Chicago-area steel plant illustrates role of small businesses in new Acelas

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A welder at the LB Steel factory in Harvey, Ill., works on a tilting transom for a new Acela trainset.
Bob Johnston
LB Steel Vice President David Abshire shows how the tilting transom sits on top of a trailer wheelset and connects it to the frame.
Bob Johnston

HARVEY, Ill. — How does a 35-year-old company in a scruffy Chicago suburb win the right to furnish key parts to Alstom for Amtrak’s Acela 2 trainsets? It’s all about unique welding expertise.

“High speed trainsets require a strict European welding standard, and as far as we know we are one of the few — if not the only — company certified and qualified to do this work in the U.S,” says David Abshire, the LB Steel vice president who hosted a tour of the company’s factory, which makes wheel assemblies and other parts for Alstom.

The gathering of media, civic leaders, and economic development officials was staged to highlight the contributions that small businesses like LB Steel make. Alstom and Amtrak estimate that 95% of the components used in the trainsets are produced domestically.

Although much of the ancillary production occurs at Alstom-owned facilities, parts are being manufactured by nearly 250 suppliers in 27 states. They include the massive power car shells from Merrill Technologies’ Saginaw, Mich., plant; Thermo King heating and air-conditioning systems made in Hastings, Neb.; and luggage racks manufactured by Seisenbacher Rail Interiors, Inc., a Rochester, N.Y., small business.    

LB Steel makes motor bogies, trailer bogies, and tilting transoms bolted to the top of each that enable the trainsets to take curves at faster speeds. The tilting system is produced by the Eaton Co. in Horton, Mich.

Didier Cuadrado, Alstom’s project director, tells Trains News Wire that the truck frames are similar to those on existing Acela trainsets.

“Alstom designed those in the late 1990s; It’s a proven product but we had to adjust these a little bit because the weight per axle on the Acela 2 is much lighter,” he says.

Ron Bogseth, LB Steel’s project manager, credits his workforce for winning the bid.

“These guys are really really good welders! We have a welding school and training program we put people through; there are 16 different types of welds they have to perform,” says Bogseth, adding, “We had to hire a German company to perform the qualification process, but now we have about 15 certified welders.”

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