. In addition to these scheduled maintenance events, locomotives sometimes require unscheduled repairs.


The Havre facility performs both maintenance and overhauls on thousands of locomotives every year. Locomotives are typically assigned by the service in which they generally work; in Havre, more than 85 percent of the units serviced and repaired are GE-manufactured and can be up to 20 years old. Even though there are some older units in the fleet, BNSF operates, on average, the newest fleet in the industry.


Shop employees use a wide range of diagnostic tools to test mechanical components.


The Havre shop never shuts down, working round the clock in three eight-hour shifts. The 165 Havre shop employees – including machinists, electricians and sheet metal workers -- operate much like those who repair and maintain automobiles. It’s just that these engines are bigger – a lot bigger -- and more complex, with many more parts and systems to inspect and maintain.


“A locomotive is basically a mobile power plant. One unit has enough electrical output to power a small town,” says Beau Price, shop superintendent.


The Havre Shop was recently permitted to utilize a number of oil-burning furnaces that burn the waste oil from locomotives. These furnaces heat the diesel shop during the winter and reduce the amount of used oil that is shipped from the facility.


Employees at the Havre shop take pride in their craft, each in highly specialized roles, says Price. Machinists, for example, are responsible for the engine and mechanical components on diesel locomotives. They may test and repair lube oil pumps, fuel systems, radiators, air compressors, safety appliances and air brake systems as well as replace wheels.


Electricians test, inspect and repair the electrical components of locomotive systems, including switches, heaters, air conditioners, DC power systems, event recorder tapes, lights, water coolers, batteries, low- and high-voltage systems, traction motors, cooling fans and fuel pumps. Sheet metal workers repair the plumbing of locomotive systems -- air brakes, exhaust systems, lube oil, cooling water, air compressors, radiators and fuel systems. Others supporting the shop -- laborers, hostlers and a carman – perform countless roles to help maintain and repair locomotives.


Much of the work at Havre is performed inside the shop’s 17 stalls, which are equipped with support equipment such as overhead cranes. In addition, there are service tracks outside the facility where engines receive fuel and water and are tested after being repaired.


Stall No. 1 holds a locomotive undergoing routine maintenance. The diesel shop floor is undergoing an upgrade in which it is ground down and coated with a special epoxy compound (bottom left) that improves footing, visibility and cleanup. New lighting improves visibility throughout the facility and restarts instantly after a power loss, allowing employees to continue their work immediately.


Among the shop’s first-line supervisors is Mechanical Foreman Shawn Bickford. The son of a cattle rancher, Bickford grew up just six miles south of Havre. He joined BNSF in May 2005 after working as an HVAC sheet metal installer for 14 years.


“I did some HVAC installs for BNSF before I hired on,” says Bickford. “It was obvious that BNSF was a great company with quality employees. So I got on board and the thing that brought me in – the people – is still my favorite part of the job. Getting to talk with them, getting to know them, there’s great camaraderie on the railroad.”


Mechanical Foreman Shawn Bickford is one of the shop’s first-line supervisors.


The biggest adjustment Bickford had when he started working at BNSF was safety protocol, he says. “Everywhere else I’ve worked, you just got things done as fast as you could without putting much thought in about the potential risks. BNSF’s culture and way of thinking is uniquely safety-oriented. I’ve never worked for a safer company that cares so much about the health of its employees.”


Adds Doug Denny, safety assistant and electrician: “BNSF puts safety first. It’s priority No. 1.” Denny spent 22 years with the U.S. Coast Guard before joining the railroad. He was elected to his second term as safety assistant in February. “I wanted to keep improving the safety standards, so I put my hat in the ring. I knew we could do better; there are always opportunities for improvement.”


The facility recently completed the final phase of a safety initiative to install a new fall protection system in the shop and on the service track. Additionally, a capital project was completed in which ballast was removed from the frequently traversed areas of the service track and replaced with asphalt to provide better footing and facilitate safer, easier snow removal.


“We have a large, knowledgeable group here,” Denny says. “Everyone works together to produce a quality product. We turn out locomotives quickly and safely. We want to be sure that when a locomotive comes out of Havre, you know it’s going to run like it should.”


The Havre shop is well-known for its ability to produce reliable locomotives under regularly changing conditions. There can be wide swings in shop volume as locomotives pulling heavy grain and coal trains through the Rocky Mountains encounter challenging seasonal conditions.


Says Dan Walker, machinist: “We come to work with the mindset that we are going to be on top. We want to improve, to innovate and to set the right example.”


For more than 100 years, BNSF has relied on Havre to keep its trains running. Today, the facility is as important to BNSF’s success as ever.


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