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Boise’s unique locomotive maker once employed 750 people. Now its factory is closing

Motive Power won contracts to sell locomotives from Boston to Australia. Photo by Katherine Jones/ Idaho Statesman

Locomotive manufacturer MotivePower Inc. will close its Boise plant, its parent company says, marking the end of an unique industrial role for Boise.

The parent, Wabtec Corp., formerly Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corp., said the Boise plant’s manufacturing operations would be consolidated with Wabtec’s plant in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“MotivePower has been a proud part of Boise for decades and news of their closure was a bit like hearing about the loss of a friend,” Boise Mayor David Bieter said in a statement. “Unfortunately, when companies are bought and sold, this kind of thing happens — though to MotivePower employees I know that is little consolation.”

The company did not say how many workers are affected, although MotivePower has employed hundreds of people in years past — 750 in 2007 and 550 in 2012, after the Great Recession. In 2016, amid a downturn in the freight business, it laid off 210 people, which MotivePower’s then-general manager described as “close to half” of its workforce.

The plant in Southeast Boise has long been Idaho’s only heavy-industrial transportation manufacturer. It opened in 1972 as MK Rail, a division of the Boise construction giant Morrison Knudsen. After the company’s 1996 bankruptcy, MK Rail was renamed MotivePower Industries. It merged with Wabtec in 1999.

As of 2012, MotivePower was the No. 1 supplier of commuter locomotives in North America.

“It is largely the manufacturing work that will be consolidated into our plan in Erie,” Wabtec spokeswoman Deia Campanelli told the Idaho Statesman by email on Thursday. “We will continue to maintain ownership of the facility, and some of the engineering, program management and services teams located in Boise will remain.”

The company expects the consolidation to be largely completed by mid-2020.

She did not say whether affected workers would be offered positions in Erie or how many workers would remain in Boise.

Under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, employers with 100 or more employees must give the state a 60-day written notice of a plant closing or mass layoffs affecting 50 or more employees at a single site. Georgia Smith, deputy director of the Idaho Department of Labor, said MotivePower has not notified the state of any layoffs.

The company has kept a low profile in recent years, and many Boiseans don’t even know the plant exists. On its website, MotivePower says it has built more than 2,800 locomotives since 1972 at the 300,000-square-foot plant at 4600 Apple St., off Federal Way.

A Strike in Erie

Workers at the Erie plant went on strike in February, less than 24 hours after Wabtec obtained the plant from GE Transportation. The workers objected to a two-tier wage system and mandatory overtime that Wabtec sought to impose, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The nine-day strike ended after the company and two locals with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America agreed to go back to the bargaining table.

In June, union members voted to ratify a four-year contract. The two-tier system would have paid new hires less than existing workers. The contract calls for new hires to be paid less but to be put on a 10-year path to earn the same wages as existing employees, the newspaper reported.

Peter Knowlton, general president of the Electrical Workers union, said there were about 1,600 Erie plant workers who were laid off over the past two years. They would be in line for jobs if Wabtec expands its Pennsylvania operations, he told the Idaho Statesman by phone.

Breakdown Problems

In 2015, MotivePower supplied 40 locomotives to the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, which provides commuter service around Boston.

The locomotives, built for nearly $222 million, were later sidelined for months because of faulty bearings, the Boston Globe reported. Two years later, only 27 of the engines were in service. The rest were shelved for repairs, to fix defects or for scheduled maintenance.

Even so, the MBTA contracted with MotivePower in 2017 to overhaul 10 F40 locomotives built by General Electric in the mid-1980s and originally used by Amtrak. And earlier this year, the rail line signed a $78.3 million contract for MotivePower to refurbish an additional 27 lF40 locomotives originally placed into service between 1987 and 1991.

About John Sowell Idaho Statesman