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Thales Transport and Security in McCandless riding rails to success

| Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, 10:54 p.m.
John Brohm, president of Thales Transport and Security Inc., accompanies some of the devices that his growing staff in McCandless has developed for monitoring rail trains on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
John Brohm, president of Thales Transport and Security Inc., accompanies some of the devices that his growing staff in McCandless has developed for monitoring rail trains on Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.
This ticket validator is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s computer devices for monitoring trains.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
This ticket validator is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s computer devices for monitoring trains.
This is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s computer devices for monitoring trains.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
This is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s computer devices for monitoring trains.
This train axle counter is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s devices for monitoring trains.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
This train axle counter is one of Thales Transport and Security Inc.'s devices for monitoring trains.

Frank Staltari hesitated when he got a call from a former colleague about a job opportunity at Thales Transport and Security Inc.

The McCandless office was a much smaller operation than where Staltari worked at transportation giant Bombardier. But his friend assured him that Thales was growing.

Staltari took the job in January and said he has since found a nimble, innovative place where he has had a bigger impact on the way engineering is done.

“It has a small company feel here,” Staltari said. “We have a lot more freedom.”

Recruiting talent like Staltari is why Thales has made a home in Western Pennsylvania.

Thales Transport and Security is a division of a much larger Paris-based parent, Thales Group.

The global company with $17.1 billion in annual revenue and 61,000 employees in 56 countries — including $2.2 billion in revenue and 3,000 people in the United States — makes high-tech products for aerospace, defense, security and space, and some of the most sophisticated ground transportation systems in the world.

Thales is getting a toehold in the U.S. rail industry, the focus of the Pittsburgh operation. The transportation division is a fraction of the size of competitors such as Wabtec or Bombardier, and it accounts for about 10 percent of Thales' business in the United States, where most of its sales are in aerospace.

Thales is stepping up efforts to expand transportation sales, however, as the nation's aging mass transit systems upgrade to more efficient train control and signaling technology.

Pittsburgh is critical to Thales' efforts to grow. The region has fresh engineering talent coming out of its universities and experienced people working for some of the nation's leading rail companies, including Wabtec, Bombardier, Ansaldo and Siemens.

“Pittsburgh has probably the highest concentration of experienced signaling resources in the nation,” said John Brohm, president of Thales Transport and Security. “It just seemed to be the place to be.”

Thales has had an office here for 15 years, but most of its growth in Pittsburgh has been recent, Brohm said. The number of people working there has more than doubled this year to nearly 100 people.

Annual government spending on communication and information systems for public transit — including commuter lines, light rail, buses and streetcars — increased 33 percent between 2010 and 2013 to $1.6 billion, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

There is a growing need to upgrade aging rail systems with safer and more efficient technology, said Martin Schroder, the association's chief technical officer.

Subway systems such as New York's — which uses Thales' technology — are not only replacing rails and cars, but the software that controls them. Cities are looking for ways to expand capacity without boring more tunnels.

Thales says its control systems can help subways improve the efficiency and timing of running cars so that they can move more people.

“As public transit continues to grow and become an integrating fabric of communities around the country, suppliers such as those like Thales will have opportunities to expand transit systems, while improving their safety and accessibility,” Schroder said.

Adapting old systems for the modern age requires more than a cookie cutter solution. Each system has its own idiosyncrasies that require customized technology, something Thales engineers excel at doing, Brohm said.

“We are a pretty enterprising group of people here,” he said. “We like our challenges so we like to confront them.”

Thales is working with West Virginia University to modernize the Morgantown campus' rapid transit system. It was a modern marvel of mass transit when Boeing built it in the 1970s, and one that carriers about 15,000 people daily. But the system is outdated, and last year, the university turned to Thales for help upgrading the software network that controls the automated trains, the fare collection gates and the system that alerts passengers to when a train is arriving.

“It's been a partnership,” said Clement Solomon, director of transportation and parking for the university. “There are lots of things that we need to work on collaboratively. Our experience has been good.”

Helping Thales negotiate these challenges and develop solutions for unique problems has been exciting for Staltari. At Bombardier, he was one of about 800 employees in Pittsburgh. Thales has grown, but is still small by comparison.

“I have an opportunity to put my stamp on the engineering,” he said.

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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