Worst-case scenario: Kawasaki’s rail car contracts dry up today.

In that case, says Shin-Ichi Tamba, president of Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing, U.S.A., the company’s northwest Lincoln rail car plant has enough work to keep its 220 employees busy until 2010.

More realistic, rail car division manager Lanny Nissen said, is an expansion of the plant within the next few years and a work force of around 500 by 2010.

Kawasaki officials say that the Lincoln plant is going to be the premier production site for light rail passenger cars bound for the North American market. Eventually, the company expects to send Lincoln-built cars abroad, Tamba said.

The rail car plant, south of Kawasaki’s consumer products plant, has more than doubled its work force since it began producing cars in late 2001, Nissen said. Workers for the rail car plant are hired from among the most experienced at the consumer products plant, which then hires replacements, Tamba said.  

The consumer products plant employs 1,400 people making personal watercraft, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, industrial robots and parts.  

For both plants combined, officials say, Kawasaki has made about 600 new hires over the last two years or so.

Kawasaki Rail Car also has a plant in Yonkers, N.Y, which Tamba said is important because of its proximity to the East Coast transit systems that are the company’s largest group of customers.

However, he said, the Lincoln plant is the only plant in the United States “that can build a rail car from scratch.“

Lincoln is now working on an order of 33 double-deck cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates light rail service in the Boston area, as well as at least 240 cars for the New York subway system. The plant has already delivered more than 250 cars to New York, the company says.

Kawasaki is also fulfilling a $1.2 billion contract for New York cars with a U.K. company, Alstom Transportation Inc. Looming is a job for another 340-plus cars for the Port Authority Trans-Hudson train system of New York-New Jersey.   That’s the system that goes underground and under water between New York and Jersey City. 

The pace at which Kawasaki Rail Car picks up new contracts, Nissen said will decide the growth of the plant. The company is seeking deals from Vancouver, British Columbia, Philadelphia, Chicago and other cities.

The rail car plant covers more than 437,000 square feet, and there are more than 200 acres available for expansion, according to the company.

Reach Rodd Cayton at 473-7107 or at rcayton@journalstar.com