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All aboard, Altoona

But the old Pennsylvania Railroad town isn't quite so sure it wants to ride with the Norfolk Southern

Sunday, May 30, 1999

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ALTOONA -- It was 1931. Dick Heiler was 17 years old, eager for good pay and the badge of pride that came with work on the Pennsylvania Railroad.

 
Altoona native Dick Heiler's dream of working for the Pennsylvania Railroad was dashed when he couldn't make the company's minimum weight requirement. But the 84-year-old has spent a good deal of his life preserving the history of the railroad in his community. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

So, when the railroad opened jobs in its local steel shop, Heiler was there, smart, eager -- and, dripping wet, 34 pounds shy of the PRR's 132-pound weight minimum.

He put on heavy boots and his big Woolrich coat, weighed down by pockets stuffed with 120 rounds of borrowed 30-caliber bullets.

"But I was still only 130 3/4 pounds -- about a pound too light," Heiler said. "I asked if I could go across the street, get a couple bananas and eat them. They said, 'No.' "

He wouldn't be allowed to join the armies that poured into the local railroad shops every day. "I was pretty disappointed," Heiler said. "People here took pride in saying they worked on the railroad."

In Altoona, hiring on was entree to the family, the revered bloodline of the mighty PRR. The company fathered Altoona 153 years ago, then made it the largest rail city on the planet: once paymaster to 16,000 local workers, lord of the cavernous shops and warehouses that sprawled three miles down the middle of town.

On Tuesday, June 1 -- to more than a little local discomfort -- that bloodline will flow through the veins of a stranger.

It has been diluted before. In 1968, The Pennsylvania Railroad married the New York Central and became the Penn Central. Eight years later, the ruins of the Penn Central became the heart and backbone of the seven bankrupt railroads that were fashioned into Conrail.

But this time, the railroad is being carved up and sold to Southern rivals Norfolk Southern Corp. and CSX Corp., for $10.3 billion.

Altoona's rail shops and the area's stretch of main line route go on the wealthy Norfolk Southern's plate. For the first time since the city was born, the big boss won't be across the state, in Philadelphia. He'll be two states away, in Norfolk, Va., running a railroad that locals worry feels no kinship to Altoona.

"If things go as smoothly as Norfolk Southern hopes they'll go, in the long run, there won't be that major of an impact," said Cummins McNitt, curator of the Altoona Railroaders Memorial Museum.

Altoona has trouble buying promises from outsiders, though.

"Nobody welcomes the change. Everybody wishes it never came to be," said Andy Pirro, an Altoonan who heads the Sheet Metal Workers International district covering railroad sheet metal workers and pipefitters across the Northeast. "Now, will Norfolk Southern be remembered as the devil that came here or as a good railroad?"

"I'd rather this railroad had just stayed The Pennsylvania Railroad," said Frank Givler, president of the local chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. "But since it wasn't that, I'd rather see it remain Conrail, a direct descendant."

 
Phil Linn bends a pipe for the air brake system in a General Electric C40-8 diesel-electric locomotive being built under contract at the Altoona railcar shop. (Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette) 

Many jobs gone, many remain

There is the stubborn bond between Altoona and the railroad. It's the city where generations of grimy-faced rail shop workers met the PRR's demanding standards. The place built and repaired hundreds of thousands of rail cars, turned out 6,782 locomotives and maintained the motive power that pulled 12,000-ton loads up the Allegheny Front, mountains that rose 1,200 feet in 10 miles.

"In many ways, the Pennsylvania Railroad imprinted itself deeply on Altoona, in the pride of workmanship, the standards of workmanship," said Daniel Cupper, a Harrisburg author and railroad historian.

But the bond reaches beyond imprints and sentimentality into 1999 economics.

A half-century ago, the PRR stopped making steam locomotives, looked elsewhere for its diesels and almost 90 percent of Altoona's railway jobs began giving way to technology, streamlining and vanishing business.

But 1,700 railroaders still work here, 2.8 percent of Blair County's total work force.

That's down enough to slip Conrail to second place on the list of largest private local employers, behind Altoona Hospital's parent corporation. But that 2.8 percent packs more than 2.8 percent worth of economic clout.

The state estimates that when railroaders aren't counted, the average annual wage for Blair Countians is $22,085. Conrail won't release wage figures, but the Association of American Railroads says the average Pennsylvania freight railroader makes $49,100 a year.

"The railroad is still huge here," said Joe Hurd, executive director of the Altoona-Blair County Chamber of Commerce.

But for how long?

On June 1, about the only thing that will change is the logo on the local paychecks, Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband promised. He said there's nothing to gnawing fears that work will be siphoned to Norfolk Southern's counterpart locomotive shop in Roanoke, Va., that the company needs Altoona to handle demands of extra traffic.

"There's nothing to say that five or 10 years from now, all that work won't go to Roanoke," Cupper said. "But in the near term, there's no way Roanoke can handle all that work."

"Altoona wouldn't have much more reason to be concerned than if the railroad continued under Conrail ownership," said John Spychalski, Penn State University professor of business logistics. "What matters is economic performance. No company stays involved with a facility that doesn't have a satisfactory return."

Norfolk Southern Chairman David Goode bowed to local Rep. Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, by promising $63 million to upgrade equipment at the Juniata Locomotive Shop -- 6 acres under one roof -- and allocated $4 million for improving the Hollidaysburg Car Shops, nine miles away.

The company turned on its public relations machine to enhance the image of Norfolk Southern as kind corporate citizen. It promised to trim trees so tourists could see more at Horseshoe Curve, a rail landmark west of Altoona. It presented the local United Way a $40,000 check last week. It ponied up $25,000 and got billing as a prime sponsor of Altoona sesquicentennial festivities that started last weekend. According to Cupper, Norfolk Southern even tried to blend into the local fabric by not importing managers with obvious southern accents.

But the company still isn't one of the gang here.

Among railroaders, there's uncertainty and recognition that any change that comes will come slowly, machinist Charles Holland said as he climbed into his car outside the Juniata Locomotive Shop, the centerpiece of the local works.

"It's all just wait and see," he said.

A place for trainspotting

Ask Jerry Loar about kinship to railroading.

Twice a year, the 47-year-old computer systems programmer travels 2 1/2 hours from his home outside Frederick, Md., to Altoona -- the Promised Land for eastern freight train watchers, he says.

From dawn till midnight, for the better part of a week, he parks himself by the main line, his locomotive directory, binoculars and soda-and-snacks cooler at the ready. Then, he watches the 42-or-so freights that rumble by daily, jots locomotive numbers into a notebook and, like a bird watcher reporting sightings of a rare warbler, shares his records with rail fan friends.

He loves trains. He likes Altoona because it loves trains, too.

"It's remarkable that, in 1999, a city like this can still revolve around the railroad," Loar said during a pause in the action. "But they really do. It's still in their blood."

It's always been there. Five years before the Civil War, when the PRR eased its tracks into the Allegheny Mountains, Altoona was assembled on farmland as the base camp to repair equipment strained by trips over the mountains.

It grew into a blue collar, middle-class city where the PRR did its gamut of work, from designing to building and repairing equipment. By the first third of this century, every other worker in Altoona took home a railroad paycheck.

Unlike other cities where it operated, the PRR funded recreation and culture in Altoona. It organized employees into baseball teams, sometimes with so much seriousness that a searing fastball meant more than welding skills. The railroad gave ground and cash for Altoona Hospital, a block from shop gates. And it protected its kingdom with muscle to keep out other employers that might tap the local labor market.

"The railroad was the 9 zillion pound gorilla," Heiler said. "If they decided they wanted something, there wasn't anyone with enough guts to stop them."

It wasn't always a fond relationship.

"Many people will spit when you mention Pennsylvania Railroad, out of a sense of betrayal," rail museum curator McNitt said. "There are people who gave their lives to the railroad, were injured or sacrificed their health, and they got $2,000 or $3,000 and were shooed out of the railroad's life."

For all the PRR's exacting standards, job promotions often hinged on ethnicity or religion. "I was Catholic," said retired rail car inspector Louis Johnston, 85. "The boss told me one time, 'I could get you another job, but you go to the wrong church.' "

And all the good pay was tempered by unceasing rounds of layoffs -- a perpetual threat of tough times that bred tightfistedness into Altoonans, what McNitt calls "a bunker mentality."

Still, the railroad was the grantor of the region's best blue collar wages, pride and high skills, McNitt said.

"I think the PRR, the Penn Central and Conrail, they did work the way it should be done," retiree Russell Conrad said. "They trained people, they had skilled people. They did work economically, and they did it right."

"My dad, my grandad, my uncles all worked for the Pennsy," said local resident Jerry Singer, himself an instructor in air conditioning and refrigeration at a state prison. "They talked well of the railroad. They talked like it was family."

Feeling sold out

In large measure, Conrail's present-day work force feels this is their railroad and it's being sold out from under them.

They see themselves as the army that grew more productive, shouldered contract givebacks and manpower cuts and helped turn Conrail from a bloated, moribund ward of the federal Treasury to a hustling, profit-making railroad.

"The workers seemed to work a little harder for Conrail than they did in PRR times," said Jack Adams, who retired last year, 43 years after he joined the PRR as a laborer. "The guys wanted to keep work here."

"We were making all that profit," said a middle-aged railroad electrician, asking his name not be used for fear of new management he doesn't know. "Why would they sell us now?"

In 1976, the year it was cobbled from the wreckage of the Penn Central and six smaller bankrupt railroads, Conrail lost $416 million. By 1981 -- after sucking up $3.3 billion federal dollars to cover operating losses and the cost of rebuilding the ruins of the bankrupt railroads -- Conrail turned its first profit and swore off federal money completely. By 1997, it logged net income of $464 million.

It hustled.

In 1989, the railroad that did no work for outsiders discovered that it could keep the force intact by opening its Juniata Locomotive Shop to repair other railroads' locomotives. A sales force rustled up clients such as Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. The shops fashioned components from GE Transportation Systems and General Motors' Electro-Motive Division into finished locomotives.

"That was a key to keeping that facility open," Penn State's Spychalski said. "There was some remarkable entrepreneurial talent there."

Conrail dickered unsuccessfully for work fixing buses and trolleys from the Czech Republic. Last year, it even built a locomotive -- armored and buffered with bulletproof glass -- to pull coal trains through remote Indian-populated parts of Colombia.

"The Colombian government asked that it be painted in tribal colors, and they wanted dogs painted on it because that was a tribal good luck sign," Husband said.

The hunt for outside work forged understanding that labor and management had a common goal: survival.

"Workers had grown more cooperative with Conrail management," said John Czuczman, railroad division manager for the Transport Workers Union. "It was a wheeling, dealing affair. You could talk to local management."

Pirro, of the Sheet Metal Workers, said workers are willing to work with the new bosses. But come what may, he expressed faith in the durability of local rail shops and local job skills over plans managers may have for Altoona.

"The names of the owners may change," he said. "Altoona will always be here."



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