ASLRRA Announces 2024 Business Development, Veterans Engagement Award Winners

Written by Carolina Worrell, Senior Editor
ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker

The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) recognizes three short line railroads with its 2024 Business Development Award. Separately, ASLRRA has announced Watco as the recipient of its 2024 Veterans Engagement Award.

ASLRRA has selected three short line railroads to honor for business development excellence, showcasing the heart of short line rail operations—“commitment to solving customer problems, creating unique opportunities for growth, and ensuring the well-being of the communities they serve.”

According to ASLRRA, Indiana Rail Road (INRD), Indiana and Ohio Railway (IORY), and Mission Mountain Railroad (MMT) each demonstrated “innovative and successful business-building initiatives crafted to meet the needs of their customers, using the unique capabilities of their railroads.” The awards will be presented at the ASLRRA Annual Conference and Exhibition on March 25, 2024 in Kansas City, Mo.

“The Business Development Award honors the hallmarks of short line railroading—developing deep relationships with customers, seeking growth one carload at a time, and bringing the distinct capabilities of a short line to bear in executing solutions that benefit their customers and the communities they serve,” said ASLRRA President Chuck Baker. “Our three awardees showcase short lines’ ability to create and anticipate growth, move quickly to solve customer problems and, when necessary, reinvent themselves to save jobs and the local economy.”

The 2024 Business Development Awardees are:

INRD—Capitalizing on Market Conditions with a Strategic Build-out

In 2013, INRD established an “all-rail” option for trans-Pacific import and export freight moving to and from Indiana via West Coast ports with the completion of a modern and user-friendly intermodal hub. Conversations with customers, and eastern seaboard port trends indicated an opportunity to replicate the West Coast port capabilities to develop a coast-to-coast solution.

The INRD committed to a multi-year, $6.5 million project build which would increase capacity for West Coast traffic and include new east-coast lanes at its Senate Avenue Terminal. Twelve acres of adjacent land, formerly an unsightly auto salvage yard, were cleared for the expansion, increasing 40-foot equivalent unit (FEU) capacity from 40,000 to 120,000. An additional six acres were procured to allow for an empty container and chassis depot, helping customers to improve fluidity of shipments and reduce handling costs.

After completion of the expansion, and the addition of the equipment depot, INRD posted an 80% increase in volume in 2023. Intermodal volume doubled, export container volume tripled, and new jobs were created. The completed project established the Senate Avenue Terminal as the premier intermodal facility in Indiana, and it is the only dual-serviced intermodal facility in the Midwest.

IORY—Supporting a Key Customer’s Growth

Opportunity In March 2023, IORY, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming (G&W), was approached with a challenge to solve for long standing customer North Star BlueScope Recycling, a full-service scrap metal recycler with processing facilities in Waterloo, Ind., and Delta, Ohio.

The opportunity was driven by sister company North Star BlueScope Steel, which had increased steel coil output by 25%. The steel mill needed an increasing amount of inbound raw materials from BlueScope Recycling to service the demand.

North Star BlueScope Steel recognized the positive environmental impact and sustainability of moving freight by rail—even for short distances. The Ohio Rail Development Commission was enthusiastic about the project, as it would reduce congestion on Ohio 109 and around the mill, while also reducing emissions and truck accidents.

Although the mill had a working rail spur to offer, securing cars and a schedule to make this project work took creativity and coordination. The cars were located on another G&W railroad’s property and delivered by Class I interchange partner CSX. Three strings of seven cars are rotated two times per week, delivering 42 carloads from BlueScope recycling to BlueScope Steel.

The project was a win-win for the customer and the railroad. Three crew members were added, carloads from North Star BlueScope Recycling increased 63%, and 3,700 truckloads were eliminated from the surrounding highways. An additional seven-car string has been requested to support demand.

IORY anticipates a 25% increase in carloads in 2024—which could remove a total of 4,625 truckloads from the road annually.

MMT—Reinventing a Railroad from the Ground Up

In 2023, MMT faced a harsh reality: adapt or potentially shut down. Prior to April 2020, the MMT operated 40 track miles in northern Montana. The 14-mile southern branch between Columbia Falls and Kalispell was returned to BNSF at the end of a lease agreement, along with most of the customer base, a new industrial park in Kalispell, and 80% of annual revenue. The team was reduced from 13 to three people who worked as-needed for the sole remaining customer on the company-owned 26-mile section, a transloading yard that sits adjacent to the Eureka depot, primarily handling lumber. In early 2023, the transload owner was also ready to leave the business. Rather than give up, the MMT team opted to figure out how to save their railroad, the terminal, and help their small town.

Using their strong relationship with both the BNSF, and the transloading customer, The MMT eyed the Canada to U.S. lumber market that was shipping by truck across a nearby international point-of-entry, converting traffic to rail and opening the U.S. markets in Texas and Arizona to Canadian lumber shippers. MMT leveraged the purchase of the transload operation to create a new local opportunity—the direct sales of lumber to contractors and builders. Short line ingenuity saved the Mission Mountain Railroad. Since October of 2023, the MMT has more than doubled their workforce, increased traffic by 50%, and increased revenues by 325%. By seizing an opportunity with Canadian lumber, expanding their operations to include its former transload customer, building relationships, and adding jobs, they are helping build their small community of 1,400.

In related news ASLRRA on March 22 announced Watco as the recipient of the 2024 Veterans Engagement Award for their efforts to “hire and retain employees that are veterans of any U.S. branch of military service, including spouses and family members. Watco will be honored at the ASLRRA Annual Conference & Exhibition in Kansas City, Mo., on March 25.

The Veterans Engagement Award recognizes an ASLRRA member employer that “demonstrates positive policies toward U.S. veterans and who implements unique programs and practices to hire, recognize, support and engage with veterans in the workplace and the broader community.”

For ASLRRA member Watco, U.S. military service members and veterans possess skills and values that resonate with the organization and its culture. Recognizing the connections between military members and Watco team members, leadership at the organization created a Military Outreach and Hiring Program in 2022 and added a dedicated military and veteran recruiter position in 2023. In 2023 the outreach team connected with more than 1,150 veterans and separating service members at more than 75 in-person and virtual hiring events and military installation town halls across the U.S. Beyond talking with individuals about the railroad industry and job opportunities at Watco, these events covered resume writing, interview techniques, and timelines and schedules for transitioning from the military to civilian workforce.

“The skills and commitment of military veterans have prepared them to be outstanding railroaders, and our members have long recognized this fact,” said Baker. “Watco’s targeted Military Outreach and Hiring Program, has led to 103 veterans hired in 2023. Now, seven percent of Watco’s team members have served or are currently reservists in the U.S. armed forces. Watco’s efforts in connecting veterans to the rail industry, including internships, have been recognized by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force Base and the U.S. Army’s Partnership for Your Success.”

To build direct relationships with the military, Watco has increased its work with Transition Assistance Program (TAP) offices at different installations. The TAP is a standardized program across all the armed services, providing information, tools and training for individuals undergoing the military-to-civilian transition. In addition to working with TAP offices, Watco collaborates with state workforce agencies, job corps offices and other non-profit veteran employment organizations in its education and recruitment efforts.

As a sponsored employer with the Army Career Skills Program at Fort Moore in Georgia and a host company with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes Program, Watco also welcomes service members as interns, allowing them to learn firsthand about transportation careers and the railroad industry.

Watco focuses on highlighting veteran employees throughout the year, but in particular during National Military Veterans and Families Month in November and National Hire a Veteran Day in July, highlighting them in the company newsletter and on its social media profiles. In addition, Watco has created a special challenge coin, similar to those exchanged by service members, to honor its veteran employees.

Supporting their veteran workforce goes “beyond the company doors,” ASLRRA stated in a release, with Watco raising money to support veterans’ organizations. Recent recipients have included the USO, USA Cares, Honor Flight and more, with Watco donating over $22,000 to date.

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