It's difficult to miss the campus of NRE (National Railway Equipment) Paducah - it sprawls nearly three blocks from the corner of 16th and Kentucky toward the river. But for many locals, the building's inner workings remain a mystery. Behind the more than 6.5 million bricks that make up NRE Paducah's walls, about 200 employees build and refurbish locomotives, which will then be sent to distant locations around the world, such as Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Australia.
"It's very good business, very cyclical, and we've been riding the top of the wave for a long time, both domestically and export-wise," NRE Paducah Vice President and General Manager Bob Pederson said.
The shops, formerly known as VMV Paducahbilt, have been a part of the town's landscape since construction on the complex started in 1925. It was completed in 1927, and Illinois Central Railroad paid $7 million for it at the time. The NRE's lobby displays a photograph of the campus partially engulfed in water from the 1937 flood.
"There are so many people in Paducah that can say 'My grandfather worked for the VMV,'" Pederson said.
Before 1962, the complex was devoted to producing steam engines. Now, visitors can see the vault in the ceiling's skylights that accommodated the locomotive's smoke stacks before diesel-electric engines took over the industry. That's also the era when NRE saw the highest employment, boasting 1,447 workers in September 1942. Although there are far fewer employees now, the numbers are up from 2012 when, according to Sun files, the plant employed 144 full-time staff.
The complex was privately owned and known as VMV through the 1980s and '90s. National Railroad Equipment, based in Mount Vernon, Illinois, purchased the facility in 2002. NRE has 13 locations around the globe, Corporate EHS Manager Colby Davis said, but Paducah has its largest.
Sparks flew under the four-story-high ceiling as welders worked on Tuesday. Others repaired engines, operated cranes or swept out the wells that catch the oil and other waste after workers have finished with a locomotive. "Each locomotive weighs about 428,000 pounds," Pederson said, "and can be transported through the building by one of the cranes that glide overhead."
"Everything we have in this facility is big, heavy and - I hate to say it - dangerous. That's why we stress safety," Pederson said.
It shows. The company is on track to receive an award today for more than a million man-hours worked without a lost-time accident, according to Kentucky Labor Secretary Larry L. Roberts. This marks the second consecutive year NRE has earned the award.
"This is what the United States used to be about: smokestack industry," said Pederson as he walked the floor, which covers half a million square feet on 110 acres. "And that's what we still are."
"After eight decades in town, NRE still chugging along." The Paducah Sun, web. 10 Dec. 2014.