FreightCar America announced a partnership Tuesday with Navistar Corp. to build railcars at Barton Riverfront Industrial Park.
Call it the Barton jinx. Call it the railcar shuffle. Call it what you will, but every time a new employer is announced for the mile-long railcar plant at Barton Riverfront Industrial Park, the plan seems to run off the tracks.
But officials say Tuesday’s announcement is different, and there are good reasons to believe they are right.
FreightCar America, one of the world’s largest railcar manufacturers, announced it is subleasing part of Navistar’s Corp.’s Barton plant with a plan to build up to 7,000 cars a year.
FreightCar officials said they hope to start production in July and employ 200 workers by the end of the year. They expect to need 400 employees by the end of 2014. Wages should range from $14 to $20 an hour, depending on the skills required.
The new partnership with Navistar will allow FreightCar to use two of the plant’s four assembly lines to build railcars. Navistar will assist in maintenance and production.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent at the plant with little production to show. The rollercoaster of hope and disappointment began in 2007 when National Steelcar announced it would build the plant and bring 1,800 jobs. The company built the facility, but a slumping economy and slow demand for railcars derailed its manufacturing plans.
Retirement Systems of Alabama, which had invested in the project, committed $625 million to the facility and obtained 100 percent equity in 2010. A year later, Navistar Corp. leased the facility from RSA and announced plans to hire 1,800 workers to build trucks.
But Navistar ran into problems, too. No trucks have been built and only 180 employees are at the site.
Considering the plant’s history, no one could fault the job-hungry community for viewing the latest announcement with a degree of skepticism. But there are reasons to believe the outcome will be different this time.
The combined strength of two major international corporations brings cause for optimism. FreightCar produces about 70 percent of the coal cars built in America, and the company wants more variety in its model lineup.
Another cause for optimism is an announcement earlier this month that the nation’s major freight railroads plan to invest an estimated $24.5 billion in 2013. The Association of American Railroads said this investment will include capital funds for new locomotives and railcars.
The community is fortunate that RSA’s investment at Barton is too large to let the facility fail. We encourage residents not to give up on the plant, and urge local officials, FreightCar and Navistar to work hard to ensure the site fulfills its potential.