Views & News - November 29, 2023

Views & News


Issue Highlights:

Regulatory – FRA, DOT stand up new freight office

Legislative – Lawmakers stare down long to-do list in return to Capitol Hill

Announcements – Join others in making a donation to ASLRRA’s Short Line Education Fund

ASLRRA Annual Conference – Purchase a booth in the conference expo hall before the prime spots are gone



Meet Steve Birkey, the Smallest Shipper on Twin Cities and Western Railroad’s Line

The Saturday after Thanksgiving is Small Business Saturday, when people are encouraged to do some of their holiday shopping at local retailers and mom-and-pop stores. Though individuals can’t usually celebrate Small Business Saturday by visiting their local freight railroad to buy a handmade scented candle, most Association railroad members are small businesses with less than 30 employees, that ship commodities for other small businesses across the country. In honor of Small Business Saturday and short lines, ASLRRA tells the story of one of those small shippers and his relationship with ASLRRA member Twin Cities and Western Railroad.

Steve Birkey owns his own small business, one in which he is the sole employee. In these days of e-commerce and Etsy stores, it is not uncommon to hear of one-person businesses, but not the kind run by Birkey. He is Twin Cities and Western Railroad’s smallest shipper, a scrap-metal dealer who loads each gondola car alone, by hand.

Birkey has been shipping with Twin Cities and Western Railroad (TCWR) since 1999. He buys scrap metal from companies and individuals in Montevideo, Minnesota, sorting the mixed scrap by hand and segregating out steel that conforms to steel mill specifications. When needed, Birkey hand torches pieces to get them to the appropriate size. He then throws – or lifts, as appropriate – the scrap steel into a skid loader bucket to dump it into a spotted gondola car.

Even though Birkey uses a skid loader to put the scrap steel into the gondola car, he has hand-sorted and scrutinized each piece before it gets to the loading ramp. Once the car is nearly full, Birkey “walks” it to ensure he meets Association of American Railroads (AAR) open top loading rules so that everything moves safely. In his 23 years in business Birkey has loaded over 70 rail cars this way.

Birkey will typically ship two or three gondola cars a year on TCWR, but his record is seven. As TCWR’s only scrap shipper, and because the railroad owns the three gondola cars Birkey uses to ship his scrap, Birkey is free to load the cars at his own pace. The relationship between Birkey and TCWR embodies the strong customer service values for which short lines are known. TCWR representatives have visited Birkey and his Montevideo business many times in person and the railroad regularly includes him in its customer appreciation celebrations. Birkey also proudly points out that he has had TCWR President Mark Wegner’s cell number in his phone for years.

Like TCWR, Birkey cultivates close relationships with the companies who supply his scrap metal. He values face-to-face connections and almost always hand-delivers checks. Birkey has no business card or company website, not even a computer. He builds business through word of mouth and maintains it through “mutual trust, scruples, honesty, good service and a handshake.”

Birkey first got into recycling as a pre-teen, combing ditches for aluminum cans. As a teenager the local scrap company let him pick through items left lying on the ground by the crane magnet and paid him a nickel a pound for the pieces of non-magnetic material he found; it was pretty good money for a kid in the ‘70s. And before founding his own scrap business, Birkey worked for refuse collection companies. As the crew made its rounds, Birkey would take the items with scrap value that were being discarded and sort, prepare and sell them. Word spread and he started acquiring scrap directly from companies like a local automotive dealership. Today he has over 40 commercial and industrial accounts providing him with the metal he ships on TCWR.

Though the physically demanding nature of his business makes it unclear how much longer 58-year-old Birkey can continue, he notes that, at the moment, there is a TCWR gondola car sitting at his rail site, in the process of being loaded. Birkey is grateful to TCWR for enabling him to build his business and run it his way, with good service and a handshake.

Interested in contacting Steve? He welcomes calls or texts at 320-841-1116. Just don’t ask for an email – he doesn’t have one.


(Below left) Birkey climbs up the side of a TCWR gondola car. (Below right) Birkey loaded this 65' gondola car by himself, hand-stacking at the top to ensure it meets AAR open top loading rules.



Department of Transportation Launches Multimodal Freight Office

President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced the launch of the Office of Multimodal Freight Infrastructure and Policy (Multimodal Freight Office), which will manage the maintenance and improvement of the U.S. freight network and supply chains.

The Multimodal Freight Office will oversee development of the national multimodal freight network, review state freight plans, provide technical assistance to state and local governments and more. The office will also work with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to continue the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Freight Logistics Optimization Works (FLOW) program, which collects and aggregates data to help participants better understand the overall logistics network and improve their supply chain resilience.

The DOT’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multimodal Freight Infrastructure and Policy Allison Dane Camden will oversee the Multimodal Freight Office, which is housed within the DOT Office of the Secretary. The office was created as part of the DOT’s implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

ASLRRA Staff Meets Freight Office Head

Yesterday, ASLRRA President Chuck Baker, Vice President, Congressional Affairs Zach Radford and Assistant Vice President, Legislative and Regulatory Policy Crystal Gitchell attended a virtual meet and greet with the new Deputy Assistant Secretary Camden.

Baker and Radford will also meet with Camden in person this week to discuss ways the Association and Multimodal Freight Office can work together. The ASLRRA team plans to remain involved with this new office as it grows and its staff begins working on policy priorities. 




VW Mitigation Trust Funding Available in California to Short Lines to Support CRISI Applications for Locomotive Projects

The Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust for California has approximately $55 million in funding available to support statewide combustion freight and marine projects that replace or repower equipment to the cleanest commercially available internal combustion, hybrid or zero emission technologies. 

The California Air Resource Board (CARB) is seeking to deploy VW Trust funds that short lines may use as non-federal match for CRISI grants. Their Zero Emission Rail Operation (GO ZERO) Program team is working on a CRISI application by the state that will bundle applications to repower or replace diesel locomotives at multiple railroads with zero emissions locomotives. This bundled application will only be for zero emissions solutions and only for upgrading or replacing motive power that is 2300 HP or less and only for railroad operations in California. No other CRISI-eligible scope, such as trackwork or structures at railroads, may be a part of this application.

Interested short lines should work with their locomotive vendor(s) to secure quotes, specifications, and data. Then they would apply for the VW Trust monies to be offered as non-federal match to the CRISI grant request. Short lines will need to complete a detailed application to provide GO ZERO with the information about their project for the CRISI application. There is a very short deadline – within December – for interested short lines to apply for VW Trust funding and to participate in this bundled CRISI application. To learn more, California railroads can start at CARB’s GO ZERO website.

CARB does understand that some short lines will prefer EPA Tier 4 diesel solutions, rather than immediately or wholesale adopting zero emissions locomotive technology. California railroads may apply directly to the VW Trust Program for funding that can be used as non-federal match for CRISI for Tier 4 locomotive elements of a CRISI application.

The railroad could then use that match, if awarded by the Trust, as part of their own application for CRISI funding. With this path, if a railroad wanted to include other eligible CRISI elements into the same application, such as trackwork, they would need to provide non-federal match for those elements from other eligible sources. To pursue VW Trust funds for their own independent CRISI application for Tier 4 diesel locomotive projects, California railroads can visit the VW Mitigation Trust page.

The next round of FRA’s CRISI grant program is expected to open by January with a 90-day window for submittal of applications.


FRA and DOT Update Resource Pages for Rural Grantees

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have updated their resources pages for potential rural grant recipients, including grantees in designated rural areas and federally recognized Indian Tribes.

In addition to these updated pages, the FRA and DOT will each hold webinars on tools for rural grant applicants next week. The DOT will hold a webinar highlighting the  Rural Grant Applicant Toolkit on Dec. 5.  The FRA will offer an introductory webinar on its new Justice40 Rail Explorer tool on Dec. 6, which will include a live demonstration and subsequent question and answer session.

The FRA’s webpage, Improving Rail in Rural Communities, features information about the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and links to grant tools and resources. The page also highlights some rural projects funded in part by Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grants, which happen to involve ASLRRA-member railroads.

The DOT’s updated page covers the Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) Initiative. New or updated DOT tools included on the page are the DOT Discretionary Grants Dashboard and the Rural Grant Applicant Toolkit.



Congress Gets to Work on Myriad Tasks After Thanksgiving Break

Congress returned to D.C. after the Thanksgiving break with a to-do list longer than a kid’s list of must-have holiday gifts. Unlike last year, there is no spending bill deadline over the holidays, but lawmakers are still grappling with issues related to support for Israel and Ukraine, immigration, defense and more before departing for the year-end Christmas recess. 

Under the current continuing resolution, transportation spending does not expire until Jan. 19 so battles over funding levels are not likely to take place until after the Christmas recess. In the meantime, ASLRRA staff continues to fight for inclusion of robust CRISI grant funding and strong support for the Short Line Safety Institute in any long-term spending bill that ultimately becomes law.


ASLRRA Short Line Education Fund



Railroad Revenue Reports Due to ASLRRA by this Friday, Dec. 1

In preparation for 2024 annual membership dues invoicing, the Association is reminding its freight railroad members to send in their gross operating revenue figures. Those 2022 numbers are used to calculate full member dues.

An email was sent to members requesting this information by this Friday, Dec. 1. Please reach out to Senior Vice President of Membership and Business Development Kathy Keeney if you did not receive the email.


Support Training and Scholarships Through a Donation to the Short Line Education Fund

Yesterday was Giving Tuesday, when people are encouraged to perform acts of generosity and donate to charity. To coincide with the day, ASLRRA asked people to consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Short Line Education Fund, the Association’s 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

ASLRRA is grateful to those who donated to the fund on Giving Tuesday. Since its start in 2017, the Short Line Education Fund has been used to pursue projects that provide critical support for high-priority industry education and training initiatives and award scholarships that enable employees of small railroads to attend industry training and access educational resources.

Although Giving Tuesday has passed, ASLRRA continues to welcome donations to the Short Line Education Fund. The generous support of the short line community will help the Association continue its work in this important area. Click here to learn more about the scholarship fund, or send an email to get the donation process started.

The fund has enabled ASLRRA to stand up its popular Leadership Development Training Program – Regulatory Module, which has trained nearly 100 railroad employees in federal regulations and leadership qualities for managers. The fund has also helped the Association develop training seminars on Advanced Designated Supervisor of Locomotive Engineers (DSLE), General Code of Operating Rules (GCOR) and programs focusing on specific Parts of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Many small-railroad employees have been able to attend training and educational events thanks to the education fund. In the past three years, several generous donations from former ASLRRA board member Doug Golden have allowed the Association to award multiple scholarships of up to $1,200 to eligible employees pursuing training opportunities. Click here to read about the experiences of scholarship recipients.

Apply for a Scholarship from ASLRRA

The scholarship application process is simple and starts with submission of a brief online form found here. Individuals can even apply retroactively to be reimbursed for costs incurred for an eligible training event that has already taken place. Applications are accepted and processed on a rolling basis.


Members Receive Preferred Pricing on Drug and Alcohol Testing Services with Spark TS

Spark TS is the exclusive Preferred Provider of drug and alcohol testing services in the Association’s Member Discount Program.  Spark TS’s expert team has built a program to support railroads and contractors in finding the most effective strategies to manage their company, Part 219, and other DOT-regulated programs.

Spark’s drug and alcohol program services include clinic and mobile and onsite testing services; laboratory and medical review officer (MRO) services; electronic chain of custody forms; and third-party administrator (TPA) - random testing and consortium. 

Visit and click on the Spark TS logo to learn more.


ASLRRA Scholarships


ASLRRA Annual Conference

Secure Your Company’s Spot in ASLRRA’s Expo Hall

Once again, the expo hall at ASLRRA’s Annual Conference and Exhibition promises to be the go-to meeting hub for conference attendees. There are still good spaces available for Association members wanting to showcase their company to the many railroad and supplier representatives and other stakeholders expected to travel to Kansas City, Missouri for the event.

Two receptions, a lunch, a breakfast and numerous breaks will all take place in the exhibit hall. The hall will also feature an even bigger Green Zone highlighting companies that provide environmentally friendly products and services. New exhibitors will join more familiar faces, and the Short Line Training Center mobile classroom will be on display.

Companies that might not be interested in an exhibit hall booth but still want to get their name out to conference attendees should consider purchasing a sponsorship. There are a wide range of sponsorship options to fit nearly every budget, and the investment guarantees valuable exposure before more than 1,600 expected attendees.

Click each link to learn more about exhibit booths and sponsorships or contact ASLRRA’s Kathy Keeney via email or on (202) 585-3439.

ASLRRA’s Annual Conference and Exhibition takes place March 24 to 26. Register early to take advantage of early-bird rates for the conference, golf tournament at the Paradise Pointe Golf Complex and continuing legal education (CLE) credits.

Registered attendees will be able to reserve a room in one of three Kansas City hotels where ASLRRA has a room block: Loews Kansas City, Hilton President Kansas City and the Courtyard by Marriott Downtown Kansas City. Hotel nights are already selling out at the Marriott, so make your reservations now. Every hotel is either connected to or a short walk from the convention center.


ASLRRA 2024 Conference

Register Now Agenda Book Your Room


Out and About

Staff Shorts – Who is Where in the Railroad World

Jo Strang and JR Gelnar traveled to Kansas City, Missouri for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Rail Share event, held Nov. 28 and 29. FRA Administrator Amit Bose welcomed the more than 400 attendees and provided opening remarks. The event featured a variety of breakout sessions, including those covering training strategies, fatigue management, safety culture and leadership development.



Upcoming Webinars

CRISI Grants Spotlight: Locomotivation – Pursuing Funding for Motive Power Projects – December 19, 2023

In this webinar, participants will hear from the Federal Railroad Administration on the CRISI program’s eligibility for locomotive repower or replacement projects and best practices for applicants. Additionally, ASLRRA member locomotive suppliers will provide an overview of their product offerings that can be supported with CRISI funds and talk about their experience working with railroads and CRISI grants.

Presented by FRA Senior Advisor for Climate and Sustainability Michael Johnson, Progress Rail Director of Advanced Energy Michael Cleveland, Wabtec Senior Sales Manager Ross Parsi and ASLRRA Assistant Vice President, Policy and Industry Affairs Richard Sherman.


On-Demand Webinars

Review the Basics of Part 225 with On-Demand Webinars

ASLRRA works with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to produce resources for Association members, including webinars discussing regulatory compliance. One popular webinar series covers 49 CFR Part 225, Railroad Accidents and Incidents, and recordings of those webinars can be found in ASLRRA’s On-Demand Webinar Library. Look for the following titles:

  • Part 225 Back to Basics, Part 1: Injuries
  • Part 225 Back to Basics, Part 2: Rail Equipment
  • Part 225 Back to Basics, Part 3: Highway-Rail Grade Crossing

Visit ASLRRA’s webinar homepage to view these on-demand offerings and many more in the Association’s webinar library.


Click here to learn more about our education offerings.


Industry News and Events


Click here for a calendar of industry events.

Views & News is published by American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association.
Please contact Amy Krouse, editor, with questions or comments.