PA’s future rail system is cleaner, safer, and could create 1000s of jobs in Erie at Wabtec

Modernizing our country's rail system, if done right, can create thousands of family-sustaining jobs. Some of those jobs would manufacture cleaner, safer green locomotives, the future of rail transportation. Moreover, production of green locomotives can build local wealth and put as many as 10,000 people to work, restoring opportunity in places like Erie, Pennsylvania — a global leader in this vital industry.

Stephen Herzenberg

The desperate need to invest in upgrading the U.S. rail system was recently exposed by the train derailment and chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. But beyond tragedies like this, folks across the country are being poisoned everyday by harmful diesel fumes and other locomotive emissions. The vast majority of freight locomotives are old diesel engines which do not conform to today's standards. They pump unnecessary carbon into our air, fill rail yards with diesel exhaust and other pollutants, impacting the health of workers, and of those in nearby communities. Those communities are often low-income, including communities of color.

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Today's hybrid diesel-electric green locomotives create 50-90% less pollution during operation than older diesel locomotives. But those old models comprise 90% of freight locomotives that run on American rails today. Next-generation electric locomotives run entirely on batteries do even better — they create no pollution at all during operation if charged on renewable energy.

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In recent decades, Erie has lost many good manufacturing jobs, including at the Lawrence Park plant previously owned by General Electric but now part of Wabtec (Westinghouse Air Brake Technology). Production of locomotives there has been declining since 2008. But the plant still has the space and  equipment needed to ramp production back up. And the local union workforce is ready to apply its skills and experience to build the green locomotives needed.

A crew works near locomotives stored at Wabtec Corp. on April 7, 2020, in Lawrence Park Township.

According to a new study, scaling up green locomotive production in Erie to feed a sustainable U.S. rail system could be a game-changer for economic opportunity in northwest Pennsylvania.

The study, conducted by the PERI institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, finds that if the Wabtec facility were to produce 1,000 green locomotives per year, up to 5,000 well-paying jobs would be created at the facility itself. A similar number would be created elsewhere in Erie County, at suppliers and at businesses that serve workers and managers when they spend their wages. The total job creation across the United States could be as much as 15,000.

The east entrance to the Wabtec locomotive-manufacturing facility in Lawrence Park Township is shown on Jan. 19. The company, which purchased GE Transportation in 2019, reported sales of $8.36 billion in 2022.

To ensure this brighter future for our region will require the collaboration of corporations, the government, labor and community groups.

Corporations have the opportunity — and the responsibility — to be part of the solution. Railroads must update their locomotives. Wabtec, in turn, must commit to building those locomotives in the Erie community. The company has the resources to make the investments needed in the facility and the workforce required.

A locomotive, bound for Egypt, is assembled in building 10 at Wabtec Corporation in Lawrence Park Township on Jan. 19, 2023.

Nonprofit groups like ReImagine Appalachia can work as connective tissue to bring these partners together, to help leverage federal support, and to support local hiring that maximize the benefit for the community. In conjunction with subsidizing green manufacturing, the government must ensure that locomotives aren't making people sick and damaging our climate. Some action has happened at the federal level, like a recent Environmental Protection Agency proposal for a rule that would allow states to set higher emission standards.

Good jobs in clean industries are something we all can agree on. It's time to invest in the workers and communities of northwestern Pennsylvania to make this unifying and practical future a reality.

Stephen Herzenberg is the executive director of the Keystone Research Center (KRC).

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Building green locomotives at Wabtec in Erie could create 5,000 jobs