Shop.jpg (68401 bytes) The Burnham Shops:

A Tradition of Craftsmanship

Cradled between the Rocky Mountain foothills and downtown skyscrapers, UP's Denver Locomotive Maintenance shops carry on a tradition of craftsmanship that's lived at the historic facility for more than 100 years.

When they were part of the Southern Pacific system, and the Denver and Rio Grande Western before that, they were called the Burnham Shops. Today, few remember the shop's namesake or when they were constructed.

"Each employee is a specialist, but their pride can't be too big that they can't swallow it and ask questions when ther's something wrong."

Historian Kenton Forrest, a Colorado Railroad Museum archivist, says some older shop buildings were constructed in the 1880s, but the diesel shop, today's heart of the facility, was probably built in the 1920s.

Prior to the 1940s, everything was at Burnham shops," Forrest says. The entire D&RGW system was centered around Burnham crossing and the facility."

After the Southern Pacific bought the railroad in 1988, $15 million was poured into overhauling the facility. The SP transferred work and employees from its old heavy rebuild shop in Sacramento to the new 146,000-square-foot Burnham Shops in February 1992. The shops represented a revolutionary concept in locomotive overhaul facilities, marrying auto assembly-line processes with state-of-the-art technology.

The production line was designed to produce 365 locomotive overhauls a year," says the facility's maintenance manager Dan Beisswanger. The shop's layout allowed us to work on several locomotives at once, with the ability to turn out one a day, thanks to a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week work schedule."

But the facility never reached its ambitious goals, releasing at its peak 233 locomotives in one year, to an SP railroad in dire need of power. Soon after its inaugural year, budget cuts forced the facility to cut back operations to a 5-day-a-week schedule.

Today, as a UP facility, the Denver shops play an important role as the railroad’s second largest locomotive repair facility behind the massive Jenks shops in North Little Rock. The 404 employees are divided between the shop’s ongoing locomotive overhaul programs and its running repair facility.

Though the facility's mission has changed over the years, Burnham's legacy lives on in the craftsmanship handed down from yesterday’s machinists, who toiled over enormous steam-powered units. Today’s machinists use of state-of-the-art technology to give old diesel-electric locomotives a second chance at life.

On the Shop Floor

Walking through the heavy repair facility with Manager Locomotive Maintenance Dick Spiva can make your head spin. A railroader for 26 years, Spiva is one of the SP employees who made the transfer from Sacramento eight years ago.

Quickly strolling through the facility, he points out dozens of jobs going on at once, quickly explaining the science of diesel mechanics. Only the most schooled followers of the machinists craft could understand it all.

On this June day, the shop is filled with old switch engines -- SW-1500s, SD40T2s and GP40-2s to name a few -- being rebuilt and put back into service.

A brief overview of some of the overhaul process: First, a massive overhead crane removes the locomotive's engine in Locomotive Spot 1, and sets it in the nearby engine strip area. It is disassembled and placed on a turning device, headed for the washing machine.

"This corner of the shop, where we do our stripping, is the dirty area," Spiva says. "Our clean area, where we reassemble, is on the other side."

The locomotive’s trucks are removed down line at Locomotive Spot 3, stripped and taken to a large, black steaming shed that scours away layers of crater," a thick greasy build-up. Cranes also remove couplers and draft gears.

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"I enjoy fixing things, getting the locomotive in and out of the shop so it can move freight for the company."


The locomotive’s engine and its components then go through a number of staging areas, each staffed by specialized machinists:

-- At the heavy metal fabrication area, machinists upgrade the switch units from water to electric cab heat.

--In the sheetmetal area, a line of toilets sit, waiting to return to the privacy of their cabins.

--Craftsmen toil over exhaust stacks, each stripped and qualified to ensure there are no cracks. The last thing you need is an exhaust leak," Spiva says.

--Bright chrome crank shafts are closely inspected for cracks around their journals and counterweights before they’re remounted.

--Racks of shiny-clean gears, some a couple of feet across, also await the inspector's eye.

--In the machine shop, special equipment cuts through bolts of all sizes, using lasers for special cuts.

All the parts are brought together at three stations. After the engine block leaves the washing machine, it undergoes a quality check to ensure there are no defects. The engine bore -- where the piston slides inside the engine -- is measured with a laser to guarantee perfect straightness. If the bore is off, the engine block goes back for reboring.

At the rebuild station, pressure tests are conducted for oil, water and air leaks. "We do as much testing off the locomotive as possible before we put it all back together," Spiva says.

The shop examines, rebuilds or replaces almost every part of the locomotive, from its electrical systems to the engineer's seat, before reassembly. During the shop's third shift, the locomotive is lifted from large mounting stands using two massive 125-ton-capacity cranes and placed once again on its reconditioned trucks -- a 20-minute job. The engine then is placed back in the unit at Locomotive Spot 2.

Minor tests are made before the locomotive is moved to Spot 9, the load-test area just outside the shop doors. There, a team of craftsmen conduct a battery of tests that the locomotive must pass before it's released, says Supervisor Ron Gaidies.

Gaidies, who started his railroad career 27 years ago in the Signal Department, says he learned the craft though "the school of hard knocks. You do the work and do a lot of studying. Each locomotive is different, and each might have a unique problem. There's a lot of troubleshooting involved and the knowledge to figure out what's wrong only comes from experience. Each employee is a specialist, but their pride can't be too big that they can't swallow it and ask questions when there's something wrong."

The Running Repair Track

At a glance, it resembles a boat dock, with parked locomotives instead of floating ships. The Running Repair track is six tracks adjacent to the heavy repair shop, where employees conduct scheduled inspections, as well as unscheduled maintenance that sometimes involves detective work.

Before a unit enters the repair track, Machinist/FRA Inspector Jim Chance gives it a once-over, conducting load tests, inspections and self diagnostics. Though his main focus is making sure the unit meets Federal Railroad Administration specifications, he also helps the repair track's machinists figure out what's wrong with those in for unscheduled maintenance.

"We've had locomotives come in reported with fire out of the stack," Chance says, "That could be anything from a bad turbine to bad injectors. Black smoke out the stack could mean a bad cylinder or a hole in the piston. The tests usually give us the answers."

Chance began his D&RGW career as a shop laborer in October 1971, before becoming a machinist helper and than an apprentice for two years. "It was hands-on training, plus lessons and written tests," he recalls. "The apprentice programs was very well rounded; you experienced every department for two months."

He enjoys practicing the craft and passing his skills onto Jr. FRA Inspector Bill Davidson, "so the railroad will keep going after I'm gone."

"I just enjoy fixing things," Chance says, "getting the locomotive in and out of the shop so it can move freight for the company. When they make money, I get paid. It's always satisfying getting it fixed."

Because of the work's uncertain nature, there are more employees working on the Running Repair side than in the heavy repair facility, says Supervisor Kenny MacDonald. "The biggest challenge is making sure everyone knows what needs to be done and the resources are in place," he said. "On any given week, we see between 90 and 100 locomotives coming through here. Despite the production crunch, our main goal is doing the job safely."

Since recording 60 reportable injuries in 1994, the entire shop facility has seen a dramatic turnaround in safety, reporting only 18 injuries last year, a 70 percent reduction.

MacDonald, a 21-year railroader, says he's carrying on a tradition that includes his grandfather, former shop director G.H. MacDonald, who worked at Burnham Shops for 42 years.

A New Direction

Director Rebuild Operations Dennis Magures says the shop's tradition of change also will also continue in earnest. Originally designed for General Motors EMD locomotive overhauls, the shop will become a General Electric overhaul facility beginning in January 1998, he says.

"The first GE locomotives will arrive in the middle of December," Magures says. "We're going to start moving the EMD engine line around the middle of July and hopefully be completed by mid-September."

Employees will receive a great deal of both in-house and field training before the first of nearly 130 GE C-41-8 locomotives arrives. "We'll be ready for them," Magures says. "These guys will step right up to the plate and continue to perform the quality craftsmanship the Burnham shops are famous for."

"These guys will step right up to the plate and continue to perform the quality craftsmanship the Burnham shops are famous for."

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Originally printed in INFO Magazine

July/August 1997

Copyright 1997 Union Pacific Railroad

Photos Copyright 1998 Mike Malone