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Rail transport to boost wind industry, jobs

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AMARILLO - Wind energy employees in the panhandle have had their ups and downs in past years, but a partnership with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad could guarantee steady business and more jobs at one local facility.

Right now only six employees work at the Alstom Power facility in Amarillo, but that could change soon.

"There have been some favorable legislation that's been passed in the last few months and that will help the wind industry grow," Alstom Power Inc. Logistics Manager Kris Helling said.

The expiration of last year's wind energy tax credit furloughed the dozens of employees who built and assembled the necells and hubs for wind turbines. But with the renewal of that credit and a new way to transport products, things are looking up.

"Amarillo is really centrally located for a lot of the wind projects," Helling said. "Roughly half of the wind projects that the U.S. expects to come online in the next couple years are within about 500 miles of the Amarillo location, making this a strategic point for Alstom."

These 80 ton parts used to be transported by truck, which was slow, costly and rough on roadways.  But right now BNSF is practicing a faster, cheaper transport for Alstom, just in time for an order in from Canada.

BNSF turned it's oldest operating rail car into the control center for testing cargo. The car is 101 years old, and used to be the personal rail car for the president of the Frisco railroad, a company merged into BNSF in the 1940's.

"It's pretty neat that we have the oldest car going out and doing this sort of modern day, state of the art, data acquisition stuff," said BNSF Director of Lab and Testing Services Corey Wills.
 
Wills lives in the car for days at a time testing vibration, strain, and fuel efficiency for new types of cargo.

"This year we've already done one test similar to that for Boeing and after this test, we're going to be doing one for Honda," Wills said.
     
The tests are run of the mill for BNSF, but a game-changer for Alstom and the wind industry in Amarillo.

"Being able to transport our cargo by rail opens up new opportunities that may not have existed for us in the past," Helling said.

The Alstom plant has the capacity to employ about 120 more people, but the company could not say when those jobs will open up.

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