As Volkswagen readies to roll out its first new Passats, the automaker's worldwide production chief checked out the Chattanooga plant Wednesday and gave it a green light.
"It's phenomenal," said Volkswagen AG management board member Michael Macht after officials marked completion of a massive rail yard from which 85 percent of all vehicles will be hauled to dealers.
Macht, who was in the city with the Volkswagen group's overall quality chief, cited the progress at the $1 billion plant and the new Passat it will soon launch for customers.
"The new Passat will be a great car," said Porsche's former management board chairman. "We're very optimistic."
On Wednesday, VW and Hamilton County officials oversaw one of the final construction landmarks at the plant before it begins shipment of cars to points across North America.
The group arrived at the shipping yard on a passenger rail car pulled by a restored steam locomotive built in 1904 and belonging to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum. They drove in two ceremonial golden spikes into the rail bed.
Frank Fischer, who heads VW's local operations, quipped that while he liked the train ride in a "Chattanooga Choo Choo," he still prefers the 2012 Passat.
"This is another important milestone in Volkswagen's return to production in North America," he said. "It's another big step in our project ... and completely on time."
Fischer said rail is efficient and environmentally friendly.
"It very well fits with our motto of green city, green plant, green car," he said.
Tim Andrews of the Hamilton County Railroad Authority said the railroad work, which is taxpayer funded, cost about $6 million. The 23 miles of track at Enterprise South - the biggest rail overhaul in and around the Volunteer Army Ammunition Plant since the tracks were laid during World War II - link with both Norfolk Southern and CSX.
Joerg Schnackenberg, VW's general manager for vehicle logistics at its Herndon, Va., headquarters in the United States, said the shipping yard can handle 60 rail cars hauling 840 vehicles at one time.
The site has space to add more tracks and handle over 1,000 cars a day, he said.
"One of the advantages of the site was access to two rail companies," said Schnackenberg.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said automotive history was written Wednesday. "This event marks the beginning of a new era," he said.
Claude Ramsey, Gov. Bill Haslam's deputy and chief of staff, said the rail yard is at about the place where Hamilton officials stood three years ago with VW site selectors who were looking for a location for a plant.
Ramsey said officials told VW that the wooded Enterprise South industrial park site would be cleared so they could better view the tract. Heavy equipment was brought in and work on the parcel hasn't stopped since.
Steve Leach, the city's public works administrator, said the rail connection will not just serve VW, but other companies in the industrial park such as Tag Manufacturing and a new ADM facility.
Volkswagen plans to employ between 2,000 and 2,500 workers and produce 150,000 vehicles annually at the 2 million-square-foot plant.