Altoona Works-World’s Largest Railroad Maintenance Facility

In the mid-1800s, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s primary focus was on expansion westward. At this time, the railroad tackled the steep Allegheny Mountains via the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and was in the process of building the Horseshoe Curve to create their own main line route through the mountains.

Due to this rapid expansion, the Pennsylvania Railroad required a maintenance facility in close proximity to the Allegheny passage. Altoona was chosen, as its location at the foot of the Alleghenies was ideal for trains traveling in either direction along the PRR Mountain Division. Planning and construction of the Altoona Works began in 1850, and upon completion, the shops began assembling locomotive and rolling stock parts, such as boiler plates, oil mixtures, and springs. Additionally, the shops produced metal castings for infrastructure such as bridges and wrought iron rails.

The Pennsylvania Railroad built the town of Altoona, providing its workers with affordable housing, as well as housing for railroad executives. The railroad offered many amenities within the town such as sports leagues, golf courses, restaurants, schools and libraries. The railroad even provided emergency services, such as a fire department.

PRR photo
Courtesy of

Planning and Construction

In 1849, with the Pennsylvania Railroad’s rapid westward expansion, additional repair and maintenance facilities were needed. The first facilities to be constructed in Altoona was the engine house, where locomotives were stored until servicing, the erecting shops, which built new locomotives to PRR standards, and the machine shop, where various castings were produced for locomotives, rolling stock, and bridge girders. When Horseshoe Curve was completed in 1854, the railroad began expanding towards Pittsburgh, and erecting several maintenance and repair facilities along the route. Lacking foundry facilities, Altoona produced metal castings for the other shops throughout the system.

With the success and expansion of the Altoona Works, the town grew in substantial numbers, as many settlers arrived from Europe. Just before the Civil War, Altoona Works employed over one-thousand workers, and was the leading repair and maintenance facility on the system.

During the Civil War, the railroad grew tremendously. It acted efficiently and was reliable in transporting troops and other goods related to the war effort. This led to the Altoona facility to expand in order to accommodate the increase in work. The PRR purchased additional land and built the Altoona Car Shops, which facilitated construction and repair of various types of railcars. Additionally, various shops such as blacksmith and foundry shops were erected to deal with the increase of traffic, primarily on the eastward stretch of railroad.

During this time of rapid expansion, the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell prompted the Altoona Works to adopt the new technology. Bell’s associates were sent to the shops to explore the feasibility of implementing telephone lines within the facilities, to allow for the various shops to communicate with one another. This further exemplified the Altoona Works as the leader in state-of-the-art manufacturing technology within the railroad industry and beyond.

Library of Congress photo

Further Expansion

During 1886, the Altoona shops reached their maximum capacity for production, therefore, the construction of the Juniata Shops began. Located in the Juniata section of Altoona, the shops contained facilities such as blacksmith shops, boiler shops, paint shops, machine shops, and various other facilities. The Juniata Shops were scheduled to produce 150 locomotives annually, and produced over 100,000 wheels and other running gear in the foundry.

Perhaps the most important facility within the shops was the testing facility. This facility led the nation’s railroad industry with their advanced research and engineering practices. Additionally, the PRR conducted experiments with substances such as oil, to determine which substances allowed locomotives to operate the most efficiently. This led the shops to share their findings with the railroad industry by publishing their findings in various scientific journals. This helped establish the Altoona Works as the leader of innovation in the industry, and improved the manner in which railroads maintained their locomotives and rolling stock.

Making Strides into the 20th Century

Increasing workloads prompted the shops to expand once again with the addition of another blacksmith shop and the expansion of the existing facilities. The shops became one of the leading producers of iron castings throughout the rail network, and purchased more land for an additional foundry complex. This new complex had the ability to construct 900 wheels daily, and was the largest facility of its kind in the United States. The foundry shops served many years of service, however, in the late 1800s, iron wheel sets began to be phased out by the stronger and more reliable steel wheel. As a result, the foundry was converted to other uses such as storage facilities.

In the early 1900s, railroads began switching from passenger cars of wooden construction to steel, citing that they were much more durable and safer in the event of a derailment. This prompted further expansion of the Juniata Shops, and construction began on a facility constructing steel passenger cars.

Although the shops were expanding exponentially throughout the early twentieth century, progress was brought to a halt in the United States’ involvement in World War I. Throughout the war, many shop workers entered the service, resulting in a drastic decline of experienced employees. Additionally, railroad usage increased during the war transporting troops, military vehicles and ammunition. This increase in rail traffic and decrease in workers prompted the government to take control of the nationwide rail system until the end of the war.

Nick Kelsh photo

In the early twenties, the Juniata Shops were vastly expanded. Machine and erecting shops were constructed consisting of an engine house of fifty stalls, where locomotives could be repaired and serviced. Additionally, the shops made upgrades such as implementing heavy duty cranes, which reduced the cost of labor drastically, as well as increased efficiency. Today, these additions serve as the Juniata Locomotive Shops (JBS), presently under control of Norfolk Southern.

The twenties were a great time of expansion and progress at the shops. During this time, the shops employed 5,500 workers, built twelve locomotives per month, and repaired four locomotives daily. Additionally, the shops built in excess of one-thousand cast iron wheels daily, made possible with a team of over 700 people.

During the Great Depression, the Altoona Works were met with much growth and consolidation. To cut operating costs during this trying time, the shops consolidated many facilities, a move that required less workers and decreased overhead within the shops. Managers at the shops sought to replace workers with machines, especially in the shops that produced metal pins, studs, valves, and sleeves. During this time, many facilities in the Altoona machine shops were transferred to the Juniata Shops area, which left many building in the Altoona Works area empty. However, even after this consolidation, the Altoona machine shops continued to serve an important purpose, as they continued to house a machine and erecting shop.

After the turmoil of the Great Depression, the shops were met with another turbulent time. Upon the involvement of the United States in World War II, the shops began working towards the war effort. Although this was a trying time for the country, the Altoona Works was awarded many military contracts to construct equipment to strengthen the war effort. The shops built military vehicles, gear for planes, treads for tanks, and performed maintenance of military locomotives.

Beginnings of Dieselization

Throughout the decades following the war, railroads around the country began the transition from steam to diesel power. The diesel locomotive was much more versatile than steam, and soon became the preferred choice of motive power throughout the nation. With this drastic change, the shops had to begin transitioning their shops from maintaining steam power, to diesel. The last steam locomotive constructed at the Juniata Shops, PRR T-1 5549, marked the end of steam locomotive production at the shops, and opened up the future of diesel locomotion.

Because diesel locomotives required far less maintenance than steam, many divisions within the works were abolished or re-assigned duties. This resulted in the layoff of many employees throughout the shops, and termination of many of the shops facilities. Beginning in 1952, the Pennsylvania Railroad began shifting much of the work from Altoona to other shops around the system. In addition, the PRR abolished operations of all facilities within the shops that did not have a hand in producing or maintaining the newly acquired diesel locomotives. This resulted in many closures within the facility, and many jobs being abolished, as steam locomotion on the PRR came to an end in 1957. However, the shops were awarded contracts to further construct steam locomotives, even though the PRR had planned for the abolition of these services. After these changes, many of the rolling stock maintenance was moved to nearby Holidaysburg, where the PRR constructed the  Samuel Rea shops, which opened its doors in 1956.

Mergers and Modernization Plans

The sixties were a time of great change within the shops. On February 1, 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company and the New York Central System merged, creating the Penn Central Transportation Company. After the merger, the newly formed Penn Central dropped the Altoona Works name, and simply called the facility Juniata Locomotive Shops (JBS). Prior to the merger, it was decided that the Juniata Shops would be the main diesel electric repair center, and the Samuel Rae car shops would be the main rolling stock maintenance facility. Workers from New York Central’s shops in Rochester, New York, and Beech Grove shops in Indiana were shifted to Juniata.

The newly formed Penn Central planned to revitalize and modernize the locomotive shops, however, failures in the company’s management put a hold on these plans, and the young railroad went bankrupt in 1970, after only two years of operation. This resulted in government intervention, which led congress to develop the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973. This resulted in the formation of Conrail, which took over the Altoona shops upon incorporation on April 1, 1976. Conrail developed a plan to once again revitalize the shops, and put $14.5 million towards the effort. These shops were a vital locomotive repair facility, and employed over one-thousand workers.

Current Era

After Norfolk Southern acquired the shops in the Conrail merger, they carried on the shop’s legacy of excellence. Other railroads throughout North America continue to ship their locomotives to Juniata for repair and rebuild. Currently, the crews at the shops can perform a frame-up rebuild in just 6.5 days, and is cost effective and environmentally friendly. Juniata also has an in house emissions testing facility, of which Norfolk Southern is the only railroad that has this in house, allowing them to test locomotives for fuel efficiency and to meet strict Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations. With these many technological advancements, the Juniata shops has become one of the most modern and advanced in the railroad industry.

The Juniata locomotive shop is the only heavy repair facility in the industry that has outside contracts from locomotive manufacturers, such as General Electric and Electro-Motive Diesel (EMD). These contracts allow the shops to assemble kits delivered to them by these manufacturers. These outside contracts are facilitated through Thoroughbred Mechanical Services, which is a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern.

The Juniata Shops is the preferred heavy repair shop throughout the Norfolk Southern system, as about 1,200 of the railroad’s locomotives visit the shop annually. Additionally, many other railroads across North America ship their locomotives to Juniata for heavy repairs due to the quality of work performed.

John Mueller photo

Rebuilds and Refurbishment

Norfolk Southern often purchases second hand locomotives, and rebuild them to their standards. The corporation has discovered that this is cost effective and environmentally friendly, as opposed to purchasing new locomotives. Below are a few notable rebuild programs that have been completed and are ongoing at the Juniata Locomotive Shops to that demonstrate the high quality of work and dedication of the shop employees.

SD40E Program

The SD40E program began in 2008 as an effort to rebuild former Conrail EMD SD50 locomotives. The EMD SD50 did not prove itself as a reliable motor, as it was constantly plagued with many electrical and other reliability problems. However, with the experienced professionals at Juniata, these unreliable units were converted into the SD40E, which contained brand new electrical equipment, a rebuilt EMD 16-645 prime mover, modernized cab, and rebuilt running gear. The final SD40E locomotive was released from the Juniata Shops in September of 2013. The SD40E stands as a testament to the integrity of work performed at Juniata, as they revitalized a locomotive with many mechanical issues, and turned it into a highly efficient and reliable locomotive.

EMD SD60E Program

Rebuilt from EMD SD60 locomotives, the SD60E project is one of the largest rebuild programs facilitated by Norfolk Southern. These locomotives underwent upgrades such as electrical, prime mover rebuilds, and a new cab called the “Crescent Cab”. The Crescent cab’s wide nose design increased the locomotives crash worthiness and improved crew comforts. The SD60E locomotive offered increased fuel efficiency due to the locomotives microprocessor upgrades that allowed for cleaner emissions and improved engine performance.

The SD60Es were one of the first locomotives to feature the new “split cooling” system, developed by team members within the shops. This innovation increased fuel economy by lowering the locomotives water temperature, reducing it by over 40 degrees. There are 160 SD60E rebuilds and can currently be seen hauling main line trains across the Norfolk Southern system.

Roy Luck photo


Throughout 2014, Norfolk Southern purchased many SD9043MACs from Union Pacific, to be rebuilt into SD70ACU locomotives. These units featured updated electronics, a rebuilt prime mover, and a new wide cab which meets the current Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) crash worthiness standards. These upgrades allowed the SD70ACU to perform similarly to the standards of the SD70ACe locomotive. Currently, there are 105 SD70ACU locomotives built and on the Norfolk Southern active locomotive roster. These units were also fitted with Positive Train Control (PTC) and other Norfolk Southern specific upgrades.

EMD GP40 Passenger Rebuilds

Various passenger railroads have ordered locomotive rebuilds through Juniata. In the late eighties, New Jersey Transit sent their ex-CNJ GP40P units to Juniata to rebuilt into GP40PH-2 locomotives. During rebuild, these locomotives received upgraded dash two electronics, and a Caterpillar head end power unit, replacing the steam generator. In the early nineties, NJ Transit placed two more orders of GP40 locomotives. These were rebuilt from former Conrail locomotives, and received upgraded electronics and a Caterpillar head end power generator.

Lasting Impact on the Railroad Industry

Surpassing 150 years old, Altoona Works is one of the oldest shops in the industry, famous for its innovation and precision. Perhaps the most innovative accomplishment of the shops is the construction of the first steel railcars, which were first designed and developed at the shops, which left a lasting legacy of safety and reliability for various service throughout the industry. The shops are also credited for developing the flagship passenger power for the Pennsylvania Railroad, the 4-6-2 K4s Pacific, which was engineered in Altoona in 1914, which serves as a true testament to the dedication of the design team at the shops.

The sheer quantity of locomotives built at the shops led the industry in locomotive production and design. The shops pioneered different methods of locomotive efficiency, which revolutionized how the industry operated and designed their locomotives. The shops continue to make an impact on the rail industry through their technologically advanced locomotive emission testing facility, which continues to serve as a benchmark in the industry. The shops continue to employ the most experienced railroaders, which contributes to its overwhelming success, and continue to inspire innovation within the railroad industry.














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