CNBC Special Features Reporter
"So when I slip it into gear, is that when you start screaming?" It's a question I ask Jake the engineer with a smile on my face, just before I start this behemoth of American muscle rolling down the tracks. "Flip the lever sideways,'" he says. "Blow the horn."
It is somewhere deep in our collective DNA -- the sound of a train whistle and the clickity-clack of the freight cars rolling by.
But there are few places where it is more deeply buried in the marrow than it is here, in Boise, Idaho, at the MotivePower manufacturing facility. There are 690 American workers using "lean manufacturing" techniques and kicking butt in the worldwide locomotive business.
MotivePower, which is a division of big-board traded Wabtec, is one of only three companies in North America that builds a locomotive from the ground up. It turns out between 100 and 200 a year. Another notch in the fiscal belt of one of the fastest growing economies in the U.S., the one here in Boise.
"So railroads are cool again, huh?" I ask Curtis Duncan, MotivePower's Operations Manager.
"Oh, they've always been 'cool,'" he answers with a laugh. "But, they're doing good, yeah."
And if the railroads are doing good, then so is MotivePower. It's been in business here in Boise for 35 years, but the last two in particular have been off the charts -- up 50 per a year, each year. Why? Rail is more than competitive now with the road haulers for shipping freight. The highways are congested, fuel is expensive, emissions are of greater concern. And there's an explosion of commuter rail expansion around the world.
There are 28,000 locomotives in North America alone, each with a lifespan of about 30 years. Each needs an overhaul every ten years. Figure the math. Not a bad business to be in.
But the heck with the business side, it's just pure fun. There are folks that work here, that -- when they go on vacation they film trains -- try to pick out 'their' locomotives. Crazy? Naw...
We're gaining speed now, and my photographer Victor Calderin is standing up ahead near the tracks and I'm driving this 140 ton monster.
"MOA" steamin' and a-rollin'... Catch you along the road in North Carolina later in the week.
So that's why they call it a "cow catcher"...!
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