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Adtranz is world leader in people moving

Sunday, June 06, 1999

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Although public opinion, several politicians and a judge rejected rubber-tire people movers in Allegheny County in the early 1970s in favor of light rail transit, the system notorious as Skybus lives.

In West Mifflin, at Adtranz North America.

"They're one of the region's best-kept secrets, and they're in our back yard," Port Authority General Manger Paul Skoutelas said. "They've expanded into a world leader in transportation systems of all kinds."

How big is this quiet, unimposing heir of Skybus?

Among other things, Adtranz North America is overhauling 1,300 propulsion systems for New York City subway trains. It's also working on transit orders for systems in Boston, San Franciso, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Toronto, among other cities.

Employment at Adtranz facilities along Lebanon Church Road, and a half-mile away along Lebanon Road (Route 885), presently numbers 1,187 permanent and 158 temporary employees, about half of them engineers and other professionals.

Space has become so crowded that Adtranz has been building a North American headquarters building in West Mifflin. The 20,000-square-foot facility is to be occupied next month.

The current order backlog for transit car propulsion units alone is 3,201, with options for 622 additional units -- enough to keep most of the work force busy for at least the next four years.

Then, there are the automated, rubber-tired people movers, pioneered by Westinghouse Corp., an Adtranz predecessor -- a transit system tantamount to horizontal elevators.

Westinghouse had attempted to build Skybus, connecting the South Hills and Downtown, in partnership with the Port Authority, starting in the 1960s, to showcase the system worldwide and make Pittsburgh the center of modern transit technology.

Although Skybus lost out in controversy, Westinghouse prevailed and sold the system in other cities, mainly to airports.

Now Adtranz builds -- and in most cases operates and maintains -- airport and other people movers internationally.

Until Allegheny County bought a pair of two-car trains to connect the air-side and landside components of the mid-field terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport in the early '90s, the company didn't have a customer in its hometown.

Holding up a map showing customers in 40 cities in North America, South America, Europe and Asia, Adtranz North America Vice President Peter M. Stetler said, "Until then [the airport project], we couldn't make Pittsburgh a dot on our map."

Further disappointment came clear during an interview.

"When I tell people I work for Adtranz, the question I get most is, 'What's Adtranz?' " Stetler said. "Hey, we're everywhere around the world. We're the kind of business the region needs. We don't provide ordinary jobs. We provide high-value jobs ... careers. Everyone here is salaried."

Last year, Adtranz's West Mifflin unit spent $276 million on components and supplies for the transit products it designs and assembles here. It bought more than half from companies within a 50-mile radius of Pittsburgh.

Adtranz headquarters consists of office, testing, assembly and manufacturing space covering about 300,000 square feet in West Mifflin. Facilities include a modern engineering power test lab, where customers can observe in-house equipment tests, and an automated guideway test track for the modern-day versions of Skybus.

Outside the Lebanon Road facility sit the colorful fiberglass and composite plastic shells of a dozen car bodies, imported from Scotland, but waiting to be fitted with the high-tech electric propulsion, controls, signals, communications and operating equipment that will make them people movers from Pittsburgh.

Adtranz also operates a vehicle assembly plant in Elmira Heights, N.Y., where 500 are employed, and a facility in Pittsburg, Calif., where 350 people refurbish and update rail vehicles for West Coast customers, including Bay Area Rapid Transit system, San Francisco.

Adtranz North America is part of an international conglomerate, Daimler-Benz Group and ABB (Asea Brown Boveri).

Adtranz North America is one of 50 Adtranz groups worldwide, with corporate headquarters in Berlin; Brussels, Belgium; and Zurich, Switzerland. The Adtranz products include electric and diesel locomotives, high-speed trains, heavy- and light-rail systems, people movers, automated train control systems and associated support systems.

Westinghouse, which pioneered the people-mover technology here, merged its West Mifflin-based transportation interests in September 1993, becoming AEG Transportation Systems Inc. In 1996, the joint venture between ABB and Daimler-Benz resulted in Adtranz North America.

And what happened to Skybus?

While the Port Authority eventually tore down a test track in South Park, Westinghouse persisted with the Skybus technology and successfully introduced it to airports, providing passenger transit connections at airport terminals, and airport business mushroomed.

Last week, Adtranz introduced the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to a prototype of "Innovia," the newest generation of "automated guideway transit systems" better known as people-movers.

Innovia sales will be directed beyond airports, to public transit agencies. Rubber-tire cars with 100-passenger capacity can be linked into "trains" with a top speed of 50 mph. Automatically guided and operated, like Skybus was supposed to be.

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