Blue Springs, Mo.’s, Harmon Industries makes the controls that keep the railways safe and efficient. Michael Terreri tracks the story.
This show-me-state supplier of train control systems and services to the freight and rail-transit markets in North America and around the world has led the field practically since its beginning in 1946. It was then that Robert C. Harmon — armed with $10,000, some rented space in a custom furniture and upholstery facility, a 9-inch lathe, a workbench and a few other industrial odds and ends — developed a voice carrier to be marketed to American railways. Since then, the product list has grown to immense proportion, all of which is dedicated to servicing the railroad industry.
Highway crossing systems are probably what come to mind first. Harmon Industries produces the electronic controls, of course. But in addition, this innovator supplies America with everything from walking cantilevers and flashing light signals to the bungalows and cases that house the equipment. Motion detectors are key to crossing safety. The detection of approaching trains and the activation of the warning devices at the crossing are crucial to rail safety. Harmon Industries manufactures the state-of-the-art components necessary to make sure the lights get lit and the bells get rung.
Harmon’s Advanced Automatic Train Control is a train system using a wireless data communication network that can track vehicle location, speed and direction on a nearly continuous basis. The system can pinpoint train positions within 15 feet. Because it allows for continuous speed control, schedule reliability is improved, energy use is made more efficient and the railroad’s clients, rail passengers in New York and San Francisco especially, reap the benefits of a higher quality of service.
Other American cities enjoy the efficiency Harmon Industries controls produce. In St. Louis, the 18-mile MetroLink was the first light rail system that was totally microprocessor-based. Denver boasts of Harmon signals and controls, as do San Diego, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In 1995, Harmon Industries won the contract to design, build and install a microprocessor system on Chicago’s “Green Line,” perhaps the busiest system in the United States.
But the best products will fall short of top performance standards without the technical support necessary during installation and afterwards. The company’s goal is to provide full-service technical expertise in tandem with top-quality products. One way that this can be done is through a company-run school. The Mid-America School of Railway Technologies was created to that end.
The students are railway signal workers. Through the school’s state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory facility in the Blue Springs corporate facility, the individuals who will be using the systems are subjected to simulated field conditions and are taught how to respond in an environment that closely replicates what they will experience on the job. Participants train on equipment manufactured by all the leading companies – safety doesn’t leave room for competitive attitudes – and the students leave the six-week course with a strong knowledge in equipment theory as well as the hands-on ability to install, maintain, adjust and troubleshoot the equipment necessary to allow them to do their jobs efficiently. The instructors all have a substantial amount of field experience, and the low teacher-to-student ratio allows ample opportunity for strong interaction, even to the point of one-on-one instruction.
Harmon Industries owns a number of subsidiaries. Included in the long list are Vaughan Harmon Systems, Ltd., a market leader of train describers, passenger information and modular railway control systems; SESCO, Inc., providing complete communications, security and dispatching systems; Harmon Control & Information Systems, Inc., for the design and installation of operations control systems; CSS, Inc., and DJR, Inc., offering design, installation and maintenance of grade-crossing warning systems; and Golden Gate Switchgear, Co., Inc., a leading manufacturer of both alternating-current and direct-current switch gear for electrified rail and commercial applications. Internationally, Harmon boasts Silani-Harmon, the largest independent signal supplier in Italy; and sales and service suppliers in Canada (Vale-Harmon Enterprises), Australia (Harmon Industries Australia Pty, Ltd.) and Mexico (Industrias Harmon de Mexico, S.A. de C.V.).
The company is headed by Björn E. Olsson, the president and chief executive officer, who has been at the helm since 1990. He is assisted by a strong team of able associates, including four executive vice presidents: Lloyd Kaiser, sales and marketing; Bill Marberg, technology; Ray Rosewall, chief operating officer; and Steve Schmitz, chief financial officer.
The success of Harmon Industries can be measured in its ability to get its product to the marketplace. The client base recognizes the leadership position of the company and is attracted to it because of reputation, quality products and services, and low pricing structure. Much of the its business is repeat business, while a great deal of new business comes in as a result of client referral.
Harmon Industries has been and continues to be a technology and service leader. It has built a heritage of innovation by adapting and applying new technologies to rail transport. Its expertise and service provide global solutions to the problems of the passenger and freight rail transportation lines throughout the world.