ASLRRA 2022 Awards Roundup

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
image description

ASLRRA inducted the late Walter Rich into its Hall of Fame.

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA), at its Annual Conference & Exhibition in St. Louis, Mo., presented its 2022 Safety Person of the Year, Safety Professional of the Year, Business Development Award, Short Line Hall of Fame and Schlosser Distinguished Service Award honorees.

2022 Safety Person of the Year: Nathaniel Mazo, General Manager, OmniTRAX

As the General Manager of four OmniTRAX properties (Cleveland & Cuyahoga Railroad – CCRL, Cleveland Harbor Belt Railroad – CHB, Northern Ohio & Western Railroad – NOW, and the Newburg & South Shore Railroad – NSR), Nathaniel Mazo has exhibited a high degree of safety awareness, acknowledging that while safety compliance is of paramount importance, a strong safety culture driven from the top is imperative. He instituted regional safety programs designed to ensure that employees understand the safety goals of the company, including training employees on work rules compliance, defining and implementing new employee training, supporting locomotive engineer certification and training, and expanding operational testing for all employees. 

“As General Manager, he has developed an operating philosophy of open and constant communications in the workplace including conducting daily safety meetings. One of the steps Nate took because of these meetings was to establish a Regional Safety Committee that focuses on maintaining safe operations and looking for ways to improve on an already very safe environment. He is a hands-on type of person who takes a personal interest in the well-being of the associates on his team, and leads by example,” said Dean Piacente, CEO, OmniTRAX.

As a result of Mazo’s leadership, in 2021, his railroads exceeded OmniTRAX’s key metrics in Operations, Safety, and Finance, while delivering exceptional safety results: NSR, 24 years injury free; NOW , 5 years injury free; CHB, 3 years injury free; and CCRL, 3 years injury free.

In Mazo’s nomination form, colleagues from many areas of OmniTRAX shared their experiences.

“In the three years I’ve spent working with Nate, he has always been a source of honesty and knowledge. He willingly helps where needed and is a vital member of our leadership team. He runs four railroads safely and efficiently and consistently exceeds key metrics. I am extremely proud to have Nate in the OmniTRAX family and am very happy to have developed a friendship along the way,” said Bob Ellman, Regional Vice President of Operations for the North Region. Ellman also notes that even as a General Manager, Mr. Mazo is proficient and current in almost all crafts.

Scott Remington, VP of Safety for OmniTRAX shared, “Nate takes complete ownership of safety in his region and demonstrates our most important core value of safety. What truly sets him apart from others in the industry is the level of engagement with his employees. He spends countless hours in the field teaching and coaching his employees. His dedication has set the example with zero personal injuries, not an easy feat in the railroad industry.”

Mazo is an active volunteer for The Hungry Network of Greater Cleveland, a consortium of 74 hunger centers strategically located throughout Cuyahoga County, feeding 40,000 people each month through a network of neighborhood-based food pantries and hot meal sites. 

2022 Safety Professional of the Year: Ross Grantham, Chief Operating Officer, Pioneer Lines

When Ross Grantham arrived at Pioneer Lines in 2019, he faced an injury frequency rate of 15.96 per 200,000 employee on-duty hours—an unacceptable statistic. Grantham got to work quickly to transform the safety culture. In the first year, Mr. Grantham led the Pioneer team with an emphasis on empowerment, communication, and accountability. He encouraged employees to recognize and report unsafe conditions, communicate quickly and transparently across the company, and commit to excellence in safety practices. He developed a Pioneer Safety Statement, stood up a Safety Department, and following safety audits on each railroad, implemented Safety Action Plans. In his first year as COO, Pioneer’s reportable incidents decreased by 50% and there were zero reportable human factor incidents.

Grantham’s servant-leader philosophy, and his unwavering focus on mentoring talent and putting the needs of employees first, empowered Pioneer managers to perform at their best. 

General Managers on the Pioneer Lines team affirmed that Mr. Grantham’s approach has made a tremendous difference.

“Ross didn’t come on board and immediately command new rules and orders. He took time to listen to our needs, and then provided us with the tools necessary to do our jobs. He coached me through a number of tough conversations and helped me recognize these were driving us towards a better and safer workplace. He is a great leader, and he makes me do better,” said Billy Chitwood, Southern Region General Manager.

Brent Lofton, Central Region General Manager shared, “He came in with a lot of energy and provided us with a structure around safety that hadn’t existed before. He cleaned up the rule books, put a safety action plan in place, and provided the safety structure that led to accountability for the Pioneer Team. Ultimately, that resulted in more focus on safety and better performance.” 

In March 2022, Pioneer Lines achieved a significant milestone – twelve consecutive months without a single injury across the network, bringing Pioneer’s injury frequency rate to zero, well below the industry average of 2.18 per 200,000 employee on-duty hours. 

“This achievement would not have been possible without Ross,” affirmed Alex Yeros, Pioneer Lines CEO and President. “When we acquired Pioneer in 2019, the company’s injury rate was unacceptable. We immediately recognized safety would be our first priority and under Ross’ leadership, we undertook several initiatives to build a strong safety culture and set an ambitious goal of no injuries across our entire network. To reach this milestone in such a short amount of time is truly a testament to Ross’ ability to clearly communicate our goals, garner the necessary buy-in from the Pioneer team, and motivate everyone towards a safer and stronger business.”

“The fact is that railroading can be a dangerous job. To enable every person to return home safely every day requires an unwavering commitment to a safe workplace, despite relentless competing priorities. These two awards recognize a career-long safety focus and honor leaders who hold their companies and their peers accountable to and for each other,” said Chuck Baker, President of ASLRRA. “This year’s honorees, Nathaniel Mazo of OmniTRAX and Ross Grantham of Pioneer Lines, illustrate that one person can make a significant difference across a company, ultimately delivering industry-leading safety performance results and managing world-class freight railroad operations.”

2022 Business Development Awards

“As the supply chain continued to experience pandemic-related disruptions through 2021, short line railroads sought ways to capitalize on opportunities presented in the wake of truck driver shortages, changing customer buying patterns, and manufacturers challenged to keep plants running in the face of uncertain supply,” ASLRRA noted in selecting three 2022 Business Development Award winners: the Allegheny Valley Railroad, CRANDIC Rail, and the Union County Industrial Railroad. “These member railroads were honored for creative use of their unique operations to deliver value to shippers; utilizing partnerships with development authorities, Class I’s, and shippers to capture business opportunities; and driving economic success for shippers and the communities they serve. 

“The Business Development Award honors the hallmarks of short line railroading – having a keen understanding of customer needs, relentlessly seeking opportunities to grow customer business, and executing creative customer service solutions to benefit their customers and the communities they serve,” said Chuck Baker. “Our three awardees have each taken a challenging national supply chain disruption and made lemonade out of lemons, finding significant new opportunities to move freight to rail, taking thousands of truckloads off the road.”

Allegheny Valley Railroad Steels Itself for Challenge Setting Up Transload Facility

The Allegheny Valley Railroad (AVR) identified an opportunity for a transload facility in the Pittsburgh area that would serve the local steel industry. A portion of their Glenwood Yard was available to be developed for this purpose, and the team went to work in early 2020 to scope the project, seeking customers that would require a facility that included an overhead gantry crane. After identifying a key partner—a major steel producer needing to ship plate steel by rail to the area for last-mile distribution by truck—work began to engineer the 4+ acre facility site and the 1,000+ foot-long sidetrack that would serve it.

After a $725,000 investment by the AVR, shipments began in Q1 2021. AVR focused on expediting product offloading to maximize equipment utilization of valuable railcar assets, and delivered material in manageable truckload quantities in a sequence that fit the end customer needs for their last mile delivery. AVR moved 500 carloads into this facility in 2021. This year, the AVR is working to grow their carload business at this facility by focusing on other non-rail served companies, taking trucks off the road, and diversifying the commodity mix served by the Glenwood Yard.

CRANDIC Rail Takes Advantage of Central Location to Position Itself for Significant Growth

CRANDIC’s heritage is loaded with examples of investments in innovative operations that typify the entrepreneurial spirit of the short line industry. CRANDIC continues to anticipate customers’ future needs and deliver solutions to the market.

The COVID pandemic and its supply chain disruptions, including the truck driver shortage, were viewed as an opportunity by CRANDIC. The company focused on the 750-mile+ shipment of goods via truck into Cedar Rapids, and used its Logistics Park Cedar Rapids facility, which opened in 2021, to execute. Rail could compete favorably with this typically long-haul truck route, even with the additional costs to transfer the product to a local warehouse, hold until needed by the customer, and truck the final miles to the customer location. The customer could have enough product in a close-by warehouse to smooth out the demand peaks and alleviate the stress of trucks not being available when needed.

CRANDIC next took a hard look at the sub 500-mile market and held a fleet of boxcars ready to capture this business from trucking. In 2021, CRANDIC moved a record amount of boxcar traffic. Key shippers increased shipments by 900 cars or 28% year-over-year, and 42% over levels seen 10 years ago. Despite having 350 cars in its current pool, the proof of concept has shippers looking for more. CRANDIC is actively pursuing another 100 boxcars for its customers. 

CRANDIC looks forward to continued growth in these target markets in 2022.

Union County Industrial Railroad Building Business with an Emphasis on Customer Service

The Union County Industrial Railroad (UCIR) travels over 18.2 miles in Pennsylvania and serves only eight customers, but it has found a way to grow carloads by 300% over a ten-year period, with zero FRA-reportable injuries. The UCIR drives growth by creating new, innovative methods of providing customer service. They customize business processes to meet the needs of each of their customers, fostering trust and deepening customer relationships. 

This relentless drive to be a better partner has opened the doors to a variety of new opportunities including reopening their Delta Place transload siding to service agricultural customers during the pandemic, rehabilitating an unused siding to match new growth at customer Winfield Storage, and working with two new customers to locate along the UCIR line, the most recent customer bringing 60 family-sustaining jobs to the local area. In fact, UCIR maintains an inventory of available properties along their line and markets those parcels when the time and buyer is right – a practice that has proven to work. 

The UCIR commitment goes beyond the businesses that they serve. They are an integral part of their community, donating passenger excursions to non-profits, serving on boards and committees of economic development groups, and assisting customers that are new to the area with hiring and connections to area services and businesses, ensuring their long-term success.

2022 Short Line Hall of Fame

ASLRRA has selected George Betke, Chairman, Farmrail Systems and Walter Rich, former Chairman, Delaware Otsego Corp (posthumously) as its 2022 Short Line Hall of Fame inductees. The roster recognizes exceptional leaders and entrepreneurs who paved the way for the growth and impact of the modern short line industry. 

“It’s often recognized that today’s short line leaders stand on the shoulders of giants,” said Chuck Baker. “We are fortunate to enjoy the mentorship and leadership of the generations who have gone before us. George Betke and Walter Rich have not only led successful short line enterprises, but they have also challenged the industry to do ever-better, and contributed their talents to the growth and development of our Association and its members. They are each industry giants and uniquely deserving of being the second class inducted into the Short Line Hall of Fame.”

George Betke: Colleagues, employees, customers and friends use words like “legend”, “inspiration”, “visionary”, and “dedicated” when talking about George Betke, Founder and Chairman of Oklahoma-based Farmrail System. Under his stewardship, Farmrail evolved from a 35-mile joint venture into a 347-mile network covering 12 counties. 

An economics graduate of Amherst College, Betke started his working career as a trust investment officer of a Dallas bank, leaving to earn an M.B.A. at the University of North Carolina. He performed transportation securities research for a New York institutional brokerage, co-founded a private investment boutique, and later formed his own railroad-oriented consulting firm to assist others in business analysis and the structuring of sound transactions. 

Farmrail became the first short line to establish a formal Employee Stock Ownership Plan as a foundation for teamwork, with Farmrail employees challenged to “think like an owner.” Betke also designed the public-private financial structure for Finger Lakes Railway, a joint venture with five county industrial development authorities in upstate New York that was co-founded by Farmrail. 

He has made invaluable contributions to ASLRRA and the overall industry as a member of the Association’s Executive and Legislative Policy Committees and is widely viewed as a thought leader. In 2016 he received the Thomas L. Schlosser Distinguished Service Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Association that recognizes above-and-beyond leaders for their contributions to the Association. 

Walter Rich: The short-line industry lost a tireless and dedicated leader in 2007 when Walter Rich, Chairman, of the Delaware Otsego Corp., passed away. 

He had served as Chairman, President and CEOr of the Delaware Otsego since 1971 and held leadership roles at its New York Susquehanna & Western Railway and Central New York Railroad units. 

Rich was a member and past chairman of the Eastern General Managers Association, where he worked to improve rail safety, organizing numerous industry seminars on the subject. In 1988, he was recognized by his industry colleagues, receiving the Right-Hand Man Award. 

In 1994, he was elected vice president of the Eastern Region board of directors for ASLRRA and later served for five years as chairman of the Association. He was an influential and dynamic spokesman for the short line industry during the 1980’s and 1990’s, when the number and reach of short lines was growing rapidly. 

Rich, who earned undergraduate and law degrees from Syracuse University, was active in several organizations in Cooperstown, New York and the state of New York. An avid railfan and memorabilia collector, he was a member of the National Railway Historical Society and a trustee for the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library.

2022 Schlosser Distinguished Service Award Winner

ASLRRA presented LTG (Ret.) Richard F. Timmons with the 2022 Schlosser Distinguished Service Award. The award, named for former ASLRRA Chairman Thomas L. Schlosser, is the highest individual honor bestowed by the ASLRRA, recognizing an individual for his or her long-term, significant service to the ASLRRA and the short line industry.

“I am proud to honor General Timmons with the Distinguished Service Award,” said Chuck Baker. “He was a tireless advocate for the short line industry inside and outside the beltway. The programs he initiated are still foundational offerings of the Association, and his advocacy on behalf of short lines was highly effective. His work and his team laid the groundwork for the legislative, regulatory, and reputational successes short lines are still enjoying today. We are grateful for his service to our Association, our industry and our country.”

Timmons served as ASLRRA President from 2002 until his retirement in 2014. Many of the Association’s key initiatives were instituted under his leadership, including the Short Line Rehabilitation Tax Credit (45G), the establishment of the Short Line Safety Institute, and the creation of training programs and compliance templates for member railroads. Mr. Timmons was also a tireless and highly respected advocate for the short line industry, represented the interests of these railroads before Congress, Federal and State regulatory agencies and on the policy and technical committees of the U.S. railroad industry. He regularly provided key testimony before Congress, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the Surface Transportation Board highlighting the benefits of short line service to shippers and the small town and rural communities they serve.

Prior to joining ASLRRA, Timmons was employed with Norfolk Southern as the corporation’s chief political liaison to the states of Pennsylvania and New York, representing the corporation’s interests in the areas of legislative and regulatory policy. In addition, Mr. Timmons served for 32 years in the United States Army, retiring as a Lieutenant General. His career included a range of operational, political and staff assignments, including Commander of the Eighth Army in Korea, Chief of Staff of the United Nations Command in Korea, Commander 7th Infantry Division, Executive Officer to the Secretary of the Army and Army liaison officer to the U.S. Senate. 

Timmons is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College and holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Virginia Military Institute, a master’s in personnel administration from Central Michigan University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Alabama. He has completed postgraduate work at the Yale School of Management, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Timmons was named Railway Age’s 2006 Railroader of the Year.

Tags: , ,