Q&A with New Orleans Public Belt GM Tomeka Watson Bryant

“To grow, you can’t do things the same way that you’ve always done them.” — Tomeka Watson Bryant, New Orleans Public Belt Railroad railnola.com

By Julie Sneider, Senior Editor

When Tomeka Watson Bryant was promoted to general manager of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad (NOPB) in June 2022, she became the first African American woman to run a short line and one of few women to run a railroad in the United States. Prior to her promotion, she had experience in rail operations and commercial activities at the NOPB, and as a trainmaster at CSX.  

The NOPB is a short-line switching railroad operating at the nation’s fourth-largest rail gateway that serves the Port of New Orleans (NOLA), which acquired the railroad in 2018. The railroad operates 26 miles of mainline track and 75 miles of total track.

Over the past 18 months, Bryant, 33, led the NOPB to complete construction of the France Road Rail Yard along the Industrial Canal in New Orleans. The new yard was designed to relieve rail congestion and increase storage capacity for customers, railroad partners and Port NOLA. The France Road yard project is part of the larger, $18.2 million New Orleans Gateway Rail Fluidity and Capacity Improvements Project, in which the NOPB also completed five new tracks and additional storage for 205 cars at the Kingfish Yard in Elmwood in 2020. The short line plans to expand its Claiborne Yard near the St. Claude area in June 2024. 

Last month, Bryant talked with RailPrime Senior Editor Julie Sneider about her experiences as the NOPB’s top executive, as well as her personal background and rail-industry perspective.   


France Road Rail Yard’s construction In August, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad (NOPB) marked completion of the France Road Rail Yard’s construction. The new yard is designed to improve efficiency and increase the short line’s capacity to switch, interchange and store rail cars. At the ceremony, NOPB GM Tomeka Watson Bryant (front row, fifth from the right) used extra-large scissors to cut the red ribbon. railnola.com

RailPrime  So far, what has occupied most of your time as NOPB’s general manager?

Bryant: For this past year, I’ve been working to complete the France Yard project and also finish the engineering and design for the Claiborne Yard expansion. This fiscal year, we’re focused on growing our local customer market and continuing to diversify the railroad. I think the pandemic taught us a lot in that you need to have multiple ways to make money. My focus has been on keeping the New Orleans Gateway fluid so that we can catch as many cars [as possible] and grow locally. 


RailPrime  Have these projects resulted in a more diversified customer base for NOPB?

Bryant: Yes. We have been able to increase our average storage on the NOPB by 220 cars — the France Yard project created a 200-space yard. While it was under construction, we worked hard to max out our volumes so that when the yard opened, we already had that customer base ready to fill the yard up. 


RailPrime  Tell me about the railroad’s customers.

Bryant: We have 19 customers across 30 different locations in New Orleans. The [rail-car] storage is for our local customers. Also, New Orleans is a big chemical corridor, so we have a lot of petroleum partners that we work with in the gateway. And because we interchange with all six Class I railroads, this is a premiere location to store rail cars because it allows shippers and customers to send their cars anywhere in the U.S. or Mexico — and have that direct service with the New Orleans Public Belt.  


RailPrime  You mentioned how the pandemic taught everyone that there has to be a new way of doing business in response to supply-chain needs. Describe how the NOPB works hand-in-hand with the port to do that.

Bryant: Since the port acquired the NOPB, we have strategically aligned so that we can market with a multimodal mindset. We’re able to connect the [Mississippi] River and the rail, and expand on being a full-service provider for customers that want to use the Port of New Orleans. As far as the supply chain goes, we’ve been able to work with CN and Canadian Pacific Kansas City to enter into markets and have that strategic alignment with the port. For so long, there was a disconnect because the port was a customer to the railroad, and there was no business development from a strategic standpoint. Now it’s a match made in heaven, where we can together look for multimodal opportunities and be a solution for customers that want to use the port.  


RailPrime  What have been the highlights of your tenure as GM so far?

Bryant: Definitely, opening France Yard. Seeing that project finish and knowing the benefit it’s going to bring to the railroad — that’s been a highlight.  


RailPrime  What have been the biggest challenges that you've faced as the leader of a short line?

Bryant: One of the biggest challenges that I — and the industry in general — have faced is change. To grow, you can’t do things the same way that you’ve always done them. So, getting people to look outside the box and implement changes that make us a stronger and more fluid railroad has been challenging. It's about trying to win over your workforce to get them to trust the change, and making sure that people understand the goals and strategic plan that we have for the railroad. I’m a big over-communicator with my team because I feel if they understand where we’re trying to take the railroad, it will be easier for them to understand why we have to implement change. 


RailPrime  You mentioned you’re an “over-communicator.” How else would you describe your leadership philosophy?

Bryant: I always tell my team don’t sit in silence. If we communicate the good and the bad when it comes to our struggles, somebody else on the team could have a solution for you to fix the problem. That is what I live by: I don’t suffer in silence. If I don’t understand something, I utilize my team to help me solve problems on the railroad.


RailPrime  RailPrime: Describe your career path.

Bryant: I started in the trucking industry. Then I joined the management trainee program with CSX and worked for them for about 2-1/2 years in Mobile, Alabama. I met my husband while I was working in Mobile, and the mentality at a Class I is that you need to be ready to move [to new locations]. So, when things started getting serious with my then-future husband, I decided I needed to find [a new job] that would keep me local. Then the opportunity came for me to become a trainmaster on the NOPB, and I’ve been with them ever since. That was six years ago. At NOPB, I started as a trainmaster; then I was the manager of operating practices, so I was on the safety and regulatory side of the house. Next, I went into marketing and sales, and then became general manager. 


RailPrime  You’re a second-generation railroader. Did your family’s history in rail influence your career choice?

Bryant: My dad worked for CSX for 42 years. At first, no, I didn’t think about working for the railroad. I thought I was going to be in the medical field. And then when I graduated college, I was so burned out from health classes that I thought I wanted to try something different.  

I went to work for the trucking industry, and I really enjoyed problem-solving and logistics. Since I enjoyed that so much, my dad was like, “Why don’t you try working for the railroad?” And I thought, why not? The railroad provided for my family, and we lived comfortably my whole life. So, I applied to CSX to become a trainmaster and I’ve been doing [railroading] ever since. It’s been a blessing to have my dad to really lean on for advice and we have that bond. 


RailPrime  You're the first African American woman to lead a short line and one of few women to run a railroad in the United States. How do you use your position as a role model to guide other young people as they prepare for their career paths?

Bryant: I think representation is important. Going to conferences and talking to young girls and young professionals so they can see there is a woman working on the railroad is super important. For us as an industry, it’s important to diversify and make railroading an option for men and women. 


RailPrime  How are you reaching out to students and young people?

Bryant: We do a lot of outreach on the NOPB. We do a lot of career fairs. We’ve also spoken at a few of the high schools in New Orleans. We partner with Delgado Community College and their logistics program so that we can show the students that here, at the NOPB, you have railroad and maritime opportunities. I really enjoy having those students visit us and see what railroading is all about. 


RailPrime  Who were your mentors growing up and who are your mentors today?

Bryant: My parents have been huge mentors for me. I played softball — in college as well — so growing up I had many coaches who I looked up to. Professionally, my boss [Port NOLA CEO Brandy Christian] is one of the best mentors you can have. She’s always right there for me to ask questions and talk things out. I lean on her heavily. And NOPB’s former GM Mike Stolzman taught me a lot. He pushed me to try different things. I’m grateful for both of them. 


RailPrime  How can the rail industry recruit and retain more young professionals?

strong>Bryant: In general, I think the rail industry is doing a much better job being flexible with the new generation. Recruiting is very important in colleges, junior colleges, even at the high school level. It’s going to take being very creative and having leaders who can figure out [work-life] flexibility so that we can compete with the warehouses and the trucking industry. Finding flexibility within our operations is going to be key to retaining employees. 


RailPrime  Looking ahead, what are your key goals?

Bryant: Our goal [at NOPB] is to bring on more local customers in the New Orleans area. We’re also going to start construction on a transload facility in New Orleans East, so we are in the engineering phase for that project. And we’ll be looking for opportunities to create synergies with the port and with our Class I partners. 

As the rail industry works together, I definitely think we’re going to be able to take more trucks off the road and grow. I’m really excited to be a part of that.