On the right track: Twin City Signal

Written by jrood

(This article appeared the July-August 2009 St. Croix Chronicle, a publication of the St. Croix Economic Development Corp.) Even in the current economic downturn, it's been several years of full steam ahead for Twin City Signal in Hudson, Wis. In order to meet immediate demands for its services, the railroad signal engineering and design company, founded in Hudson in 1996, has expanded into an additional facility across from its 7,200-square-foot headquarters on Livingstone Road. The move nearly doubles its space, and founder and company president Lee Kisling sees rails and more rails in the future.

"We have our hands full
of work – a major avalanche of work this summer and continuing for several
years," says Kisling, who is now senior director for signal engineering
services after the sale of TCS to Progress Rail Services, a division of
Caterpillar International, in 2008. "We are really on the front wave and now
are looking to increase our staff."

Currently the company
employs 41 people in the design of centralized traffic control systems,
interlockings and grade-crossing warning systems as well as the applications,
upgrades, field service and training to support signal projects. Kisling says
the company plans to hire about 12 more engineers and support staff in part to
meet a $5-million annual contract to upgrade signal systems with BNSF among
other rail signal projects in the works across the country and beyond.

While light and commuter
rail lines are beginning and continuing to be a growth area in the future, says
Kisling, the immediate industry need is due to a federal mandate, called H.R.
2095 or the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, that requires existing U.S.
rail lines to upgrade their signal systems within five years. Federal economic
stimulus money is likely to be used for more shovel-ready state and municipal
projects or new rail lines or corridor extensions, Kisling said.

Kisling is no stranger to
the rails. He worked for 20 years at BNSF as a signal engineer before starting
his company when BNSF began outsourcing that portion of operations. Several
BNSF colleagues accompanied him at start-up some 13 years ago.

"It was an opportunity
for me, and I didn’t want to relocate my family," said Kisling. "I knew nothing
about business, but as an engineer I knew enough to solicit the help of a couple
of other people. We were able to start up and grow, with our link back to the ‘mother
road’ of BNSF."

That relationship with
BNSF has remained strong over the years, yet TCS has gone on to complete rail
signal projects from Seattle and New Orleans to Chicago and Minneapolis, plus
Canada and Sarajevo, Bosnia. The recent partnering with the PRS division of
Caterpillar has given new steam to TCS’s strength as well.

Such change doesn’t come
without trepidation, however, when you’ve fostered a successful business with a
team of talented, dedicated employees. Kisling admitted he was initially
reluctant to sell TCS, and after considering the reputation of PRS/Caterpillar,
he decided that it would be a good decision for the future of the company, its
employees and its client base.

"I was very careful as to
what kind of culture any partner might bring," said Kisling, who is 58. "It was
important for me, as long as I had tenure, to not disturb the momentum we have
or my ability to manage the company and provide good outcomes for clients."

TCS didn’t have to look
for a partner.

"Caterpillar has a huge
signal division that manufactures the aluminum structures, cantilever masts and
signal masts, but they were missing the engineering piece, and they approached
us. Their vision for the employees, the company and the clients was my main
concern. After a year-and-a-half of talking, I felt it was a good fit," he
said. "They had the same vision of both taking care of clients and taking care
of employees."

Kisling also says that
the sale is very beneficial in that it offers a new level of professional
services in areas like contract negotiation, legal services, patent protection
and other intellectual support areas.

TCS’s proprietary systems
include a logical simulator and a software configuration management plan, and
one of its specialties is moveable bridge renovation and span automation for
unstaffed bridge movement.

The company started in
downtown Hudson with just a few offices on Buckeye Street near the riverfront
next to the Hudson Marina. In 1999, TCS bought its original building, at 1515
Livingstone Road. That facility currently houses the small wire casing shop
plus engineers and administrative support. An addition to the headquarters in
2002 was needed as growth continued.

In late June, TCS leased
a 6,000-square-foot office and warehouse across the street from its
headquarters. Currently office spaces are being outfitted, and a large case and
bungalow wiring shop has been moved and set up along with additional warehouse
space created.

Both wiring shops have
experienced signal wire workers who create custom local control panels to
site-specific locations and the wiring for casings, racks and bungalows used in
signal systems. The components and housings must withstand years in the most
rugged environments.

TCS is currently involved
with the signal design, engineering and installation for Minnesota’s first
commuter rail, the Northstar Commuter Rail Line, where a diesel engine pulls
passenger cars on existing freight lines from Minneapolis to Big Lake. The
Northstar is scheduled to start operating in late 2009.

Kisling anticipates more
projects like the Northstar plus electric trains running on light rail, like
the Metro Transit Hiawatha Line in Minneapolis, as part of the transportation
industry’s future.

"It is very expensive to
build new tracks, and every major city has rail lines already established for
freight," says Kisling. "Rails are really the future of transportation in this
country. We clearly see the future moving toward high speed rail, light rail,
and commuter lines so we are thinking, like every business, to get ready or get
left behind."

While the partnership
with Caterpillar represents a change in company culture, Kisling says that by
staying true to a mission of taking care of clients and taking care of
employees, TCS will thrive. A written quality policy from PRS meshes well with
TCS’s mission from the start: "Program Rail Services pledges all products and
services will be defect free, meeting internal and external customer
requirements, the first time, every time."

Kisling says that’s the
same spirit that grew Twin City Signal.